84 pages 2 hours read

Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated Man

Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 1951

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Summary and Study Guide


First published in 1951, The Illustrated Man is a collection of 18 short stories of speculative fiction by one of the preeminent American writers of the 20th and 21st centuries: Ray Bradbury. It includes some of his most famous short stories, including “The Veldt” and “Marionettes, Inc.” While the volume received mixed reviews on release, it was nominated for the International Fantasy Award in 1952 and is now widely considered to be a highlight of Bradbury’s career. Several of the stories have been adapted for film, radio, and television over the years, some by Bradbury himself. This guide refers to the Harper Collins e-book edition.

The collection is named after one of its characters, the Illustrated Man, a carnival worker whose supernatural tattoos represent each of the 18 stories. This acts as a framing device for the work. The Prologue, Epilogue, and one other story, “The Rocket Man,” are written in first-person voice, but the rest are written in third person. All the stories are told in the past tense. Bradbury tends to focalize his stories through the perspective of a single character, though the reliability of his narrators shifts from chapter to chapter.

Plot Summary

In “The Veldt,” children raised by a virtual reality nursery turn on their parents after being denied their favorite simulation: an African savannah filled with lions. Astronauts tumble helplessly through space, connected only by long-distance radio, in “Kaleidoscope.” In “The Other Foot,” black colonists on Mars must decide whether to accept white refugees from Earth.

“The Highway” also focuses on a minority group: a husband and wife south of the border whose quiet life is disrupted by tourists fleeing nuclear war. In “The Man,” a captain and his lieutenant’s faith are put to the test by the arrival of a mysterious man who travels from planet to planet, healing the sick and comforting the poor. “The Long Rain” sees a crew of military astronauts trudging through the nonstop rains of Venus, pitting the human will to survive against the power of nature.

In “The Rocket Man,” a family is torn apart by the father’s restlessness: At home he longs to be in space; in space, he longs to be at home. In “The Last Night of the World,” a couple realizes that Earth only has one day left to exist. They choose to spend it as they always do: in normal domestic activities with each other. “The Exiles” imagines a dystopian future where the government has banned all imaginative works. Famous authors of speculative fiction and their creations, hiding out on Mars, make their final stand against an invading force of astronauts.

“No Particular Night or Morning” centers on a philosophical dialogue between astronauts Hitchcock, a radical skeptic who is no longer certain anything exists, and his more optimistic friend Clemens. In “The Fox and the Forest,” a time-traveling couple from 2155 AD flee agents of a draconian future in 1930s Mexico. Leonard Martin, a telepath, is the newest addition to a desperate crew of men quarantined on Mars with a deadly respiratory disease in “The Visitor.”

In “The Concrete Mixer,” a Martian invasion of Earth is defeated not by military force but by the insidious power of consumerism. In “Marionettes, Inc.,” lifelike robots serve as secret, temporary stand-ins for spouses in unhappy marriages, and two unsuspecting husbands learn to be careful about what they wish for. “The City” seems abandoned when a rocket expedition discovers it on a faraway world. In fact, it was built by a race destroyed by humans eons ago and has been waiting for their return.

In “Zero Hour,” children all over the world are playing a fun new game called Invasion!, which may not be a game at all. A poverty-stricken father finds a way to take his family on an exciting journey to space, via virtual reality, in “The Rocket.” Finally, “The Illustrated Man” explores the backstory of William Philippus Phelps, a carnival worker tattooed by a time-traveling witch. The tattoos’ ability to tell the future raises intriguing questions about destiny and free will.