In “Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed,” the new settlers on Mars, including Harry Bittering and his family, are deeply unnerved by the Martian landscape, viewing it as alien and unnatural. In contrast, the familiar crops, architecture, and accessories they have imported from Earth are considered natural and therefore comforting. However, as their connection with Earth wanes, Martian influence gradually pervades every aspect of the Bitterings’ lives. What is Martian begins to seem natural to them, while their Earthly imports seem strange and out of place. By the conclusion of the story, the Bitterings have completely embraced a “Martian” lifestyle and the tension between the natural and the unnatural has been flipped on its head. Bradbury’s story thus suggests that conceptions of what is “natural” are not objective, but rather based squarely in place and perception. The landscape and atmosphere of a particular location will compel newcomers to assimilate, making what initially seems strange familiar.
One of the first things that Harry and his family notice changing on Mars are the crops and livestock. Even before these changes occur, however, Harry is ill at ease: “Mr. Bittering felt very alone in his garden under the Martian sun, anachronism bent here, planting Earth flowers in a wild soil.” Harry can already sense the inherent disconnection between plants brought from Earth and the Martian environment. Although the family has brought seeds and animals from Earth, the influence of the Martian environment gradually transforms them and makes them much different than their earthly counterparts. The crops are “Onions but not onions, carrots but not carrots. Taste: the same but different. Smell: not like it used to be.” The roses turn green and the grass turns purple, an even more obvious demonstration of the effect of the Martian environment upon imports from Earth. Harry initially perceives these changes as disturbing and alien because of their lack of similarity to Earthly vegetables and plants.
Faced with all of these examples of the strange and unexpected effects of the Martian environment, Harry is gripped with panic that he, too, will change. “If we stay here, we’ll all change,” he says. “The air. Don’t you smell it? Something in the air. A Martian virus, maybe; some seed, or a pollen.” And, indeed, he does change, as he begins to perceive his new environment with a sense of familiarity previously reserved for life on Earth. This again underscores how “natural” is a matter of subjective perception.
Physical objects and possessions also change in significance to the family throughout the story, with Earthly possessions slowly becoming both less important and less familiar. When the settlers first arrive on Mars, they bring with them many things from Earth, both personal and practical. At first, they are very attached to these possessions, and cling to them as reminders of the planet that they left behind. Moreover, they feel that the Martian landscape poses an indeterminate threat to them. Harry, for example, worries that the Martian wind is wearing away at the house.
As they become more acclimated to the Martian environment, however, they lose their attachment to their earthly possessions. When they decide to relocate to the Martian villa, they leave behind most of their possessions, including furniture, fancy clothes, encyclopedias, and other once-treasured possessions. After summering in the mountains in the Martian villa, they decide not to return to the settlement, and instead to stay in their new home, with new furniture and possessions that better suit their new lifestyle. The more exposed they become to the Martian environment, the more they realize that the possessions and attitudes they brought from Earth are no longer relevant.
The tension between the natural and the unnatural is further exacerbated by the physical changes that the settlers themselves undergo. As the title indicates, their eyes change color, at first just subtly flecked with gold before gradually becoming entirely golden. Initially, Harry is disturbed by these changes, breaking the mirror that reflects his own gold-flecked eyes back at him. He is even more frustrated that those around him do not seem perturbed by the changes. When he asks his wife, “Cora, how long have your eyes been yellow?” she is puzzled and asserts that they always have been gold. However, as Harry himself becomes more acclimated to the Martian environment, he gradually loses the sense that the changes he, his family, and his surroundings are undergoing are in some way against the natural order of things. As his memories of Earth lapse, the golden eyes begin to seem natural, along with all the other subtle changes wrought by the Martian wind.
The settlers’ whole bodies are changed, as well—their skin darkening and limbs lengthening until they would no longer immediately be recognizable as “human” to someone on Earth. Instead, they are Martian, dark, tall, and golden-eyed, perfectly adapted to their new environment. As Harry comes to accept these changes, he no longer fights so hard against them: “A few tremblings shook him, but were carried off in waves of pleasant heat as he lay in the sun.”
By the time the new settlers arrive on Mars, they can no longer identify the former inhabitants of the settlement, and instead conclude that they are native Martians. One settler notes, “we found native life in the hills, sir. Dark people. Yellow eyes. Martians. Very friendly.” The settlers have become so changed by their environment that they are mistaken for native Martians. In the context of the story, this is not entirely inaccurate, as one way to be “native” is to fully embody the place in which one dwells. In Bradbury’s story, this takes on a literal significance, with the Martian atmosphere physically and mentally altering those who attempt to inhabit it. Having finally embraced (or succumbed to) the influence of Mars, the Bittering family and the rest of the settlers have truly become Martian—and left the familiarity of Earth behind.
Familiarity and Perception ThemeTracker
Familiarity and Perception Quotes in Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed
The wind blew as if to flake away their identities. At any moment the Martian air might draw his soul from him, as marrow comes from a white bone. He felt submerged in a chemical that could dissolve his intellect and burn away his past.
Earth people left to the strangeness of Mars, the cinnamon dusts and wine airs, to be baked like gingerbread shapes in Martian summers, put into harvested storage by Martian winters. What would happen to him, the others? This was the moment Mars had waited for. Now it would eat them.
You know they have! Onions but not onions, carrots but not carrots. Taste: the same but different. Smell: not like it used to be.” He felt his heart pounding, and he was afraid. He dug his fingers into the earth. “Cora, what’s happening? What is it? We’ve got to get away from this.” He ran across the garden. Each tree felt his touch. “The roses. The roses. They’re turning green!”
“If we stay here, we’ll all change. The air. Don’t you smell it? Something in the air. A Martian virus, maybe; some seed, or a pollen.”
Lying abed, Mr. Bittering felt his bones shifted, shaped, melted like gold. His wife, lying beside him, was dark from many sunny afternoons. Dark she was, and golden-eyed, burnt almost black by the sun, sleeping, and the children metallic in their beds, and the wind roaring forlorn and changing through the old peach trees, the violet grass, shaking out green rose petals.
“Cora, how long have your eyes been yellow?” She was bewildered. “Always, I guess.” “They didn’t change from brown in the last three months?” She bit her lips. “No. Why do you ask?” “Never mind.”
They leaped into the canal water, and he let himself sink down and down to the bottom like a golden statue and lie there in green silence. All was water-quiet and deep, all was peace. He felt the steady, slow current drift him easily.
If I lie here long enough, he thought, the water will work and eat away my flesh until the bones show like coral. Just my skeleton left. And then the water can build on that skeleton—green things, deep water things, red things, yellow things. Change. Change. Slow, deep, silent change. And isn’t that what it is up there?
Looking at the small white cottage for a long moment, he was filled with a desire to rush to it, touch it, say good-bye to it, for he felt as if he were going away on a long journey, leaving some thing to which he could never quite return, never understand again.