Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

“The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury

Marking the passing of Ray Bradbury, who died last week, we repost this review of one of his most famous stories, which originally appeared during VL’s “Geek Week” in 2009.

When I first read this story as a young teen for a school assignment, it boggled my mind. Of course, for someone used to non-fiction nature books to then read science fiction was a jolt anyways, but to encounter Bradbury’s usual insight to the dark and strange side of human nature was a good introduction to the genre. As an adult, I found things in the story that bypassed me at the time, but the idea of tattoos moving still intrigues me. Even before tattoos were trendy, I liked the idea of using the human body as a canvas and Bradbury’s extra dimension adds to it.
Set in a carnival, with a calliope soundtrack, Mr. William Phillippus Phelps(who is nearly always referred to by his full name) faces a dilemma. He has gained a tremendous amount of weight from the “five thousand steaming hot dogs, ten million hamburgers and a forest of green onions..” that he has eaten within the last year of his loveless marriage. His boss threatens to fire him unless he becomes another addition to the carnival freak show as the tattooed man. On a recommendation of a colleague, he reluctantly goes to an old woman living in a shack in a meadow outside of town, who, with her eyes sewed shut, etches “Pictures of the Future” on his skin. Included are roses on his hands that bloom or wither according to his emotions and pictures on his chest & back that are to be kept covered until a certain time.
The tattoo on his chest is uncovered during a special event, “The Unveiling”, where a scene so shockingly violent is revealed that even the experienced carnival crew is upset. What makes it especially disturbing is the warning from the old woman, that “…the picture was unfinished, and that he himself, with his thoughts and perspiration, would finish it.” When the tattoo does indeed become prophetic, it is met with even more violence and when the one on his back is uncovered at the end, it turns out to be a sort of mirror.
The story leaves the reader with an unsettled feeling and so much unknown. We don’t know anything about the wife except that she despises her husband because of his weight. Did she love him when he was thinner? We have no clue of what Mr. Phelps old job was or why he can’t continue in it. As always, the carnival is a town within a town with all the insularity that entails. The whole story, except for one scene, takes place at night, providing an ominous undertone. The one differing scene is the afternoon visit to the old woman who lives in a field full of wildflowers. These details leave us with questions to ponder and unravel, making us marvel at Bradbury’s mastery and insight.

Originally published in Esquire magazine July 1950 11pp.

4 comments on ““The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury

  1. Cynthia B Huntington
    June 13, 2012

    Jackie writes: “anyways” it should be plain “anyway”, “outside of town”, that is not English, “outside town” is Those two Americanisms remind me of my ex Kiev-mother-in-law, is Jackie from there too?

  2. Christine Harding
    June 13, 2012

    Jackie, I read this when I was a teen (not as a school assignment though) and hated it. I’ve tried reading it since, and still hated it. And I’ve tried reading some of Bradbury’s other books and hated them too. I’m obviously a Philistine, because he is very highly acclaimed, but I couldn’t get along with his writing style, failed to engage with his characters, and didn’t like the plots.

  3. Melrose
    June 13, 2012

    I’ve heard of this book, but have never read it, and I have to say that your excellent review, Jackie, has made me really think about doing so. It sounds a fascinating story, intertwining so many different subjects from the mundane to the fantastic, and it sounds the type of story you could read several times, and get something different out of it each time. You really piqued my interest. Well-written stories that leave much to the reader’s imagination, and unanswered questions to ponder, do tend to leave quite a long-lasting impression on the reader, a point you made well at the end of your review by the very questions you suggested.

    Having lived in the States for a while, I’m used to American English, which has found its way to the UK as well. I speak my very own quaint form of English – Scottish English – as in “this wiz a lovely wee review!”

  4. Christine
    June 13, 2012

    I haven’t read Bradbury in a long time, although I read his work in a period where I was reading a lot of classic sci-fi (Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Clarke, Bova, Clarke). Somehow he never struck me as a science fiction writer. The Illustrated Man is a case in point. So is Dandelion Wine. Yes, he did The Martian Chronicles, but in his stories–and his short stories in particular–the science part of things always took a back seat to the fiction. If anything, there was more of an element of the fantastic. But I like his writing. He always created a mood. Thanks for revisiting his work with this reposting. Now I want to do the same.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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