“The Night” is a second-person point of view short story by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1955.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR “THE NIGHT”
- This story contains various juxtapositions. Name the juxtapositions can you see in the setting.
- In the best stories, the setting and character enmesh and intertwine, building on each other. In “The Night”, Bradbury utilises a motif of space and nothingness. Find examples of this motif and describe how it relates to character.
- How does your body feel on very hot summer nights? How does Ray Bradbury extend this feeling using motif?
- Describe Ray Bradbury’s choice of narration. What effect does this choice have on you, as reader?
- At the beginning of the story, the little boy (Shorts) is aligned with his mother entirely. How does the boy feel like an extension of his mother?
- “The Night” contains various mentions of light. What do all these mentions have in common?
- What does Shorts realise when his mother starts trembling?
- How will life be different for Shorts from now on?
SETTING OF “THE NIGHT”
Ray Bradbury set “The Night” in 1927. Bradbury was born in 1920, which means he was almost the same age as the younger boy of the story. This must have felt like a return to his own boyhood.
Families had no freezers in homes, so if anyone wanted ice-cream, someone had to go buy it.
A few hours
A small town (in America)
You live in a small house on a small street in the outer part of town where there are few street lights. There is only one store open, about a block away: Mrs Singer’s.“The Night”
Apple and oak trees contribute to a cosy, safe vibe, juxtaposing against the hungry ravine lurking nearby.
Now you have walked another block and are standing by the holy black silhouette of the German Baptist Church at the corner of Chapel Street and Glen Rock. In back of the church a hundred yards away, the ravine begins. You can smell it. It has a dark sewer, rotten foliage, thick green odor. It is a wide ravine that cuts and twists across the town, a jungle by day, a place to let alone at night, as Mother has often declared.“The Night”
Next to the town is an ominous, dangerous ravine. This allows for the fairytale juxtaposition of civilisation against wilderness. In fairy tales the wilderness is typically a forest. Here it is a ravine, which calls to mind symbolism of the underworld, strongly associated with death. Bradbury even uses the word ‘civilization’, which has a universalizing effect.
Notice, too, how Bradbury makes use of a technique straight out of cosmic horror: Things in the ravine are too awful to have names. But with a twist: The adult narrator does know the names. He has learned the names of things since. This story feels as terrifying as cosmic horror precisely because he is a little boy, and doesn’t understand enough of the world to position events in manageable perspective.
Bradbury has set this story on a hot summer’s night. The oppressive heat links into the symbolism of compression and tightness, juxtaposing against a gap/space.
Importantly, too, and for the same symbolic reason, the story is set at night. Darkness is frequently understood to symbolise nothingness.
(Check out: Symbolism of Black, Darkness and Night.)
Second person narration can draw attention to itself, especially at the beginning of a story when readers are trying to settle into it. If close third person lets us sit on someone’s shoulder, and first person lets readers into a narrator’s head, second person emulates a body swap.
But what it does, for me, is rather than take me to someone else’s childhood, it universalises the experience of childhood, taking me back to my own, vaguely similar childhood experiences.
Bradbury has also chosen an extradiegetic, older narrator, able to look back on childhood with the benefit of hindsight. In effect, we now have two narrators: The eight-year-old boy, who is right there in the moment, and the older, wiser version of himself writing this story for our benefit, who says things like this:
You are only eight years old, you know little of death, fear or dread. Death is the waxen effigy in the coffin when you were six and Grandfather passed away — looking like a great fallen vulture in his casket, silent, withdrawn, no more to tell you how to be a good boy, no more to comment succinctly on politics.“The Night”
In this way, the extradiegetic narrator gently leads us into backstory, but this is not the sort of backstory that an eight-year-old would be able to recount. This level of metaphor and this astute thumbnail character description of the dead grandfather comes to us via mature hindsight.
This is basically the inverse of what has lately been called ‘autofiction‘. In autofiction, the narrative consciousness or voice is placed with the experiencing character, not with the narrator. If Bradbury were making use of autofictive narration, he would let the reader experience the limited knowledge of Shorts’s eight-year-old self, without the benefit of adult hindsight.
That said, Bradbury messes with us a little, making us wonder what’s really about to happen and what will remain a worry inside Shorts’s head. Take the following paragraph:
Blackness could come swiftly, swallowing; and in one titanically freezing moment all would be concluded. Long before dawn, long before police with flashlights might probe the disturbed pathway, long before men with trembling brains could rustle down the pebbles to your help. Even if they were within five hundred yards of you now, and help certainly is, in three seconds a dark tide could rise to take all eight years of life away from you and–“The Night”
This doesn’t happen. Skipper will appear. No police with flashlights come. But in the moment of reading this paragraph, we don’t know this. Bradbury would like to make us worry exactly as much as Shorts is worrying.
