Literary Analysis: Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Summer Running”

Some words find their way into the larger culture and are used recklessly. One such platitude is the literary world’s overlabored incidents of “Poetry in motion.” Those instances are unworthy of that most profound coinage. Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Summer Running,” truly exemplifies and embodies that lucid phrase, a phrase that invigorates every part of the story from its beginning to the very end.

Bradbury1Douglas Spaulding, the protagonist, seeks to acquire a new pair of sneakers, and not just any pair. He seeks to possess that brand named “The Royal Crown Cream Sponge Para Litefoot Tennis Shoes.” The name of the footwear makes one wonder, and Douglas mentions it, whether the sneakers should be eaten, drunk, chased, doused, used to wash dishes, captured literally, or worn since they are filled with marshmallows, contain bleached grasses, are fired in the wilderness, have the thin hard sinews of the buck deer hidden in them, and contain the brand name of a beverage.

He must have these sneakers, a symbol of many qualities of youth, but his father will not Royal Litefoot2
buy them for him. Because their ownership comes with expiration, Douglas devices a way to obtain them before summer runs out. In a convincing show of the gift of salesmanship, he persuades an old man to touch and feel the breeze of his long-forgotten youth and relive it by trying on the sneakers he sells but never wears. He and Mr. Sanderson agree on a trade in order to allow Douglas to own the shoes before obtaining them vanishes with the end of summer.

Arguably, the plot of this young adult realistic fiction sounds simplistic, which happens frequently when stories are summarized. Summary oversimplifies plot and the intricacies woven in a literary piece. However, it is the author’s eloquence that deepens content and mystifies readers into devouring literature despite its contrived simplicity. Such is the case here as Ray Bradbury, one of America’s, (albeit, the world’s) greatest creative geniuses, combines words to make ordinary footwear sound and taste like food and represent glorified acquisition, freedom, animals, energy, motivation, summer, and magically motionless movement. These are just some of the things Douglas Spaulding equates the new pair with upon spying them through Sanderson Shoe Emporium’s window, a pair whose significance he tries to articulate to his father but fails.

It is true that writers insert a piece of themselves into a supposed fictitious work. What is most amusing–and curious at the same time–is that this is purported to be a fiction, but Ray Bradbury actually, and wittingly, writes his autobiography. The protagonist’s name is Douglas, which, coincidentally, is Bradbury’s middle name, after the famous Douglas Fairbanks. Also, the main character’s last name is Spaulding, which, coincidentally again, happens to be Bradbury’s father’s middle name. Some critics have dubbed this genre an autobiographical fiction, a new genre of literature, I wonder.

Another convenient effort, which leads one to conclude rightfully that the character is patterned after Bradbury himself, is that both author and protagonist have the same characteristics at twelve years of age. Additionally, the supposed fabricated setting of the story is not so fictitious. It, too, is a convenient and liberal replication of the town where Bradbury grew up. He changed his hometown, Waukegan, Illinois, to its moniker, Green Town.

Dealing with this story in its confined self as a short story, (and not examining the larger novel of 267 pages published in 1957), the conflict, it appears, is person versus self: Douglas’s own internal wants and needs, his fixated desire to own the shoes for which he devises a crafty means of doing. Bradbury depicts the main character as a very articulate young man at once and not so articulate at other times, which makes Douglas identifiable to young adults. The young man finds himself unable to explain to his father the reason he needs another pair and unable to describe the symbolism of last year’s shoes to his father, but he deftly convinces Mr. Sanderson to try the sneakers he sells. Douglas is so valiant and so versed that “Mr. Sanderson stood amazed with the rush of words. When the words got going, the flow carried him…”

By virtue of his dealing with Mr. Sanderson, Douglas transforms the older gentleman from a staid and static character into a dynamic one, a character who would give young readers hope in their ability to practice persuasive skills on the older generation, an act they might have been unwilling to attempt had it not been for Douglas’ bravery and its resultant effect. Mr. Sanderson allows himself to float on Douglas’ words and, being thus carried, his show of conviction is to offer the young boy a job in his store when he gets old enough that the law will allow him to work and use his gift of gab on potential customers.

Simultaneously, it appears that Douglas’ conversation with Mr. Sanderson not only imbues young adults’ self-confidence, but it reveals several possible and positive themes for the story, “Words can move mountains,” or “Believe in your own ability,” or even better, as Mr. Sanderson puts it eloquently, as a stamp of approval and of unwavering faith, “Anything you want to be, [son] you’ll be. No one will ever stop you.”

