has been raining around Boston for a really long time, and the
Globe editorial page is reminded
of Ray Bradbury’s 1954 story, “All Summer in a Day,” which
describes a gloomy world where it rains all the time, and where the inhabitants see the sun for an hour every seven years. . . . Bradbury’s story revolves around a maladjusted schoolgirl who’d emigrated from Earth. The mean Venusian kids lock her in a school closet, just as the long-hidden sun is about to peek out.”
Like a great deal of mid-century science fiction, Bradbury’s story is usually understood as a commentary on 1950s (McCarthyite, conformist) America, and in Bradbury’s writing, the science fiction foundation usually serves mostly as background for a rather conventional story, the kind of thing the Saturday Evening Review Post or Redbook might accept. “All Summer in a Day,” accordingly, illustrates various truisms: Children (and by extension, people generally) can be cruel, especially to those who are different. Careless actions can have serious consequences. It can be more difficult to go without something one remembers having had, once, in the past, than never to have had that thing in the first place. Some events, once done, cannot be reversed or repaired. No one would quarrel with these statements, as possible “morals” for the story.
Without this historical and political context, however, the psychological meaning is outlined clearly, and the story might appear to be only about metaphorical darkness and a metaphorical “closet.” That is not to say that the closet represents Margot’s denial of her own homosexuality, only to say that she is denying something. Subjectively—from her own point of view—she feels “as if she has been locked in a closet and cannot get out to see the sun.” But a closet is always something one puts oneself in, never the fault of another. By depicting Margot’s suffering in the closet as having been caused by the deliberate actions of another person (a person whose overt intentions were malicious towards her), the story appears to be a fantasy, written from Margot’s point of view, improperly relieving herself of responsibility for her own actions.
It is not necessary to read the story as written from the child’s point of view. It could be read from the point of view of an adult who cares about children, or of any adult generally who thinks scapegoating and bullying are wrong. It could be read as speaking from the omniscient, or “God’s eye,” point of view. However, the omniscient stance is unfashionable these days (and since fiction writers are themselves not omniscient, the idea of pretending they can represent omniscience raises questions).
Without knowing the convention that stories like this one are expected to present a unique, even eccentric individual, and ask the reader to “identify with” him or her for the duration of the reading, there is actually little reason why one might not read the story from the point of view of someone who sympathizes more with the schoolhouse bullies than with Margot. Bradbury even provides hints as to how that might be done. The other children are excellently adapted to their gloomy world, where they hardly ever see the sun they don’t remember in the slightest, where the rain creates such oppressively effusive growth. They take real joy in their two hours of sunlit outdoor play, and can expect similarly ecstatic joy at regular intervals, even if those intervals are for children unimaginably long. Margot makes them feel bad about what little they have even though she can really expect no better—she makes herself feel bad about what is really pretty good.
However, that reading emphasizes our feelings about what the characters “are like,” as if they were real people, over and above the actions that actually form part of the narrative. It discounts narrative (in the sense of story, of actions the characters engage in, and way they interact with one another), viewing it as an unavoidable obstacle to expressing what the author supposedly really wants to say.
Also, the interpretation I’ve offered is almost certainly not compatible with Bradbury’s intentions in writing the story. At best, Bradbury’s probable libertarian streak—incompatible, as he illustrates, with the prevailing mores of society—could be understood as a pathology: to preserve the interpretation that the story is a criticism of society, it could become a criticism of the way society failed to prevent this pathology. That is obviously ridiculous—maybe there’s a theoretical way to express it that makes it sound better, though I hope not. Whatever one thinks about “authorial intention” as a guide to interpretation, it is undeniable that someone who interpreted “All Summer in a Day” in that way would be incapable of understanding Bradbury’s work as a whole (what would become of works like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles?), and probably also incapable of understanding most popular or “genre” writing of the period.
(Via Wikipedia: It seems that the US Department of Defense has placed “All Summer in a Day” online for the use of K-6 educators worldwide. Is this really a story for ten- and eleven-year-olds? Apart from what the television censors call the “thematic content” of the piece, most sixth-graders are still reading from children’s books and from textbooks specially written to be level-appropriate.)