We might call this an example of sideshadowing.
Next, a switch to iterative mood: ‘Even if they were…’ This gently eases readers back into the reality of the story (meaning, what really happened, in the world of the story).
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE NIGHT”
The eight-year-old boy thinks his mother is all-powerful and can overcome any adversity. This family has seen death, including what used to be called ‘cot death’. But until this evening, the boy has never been old enough to see how adversity pains his own mother. So far as he’s concerned, his mother’s job (‘brave, fine, tall, Mother… defender of all the universe) is to shield him.
COMPRESSION VS NOTHINGNESS AND SPACE
The hot, oppressive summer’s night is one type of compression. Here are some others:
- ‘Run get a pint of ice cream and be sure she packs it tight‘. (Ice cream is one of life’s joys. We imagine ice cream packed in safe and tight, filling any space.)
- The town is so quite and far off, you can only hear the crickets sounding in the spaces beyond the hot indigo trees that hold back the stars. The narrator points out the spaces between things as well as what’s actually there.
- You both sit there listening to the summer silence. The dark is pressed down by every window and door… (Compression, again)
- [you] look out into the dark dark dark… (Darkness as nothingness)
- The eight-year-old pulls the sofa bed down, turning it ‘into the double bed that it secretly is’. (What was compressed becomes decompressed, almost like the house, the setting is breathing, in and out, in and out, increasingly panicked.)
Alongside this family of metaphor, we also have examples of winking — lights which are first bright/on, next moment they are off/gone. All of this lets readers share in the worry that someone can be healthy and full of life, like twelve-year-old Skipper, but their life can be extinguished in a single moment.
- the streetlamps
- the square of light from the store which recedes into the distance
- the car which passes by then disappears, taking its headlamps with it
The young boy, Shorts, is the viewpoint character. We might say the ‘main character-ship’ is shared by boy and mother, because the boy has not yet bifurcated from his mother. Until this night they are one and the same person (in the experience of the boy).
The mother wants her family at home safe and sound. So does Shorts. They both want ice cream, they both want the same thing as they have not yet separated, psychologically.
The ravine, which functions as a monster lurking nearby, ready to gobble careless children up.
The older brother, Skipper, is causing this whole drama by failing to keep an eye on the clock and return home at the time expected.
When the big brother doesn’t show up on time, the mother takes her younger boy and goes looking for him in the ravine.
Worry builds into fear. The battle is internal.
The mother talks about the older brother getting the strap when he finally gets home. Even if this turns out to be nothing, the threat of violence and pain remains.
Short stories often have two types of short story closures. (Sometimes you get one without the other.)
Dramatically, Skipper shows up and the plot is pinched off neatly.
Aesthetically, Shorts understands his mother is human, with all the same fears he has himself. This means she cannot protect him and shield him. He has entered boyhood, no longer a baby.
You realize you are alone. You and your mother. Her hand trembles.
Her hand trembles.
Your belief in your private world is shattered. You feel Mother tremble. Why? Is she, too, doubtful? But she is bigger, stronger, more intelligent than yourself, isn’t she? Does she, too, feel that intangible menace, that groping out of darkness, that crouching malignancy down below?“The Night”
Now the reason for Bradbury’s space/gap metaphor becomes apparent: At the beginning of the story, Mother and Shorts were one and the same person. Mother shielded her younger boy from the world. Now Shorts understands they are not the same person; there is a gap between himself and his mother. This is terrifying. It means everyone is ultimately trucking through life alone.
The father arrives home around the time the rest of the family returns. The boy isn’t sure if his older brother will be getting the strap as punishment.
The father arrives home, which provides Shorts with comfort. The whole pack has made it.
We deduce Skipper won’t be getting the strap because Shorts knows Mother ‘won’t tell anyone of this, ever’ (including the father). The threat of the strap was never the point. The threat of the strapping has been used to add a layer of threat and foreboding, but this is a proxy for the real threat, which is literal, actual death.
The death, of course, is coming. By the time this extradiegetic version of Shorts has told us this story, he has probably lost people in his life. And if not, he will be.
Many readers probably remember a time when we saw our parent or parents as human and vulnerable, when previously we had believed them invincible.