Told from the third-person omniscient point of view, the narrative allows the reader to trace all the characters’ thoughts. Douglas’ innermost ones wage internal war with his one-track desire to own those shoes that goad him each time he walks by them, an obsession his father and the seller of that fixation notice. The conflict remains unresolved and builds into a gigantic height as only conflicts build into exaggerations in the minds of the young. Everyone sleeps except Douglas, who is taunted by the footgear. When he does sleep, his dreams focus on shoes and on rabbits running nightly and invariably.

Bradbury manipulates flashback and foreshadowing as teasers, snippets of each, without going into detail. He contrives the most effective way of employing these two literary weapons, extracting them to benefit the audience and to cause the audience to yield to the intrigue of more discoveries. The reader guzzles the piece fastidiously in order to discern what Bradbury expertly and tacitly hints at earlier. Even Mr. Sanderson’s reminiscence about his youth is almost nonexistent, but the reader gets the full effect of his reticence as he stammers, trying to recall exactly how long ago he wore sneakers in response to the protagonist’s question. Mr. Sanderson’s transportation into his past is so brief that the reader is spared the burden of attempting a prolonged trip into nostalgia. It is as short as, “From a long time ago, when he dreamed as a boy, he remembered the sound:” short and sweet.

The tone veers from one of optimism, obsequiousness, fancifulness, joviality, to the lyrical. Douglas’ desire borders on the whimsical since only he seems to see the sneakers in ways that no one else imagines them. At such times, his thoughts turn lyrical, poetic, and are piled sky high with imagery. Even when his father is denying him the right to own the footgear, the tone does not chastise or turn negative. Children at large can relate to the obsequious tone since they adopt it when they seek something from their parents or from other adults. The reader is not yanked around too much emotionally for the sake of literary exploration. Douglas’ distress sends the reader into near dysphoria, but the mood becomes one of euphoria by the story’s resolution.

Foreshadowing is equally brief. Douglas hints to the reader that reliance on obtaining those sneakers will be up to him entirely. The use of dialogue accomplishes many roles. It encapsulates dialect. As Douglas attempts to convince Mr. Sanderson to try on the footwear, his feverish appeal drives him into resorting to dialect and colloquialism. Dialogue also illuminates the characterization of both Mr. Spaulding and Mr. Sanderson, and it helps the reader form a more positive opinion of the latter who allows himself to be carried by the wave of Douglas’ passionate plea to try on the very ware he hocks but has never worn.

As a previous reviewer of one of Bradbury’s works put it, “Ray Bradbury is a painter who uses words rather than brushes–for he created lasting visual images that, once observed, are impossible to forget.” This description does not do Bradbury much justice. The author confessed that after he completed a piece, he found “tears streaming down my face,” not due to the actual content of his endeavor, but due to the intricacies of the darning, stitching, and quilting of beauty, color, texture, style, shape, and size so deftly and uniquely that they heaved at his (a man’s) heartstrings. Eloquence is an understatement for what palpitates visibly on the pages.

Bradbury fastens the events in “The Sound of Summer Running” effortlessly with figurative expressions laced so imaginatively that the heart skips constantly at the infusion of style embedded so unconventionally that the uniqueness of the manner of his verbal skills grips one’s self will. When Mr. Sanderson tries on the sneakers he sells but never wears, Bradbury personifies the footwear with, “The tennis shoes silently hushed themselves deep in the carpet, sank as in a jungle grass, in loam and resilient clay.” Articulacy could not have found a better voice to communicate its meaning and message, which Bradbury does repeatedly throughout the tale. At the time of the reading of this story, and due to its brevity in wetting my voracious craving, I wanted it to morph into a longer piece, a novel. Even then, I might not have had enough; I might have wanted a trilogy of the shoes’ story and Bradbury’s craftsmanship in weaving tales so magically. Fortunately for me, this story is a chapter in a longer piece, a novel titled Dandelion Wine. Now, I can satiate my hunger for more of the master’s morsels.

Bradbury exhibits deftness in phonological figures of speech. Alliteratively, Bradbury sprinkles the plot with “were wild with,” “…seized, suspended; the earth spun, the shop awning slammed,” “better than barefoot,” “with a whisper and went off,” and “magic might…” For assonance and consonance, “bright sunlight,” and “even Stephen,” capture the “i” sound while “feet deep in…wheat” captures the long “e” sound and is purely assonance. Of the last of the quartet of phonological figurative expressions, onomatopoeia, only two incidents of it could be located. The first is the “tinkling” of coins when Douglas shakes his coin bank. The second is  “bang” when he imagines himself dropping packages with the force the shoes allow him to acquire. He foreshadows his fortuitous ownership of them, the limitless energy and zeal they will infuse into him, and his ability to perform mundane chores with the magical power the shoes would inject in him.

