By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Highway’ is from 1950: an early short story by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). In just a few pages, Bradbury gives us one of his earliest responses to the atom bomb and nuclear Armageddon.
Bradbury is widely recognised as one of the greatest – and most lyrical – science-fiction writers of the twentieth century, although he preferred to describe himself as a ‘fantasy writer’ or simply as a ‘writer’. Although he is known for novels such as the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 and the horror novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, much of Ray Bradbury’s best work was in the short-story form.
‘The Highway’, which was collected in The Illustrated Man, is worthy of closer analysis, but first, here is a summary of the plot.
‘The Highway’: plot summary
The story can be summarised fairly briefly. Hernando is a Mexican farmer who lives with his wife and baby in a hut by the side of a highway leading to the United States. Many tourists passing by stop and talk to him, with some asking to take a photograph of him. He endures all of this with good humour.
It’s clear that Hernando has little money. He fashioned his rubber shoes from a tyre which came from a car that crashed into the nearby river, and he uses a hubcap as a water-bowl. He and his wife have very little.
On the day on which the story’s action takes place, no cars come past on the highway. This is unusual, because normally at least one car comes past every hour. Hernando is just wondering what could have happened, when suddenly a string of cars race past, carrying American tourists fleeing back to the US from their Mexican vacations. Then a final car, an old Ford, comes by, driven by a young American man and with five young female passengers.
The driver asks Hernando for some water for the car’s radiator. He provides this, using the hubcap to carry the water to the car. The girls in the car seem stricken by fear.
He won’t accept payment for this good deed. When he comments about all the traffic that has headed north during the last hour, the people in the car start crying. They tell him that atomic warfare has finally come and it’s the end of the world. That is why they are fleeing north.
Once they have gone and the highway is once again quiet and empty, Hernando goes back to his farming, telling his wife that it’s nothing of any importance, and scoffing at their use of the phrase ‘the world’ to describe what has happened.
‘The Highway’: analysis
The Americans all choose to head home from their Mexican holiday, fleeing back to the United States, even though atomic war is being waged. They believe the end of the world is imminent. Hernando, content with his farm and his wife and his hubcap, has a different view.
For the Americans, America is ‘the world’. But Hernando’s ‘world’ is this small plot of land which he ploughs and tends. If a nuclear war truly has broken out, Hernando will feel the consequences of that, probably as keenly as the Americans fleeing back to the States will. But Bradbury is highlighting his markedly different attitude to the coming disaster. Whereas the Americans in the car are filled with quivering fear, Hernando remains cool and unruffled by the news.
If ‘The Highway’ is an ironic tale, it’s worth stopping to ask where the irony lies. Is it in the Americans who so readily elide ‘the world’ with their world? Or is Bradbury also ironically highlighting the obliviousness of Hernando, who is too quick to dismiss the catastrophe that will soon affect him?
Given Bradbury’s attitude to technology elsewhere in his fiction, and particularly in his stories of the early 1950s which deal with nuclear disaster (such as ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’), I think he is highlighting the difference between the Americans’ world of plenty, mass consumerism, and advanced technology, and Hernando’s simple existence which is dependent on the land and on getting by with the bare minimum. So his world is likely to be less affected than the tourists’ lives will be.
But it will still be affected on some level. And this is the beauty of Bradbury’s story, which presents the details without dictating its meaning too strongly. The land which Hernando relies upon to provide him and his wife with food may become polluted and no crops will grow, or they will be poisoned. If no cars come past any more, he will no longer be able to rely on the occasional stray hubcap or tyre to provide him with the utensils he needs. A self-sufficient life only goes so far.
Nevertheless, the hubcap is an intriguing symbol of modernity in Bradbury’s story. It had ‘flung’ itself into Hernando’s field like a ‘coin’, encroaching upon his world but also offering value (the monetary simile is surely deliberate). In the course of the story, it will also provide assistance to the Americans, too, through providing the means by which Hernando is able to fill their car radiator with water.
Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for the collapsing of technology (the car that jettisoned the hubcap as it drove past) and the salvation this can offer. Of course, Hernando’s kindness is important too: the driver of the car tries to give him a peso (coins again!) in payment for his assistance, but Hernando refuses to take it. Humanity trumps technology every time, and advance technology is nothing without human kindness. Such a reading would be in keeping with Bradbury’s other stories.