I, like many others, first heard and responded to this electrifying voice when I was young. I encountered him in middle school, when my English teacher assigned us "All Summer in a Day." The story is set on Venus, and it's a gloomy, ashy planet that thunders with unending gray rain. The sun comes out only once every seven years, for just an hour, and the schoolchildren of Venus—let's just say they very badly need some Vitamin D.
Except Margot—she grew up on Earth, and she regales her classmates with stories of the endless summers there, how warm, and how lovely, how much better summer is than rain and how she cannot wait to see it. And they hate her, because she remembers.
The setup alone shows Bradbury's strengths—he could transport us, in deft strokes, to an alien world, one that feels as sharp and real and heartbreaking as ours. But what startled me most was what happens. When the sun starts to come out, the other children lock Margot in the closet before they run out to play. And it's just as warm and beautiful as she told them. The idyllic hour passes all too quickly: the clouds sweep in, and the rains start pelting, and only then do they remember that their friend is weeping behind the door.
The absolute psychological truth of this startled me, and woke me up, like waking to the smell of smoke. I'd seen this cruelty before in childhood pranks and games, I recognized the sadistic wisdom of it, and I knew it to be real. The last, plaintive lines of the story stuck with me for years:
One of the girls said, "Well . . .?"
No one moved.
"Go on," whispered the girl.
They walked slowly down the hall in the sound of the cold rain. They turned through the doorway to the room in the sound of the storm and thunder, lightning on their faces, blue and terrible. They walked over to the closet door slowly and stood by it.
Behind the closed door was only silence.
They unlocked the door, even more slowly, and let Margot out.
The guilt and contrition just simmers on the page. They're sorry—but though they can let her out, they can't ever take it back. It haunted me. It made realize that a story, well-told and true, can be powerful at least as memory. It made me want to keep reading, and it made me want to be a writer. I am only one of very many, of course, who responded this way to Bradbury's work, over the very many years he published.
The power of stories to transform and embolden was a key theme of Ray Bradbury's work and life. In an illuminating interview with The Paris Review, published in 2010, he characterized Fahrenheit 451 as a parable about the power of books and bookishness: "You invent a fireman who has been burning books instead of putting out fires," he said, "...and you start him on the adventure of discovering that maybe books shouldn't be burned. He reads his first book. He falls in love. And then you send him out into the world to change his life."