Throughout “Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed,” the new settlers gradually lose touch with their memories of Earth as they assimilate to life on Mars. From the naming and renaming of Martian geography to the settlers’ slow adoption of Martian language and physical characteristics, the story probes the extent to which change is potentially destructive toward identity. This is mirrored by the ubiquitous presence of the ruins of previous Martian civilizations, which are mysterious and seemingly without historical context. Bradbury casts this gradual loss of memory in an ambivalent light: while on the one hand Harry Bittering struggles to hold on to his memories of Earth, on the other hand many settlers embrace their new lives and willingly forget what it was like to live anywhere other than Mars. Ultimately memory is shown to be fragile and unreliable. At the same time, however, Bradbury suggests that both memory and language are essential to one’s self-conception, and thus that their absence—cultural or personal—leads to the erasure of identity.
The more time they spend on Mars, the more the settlers forget their ties to Earth. As the characters physically change in the Martian environment, they begin to assume that this is simply how they have always been. Cora, for instance, insists that her eyes have “always” been gold. The characters also see no use for the physical items they’ve brought from Earth and wonder why they were once so attached to them. Having forgotten the purpose of their settlement and their ties to Earth, the settlers gradually abandon their identity as “Earth people” altogether. For all the inhabitants, the desire to return to Earth fades away along with their memories of Earth itself and their lives there. By the end of the story, Harry’s family cannot remember their time on Earth at all and have in fact almost entirely forgotten who they once were. They look at the “odd” settlements of the “ugly Earth people” with detached disdain, highlighting the fragile and ephemeral nature of memory and how that loss of memory has led to a complete shift in the way they see themselves. Identity, then, is as fragile and malleable as memory itself.
Bradbury also notably links identity—and, it follows, memory—with language through his emphasis on names. For one thing, names are largely all that’s left of the old Martian settlements. There is no surviving history of the previous Martians, just mysterious ruins and old names. Harry reflects, “Once Martians had built cities, named cities; climbed mountains, named mountains; sailed seas, named seas. Mountains melted, seas drained, cities tumbled.” Everything that the Martians achieved has been forgotten to time, leaving behind only the mysterious remains of their past civilizations. Harry reflects on the “silent guilt” Earthmen felt “at putting new names to these ancient hills and valleys” despite the fact that nearly all traces of the old inhabitants were gone. Harry continues, “Nevertheless, man lives by symbol and label. The names were given.” The old Martian civilization forgotten, settlers felt emboldened to assert their own identity onto the empty Martian landscape.
Yet as they forget their ties to Earth, the settlers begin to embrace the former Martian names for geographical features instead of those imposed by the American settlers. This suggests a distinct rejection of American identity, and that only through remembrance of Martian identity—here signified through language—can they truly be Martian themselves. The settlers even begin to speak Martian instead of English, although the Martian language is supposed to be dead along with Mars’ former inhabitants. Nevertheless, the settlers naturally begin picking up Martian words and eventually even adopting Martian names. Harry’s son Dan, for instance, tells his father, “That’s not my name. I’ve a new name I want to use.” A name is a marker of identity—the “label” by which “man lives”—and thus by rejecting Earth names in favor of Martian names, the settlers are effectively asserting their new identities as Martians.
Of course, though the settlers eventually become new Martians, there is a lack of continuity between their existence and the existence of previous Martians. There is no shared history, and any shared culture seems to be a product of the environment rather than any kind of preservation of memory. The new Martians seem to exist in an ahistorical state, one in which forgetting is recognized as a fundamental principle of existence. Forgetting, in this instance, has been a prerequisite for establishing a new identity. The inevitable, inexorable forgetting that takes place throughout the story has a melancholy tinge to it, but the story ends on a hopeful note. While the initial impulse of the settlers and those who follow after them is to look for old records and to keep and preserve their own history, the story recognizes the bittersweet futility of this approach. Instead, it offers up another option: to let things be washed away by the Martian winds and forgotten, which is not necessarily a loss but rather a different way of living and inhabiting the world.
Memory, Identity, and Language ThemeTracker
Memory, Identity, and Language Quotes in Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed
He glanced up from the garden to the Martian mountains. He thought of the proud old Martian names that had once been on those peaks. Earthmen, dropping from the sky, had gazed upon hills, rivers, Martian seats left nameless in spite of names. Once Martians had built cities, named cities; climbed mountains, named mountains; sailed seas, named seas. Mountains melted, seas drained, cities tumbled. In spite of this, the Earthmen had felt a silent guilt at putting new names to these ancient hills and valleys.
The Earthmen had changed names. Now there were Hormel Valleys, Roosevelt Seas, Ford Hills, Vanderbilt Plateaus, Rockefeller Rivers, on Mars. It wasn’t right. The American settlers had shown wisdom, using old Indian prairie names: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Idaho, Ohio, Utah, Milwaukee, Waukegan, Osseo. The old names, the old meanings.
“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.”
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.
“ Lots to be done, Lieutenant.” His voice droned on and quietly on as the sun sank behind the blue hills. “ New settlements. Mining sites, minerals to be looked for. Bacteriological specimens taken. The work, all the work. And the old records were lost. We’ll have a job of remapping to do, renaming the mountains and rivers and such. Calls for a little imagination.
“What do you think of naming those mountains the Lincoln Mountains, this canal the Washington Canal, those hills—we can name those hills for you, Lieutenant. Diplomacy. And you, for a favor, might name a town for me. Polishing the apple. And why not make this the Einstein Valley, and farther over . . . are you listening, Lieutenant?”
The lieutenant snapped his gaze from the blue color and the quiet mist of the hills far beyond the town.