Chunks of imagery cluster throughout the piece. Bradbury exhibits his wizardry once again with language and tantalizes the reader with unprecedented artistry. “Mr. Sanderson stood in the sun-blazed door, listening. From a long time ago, when he dreamed as a boy, he remembered the sound. Beautiful creatures leaping under the sky, gone through brush, under trees, away, and only the soft echo their running left behind.” In continued deference to Bradbury’s tapestry of thoughts, he drenches us with more imagery: “He bent to pick up the boy’s abandoned winter shoes, heavy with forgotten rains and long-melted snows. Moving out of the blazing sun, walking softly, lightly, slowly, he headed back toward civilization.”

As short as the piece is, “The Sound of Summer Running” drizzles with quite a number of examples of lexical figurative expressions. Allegory drips from beginning to end. Old sneakers symbolize the past, the end of summer, death, winter, forgotten rains, long-melted snows, constriction, and an end to fun and to adventure. On the contrary, new sneakers are allegorical to endless possibilities, freedom, magic, the beginning of fun, the starting of a fresh year, and gazelles and antelopes effortlessly scaling over trees, rivers, and houses. To Sanderson, the shoe store is analogous to a pet shop with kennels of pets, cats and dogs he touches with concern as he moves about in it.

Other instances of lexical figures of speech include personification, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, irony, sarcasm, idiom, repetition, anaphora, synecdoche, and paradox. Overflowing with figurative language, just about everything is displayed on this short story’s platter. Personified skillfully, “The tennis shoes silently hushed themselves deep in the carpet;” the cemented sidewalk is dead; magic might die; shoes jump over trees, rivers, and houses; his feet want to go; last year’s pair is dead inside, and June is full of power.

On the same token, Bradbury intersperses metaphors and similes just about everywhere. Metaphorically, leather shoes are indicated as iron, winter is a chunk, heels are yeasty dough, the interior of the shoes is a marshmallow, and the footwear itself is a river, an animal, summer, and winter. The soles of the footwear are thin hard sinews of the buck deer. The streets of Green Town are called the jungle, and the sun’s radiance is referred to as “jungle heat.” Conversely, the emporium signifies “civilization.” For simile, the sneakers are like menthol, like packed snow, the hills around town peel like calendar, the shoes are going like mad, are as quiet as a summer rain falling, and the wind is like a river going downstream.

Bradbury exaggerates liberally when Douglas, in a hyperbolic statement, informs Mr. Sanderson that he will see twelve of him in one day. Other emblematic instances include calling the store “a wall of ten thousand boxes,” stating that the wearer could run faster than foxes and squirrels, and that the footwear cannot be pulled up out of the cemented sidewalk because they are heavy iron (leather). It appears ironic that Mr. Sanderson has never tried on or worn the very commodity he sells. It is even more ironic that a potential customer convinces him to wear that ware when it should have been the other way around.

A sibling of irony, sarcasm is not left out. A worthwhile exchange between Mr. Sanderson and Douglas highlights this inverse expression that does not mean what it says. The gentleman informs the boy that after fulfilling certain duties for him in exchange for the one dollar owed, that Douglas is fired. In a vibrant show of gratitude pronounced with an exclamation mark, the boy thanks Sanderson for firing him!

Every student of poetry and prose knows that an idiom can have numerous figures of speech embedded in it. This idiomatic phrase has simile in it: “…Going like mad.” Another idiom is “cutting corners.” These are the only two instances of idiomatic expressions in the story.

Repetition abounds in its simple self and in the complexity of anaphora. Simplistically, Douglas realizes that he do can “anything, anything at all,” and “he heard a rabbit running running running” in his dreams. As is true of anaphora, it is a form of repetition, a successive repetition of phrases, clauses, or at the beginning of sentences or lines of poetry such as “Feel those shoes, feel how fast…, feel all the.., feel how they kind of…, and feel how quick…” Another example is: “How you going to sell…? How you going to rave…?” as Douglas bombards Sanderson with questions about selling goods he never tries.

One final but noteworthy lexical figure of speech the author exploits frequently is synecdoche when he keeps referring to footgear walking or operating by themselves or a part of Douglas’ body, namely, his feet engaging in acts. “And shoes like these could jump you over trees and rivers and houses,” “his feet wanting to go with it,” and “thunder had stopped where his shoes stopped,” as if the sneakers and feet run by themselves without the body.

Parallelism and antithesis share the commonality of being examples of syntactic figures of speech. These rhetorical devices are ideas arranged and balanced to create a sense of steady rhythm. Douglas formulates parallelism when he states, “I deliver your packages, pick up packages, bring your coffee, burn your trash, run to the post office…,” a staccato of actions he intends to undertake, actions which the sneakers will hasten and magically have him flying between one chore and subsequent others.

