The planet Mars itself is the most dominant symbol in The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury’s Mars bears little resemblance to the actual planet; rather, in the text, Mars is an ancient, mysterious, and dignified world that comes to symbolize a challenge to humanity, mostly portrayed in the book as younger upstarts than the Martians: how will the human race engage this world? Will they seek to remake it in their own image (for example, as Spender fears, by renaming all the cities and geographical features and by polluting the planet with terran trash), or will they (as Pop in “Night Meeting” believes) accept and even embrace Mars as alien, as new, as “different”? Mars symbolizes a choice between the future and the past, between illusion and reality, between dominance and submission. For most of the book, humanity seeks to impose itself upon Mars—and expedition after expedition, colonist after colonist, meets with failure, death, or disappointment as a result. Not until the book’s close, in “The Million-Year Picnic,” can readers begin to see Mars as a symbol of a brighter and better future for the human race.
“The Million-Year Picnic” also confirms that fire is an important symbol throughout the book. The Martian Chronicles begins with the fire of a rocket’s exhaust transforming “Ohio winter” into “rocket summer.” We see fire at other key junctures in the book—for example, the bonfire around with the members of the Fourth Expedition gather in “—And the Moon Still Be as Bright,” poised between an acceptance of and reverence for or a rejection and subjugation of the planet; or the fires we remember along with Stendahl in “Usher II,” flames that consumed the great fantastic literature of Earth and so kindled Stendahl’s own twisted desire for revenge, fires that endangered the future of humanity even as those who lit them were seeking to ensure it. But fire purifies as well as purges—and sometimes simultaneously, as we see clearly in the flames of “The Million-Year Picnic.” “I’m burning a way of life,” Dad tells his family as he feeds documents from Earth into the flames, “just like that way of life is being burned clean of Earth” in the flames of atomic warfare (p. 179). “All the laws and beliefs of Earth were burnt into small hot ashes which soon would be carried off in a wind” (p. 180). The flames that represent humanity’s technological supremacy and imperialistic expansion at the book’s beginning, therefore, come to represent a more humble but nonetheless heroic abandonment of a dead past in favor of a living future by the book’s end.
Perhaps not surprisingly for an author as literate and lyrical as Bradbury, another recurring symbolic motif in The Martian Chronicles is poetry, spoken and sung. After the First Expedition from Earth lands on Mars, the telepathic Martians begin hearing and singing snatches of human songs and nursery rhymes, beginning with Ylla, who hears “She walks in beauty, like the night…” in her telepathic courtship with York (p. 15). Here, as humanity is just beginning its expansion to Mars, the poetry symbolizes newness and growth. Soon, however, poetry takes a more sinister symbolic turn, seen when Spender recites “So we’ll go no more a-roving” in “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” (the poem provides this story its title). Lord Byron’s elegiac poem mourns the passing of a way of life, just as Spender is mourning the demise of the Martian civilization. Subsequently, poetry is twisted for the greedy ends of Sam Parkhill when he misquotes and misconstrues Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” in “The Off Season.” Over the course of humanity’s migrations to Mars, then, the human species loses its connection to poetry—to the power of words to create a new world. We see and hear poetry being used only to reinforce the worst of the old. It is perhaps not insignificant that no poetry is to be found among the papers from Earth that Dad Thomas burns in “The Million-Year Picnic” (see p. 179). Having lost its fluency in poetry entirely, it will be up to “the Martians”—the Thomas family and their descendants—to create a new poetics for their new home.