Another incident of parallelism is Bradbury choosing “-ing” in the series. “Putting cows to riot, playing barometer to…, taking sun, peeling like calendars…” Both parallelism and antithesis are the steady stream of expressions in a similar arrangement. The difference is that the latter sets off two ideas in balanced opposition to each other to create a powerful effect like a paradox. Antithesis is employed effectively in the following: “Find friends, ditch enemies,” “Out in the sun or deep into shadow,” and “I give you money, you give me shoes.”

I love happy endings, and Bradbury does not disappoint. He allows Douglas to own that pair, which ultimately restores my belief in him as an author and in the story itself. Douglas worked hard and saved stacks of nickels, dimes, and quarters and carefully placed them on the counter at the Sanderson Shoe Emporium “like someone playing chess and worried if the next move carried him out into sun or deep into shadow.”

Bradbury did not write a story here. He wrote literature, a distinction I preach to students. His is a literary masterpiece, a literary student’s playground littered with toys in the images of figurative expressions, a cornucopia of Thanksgiving’s numerous orchestrated dishes prepared meticulously with fresh ingredients and laid out prominently as only a master chef could: Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey, Joel Robuchon, and other counterparts.

The story delivers numerous holistic messages to young adults, life lessons that only will empower them for numerous reasons: to save money if they want something badly enough, to recognize the power of persuasion and use it judiciously, to hone in on personal identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the natural world and to humanitarian values such as the compassion Mr. Sanderson shows Douglas in allowing him to own the article even though Douglas will still owe a dollar, and to learn the skill of compromise.

Overall, “The Sound of Summer Running” is very engaging, causes the heart to palpitate at the complicated way Bradbury enslaves figurative expressions and meshes them effortlessly into others. It is not only one of Bradbury’s best stories, it is one of the best stories I have ever read. Believe me, I am a ravenous reader, a gifted student myself, one who read over 180 novels, mostly classics, in one year. Even Farenheit 451, purported to be one of Bradbury’s best work, did not grab me with the total absorption that “The Sound of Summer Running” did. I hope anyone who reads this story gets the lift and enlightenment I derived from it, like a deep breath of cleansing and unpolluted mountain air.

“The Sound of Summer Running” should be a recommended literary piece in sixth grade classrooms the whole wide world over. It is that pivotal a literary text and can be modified to each student’s ability. Bradbury’s craft is that much worth dissecting, and once so scrutinized, should equip any student of literature with the ability and the confidence to undertake the task of literary analysis (or response to literature) with conviction. Bradbury has penned more than 100 short stories, one long poem, and about 26 published books to his name. These grand exhibitions of brilliance are sufficient platforms for inter-literary and intra-literary comparative analyses.

Another critic puts Ray Bradbury into a more fitting perspective. “More than a half century into his remarkable career, Ray Bradbury continues to delight and astound with grand visions, lyrical prose, and provocative thought. Rich in poetry, wonder, imagination, and truth, here is proof positive that the words and stories of the inimitable Bradbury will live on . . . Now and Forever.”

Science studies the human body. The scholars of literature ought to examine Bradbury’s style, works, and insights very much, especially the intricacies he wove in “The Sound of Summer Running,” and its larger version, Dandelion Wine. I believe that the three published biographies, eight biographical movies, and tens of published interviews are insufficient outputs and true representations of the world’s recognition and appreciation of a genius’ iridescent mind. What I would not like to witness is the world’s realization of Bradbury’s incandescence and indispensability after he has left our world. With age advancing on him, Bradbury seems to have slowed the rate of writing and publication compared to the frenzy with which he wrote during his earlier explorations, and understandably so, which is my contention. It appears that our world thrives on heaping accolades post mortem rather than while the star shines brilliantly on earth.

If I have raised “The Sound of Summer Running” to an Olympic torch’s significance, I do so with the hope that it will edify literary students’ formal and deep understanding of various types of figurative expressions: one piece of work infused with so many memorable, pleasing, rich, cutting-edge, and surprising literary devices, a one-stop-shopping venue if you will. This story contains a plethora of figurative language and literary elements more than I have identified within longer literary pieces. Some longer pieces lack the wealth of figurative expressions and stick with the basic and the mundane: metaphors, similes, idioms, and personification.

Conversely, Bradbury’s small-in-stature piece will suffuse students with figurations of all forms and inflame in them sustaining passion for literature. We would hope that the literary world will be served more judiciously were we to equip our youth much better than we do at that lower middle school level in the academic hierarchy. We would want them to learn mostly from gifted masters and mistresses of literature so that they can, if such a thing is possible, not only emulate, but surpass those exemplary luminaries. We owe that to our youth.

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