Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Other Foot” takes place on Mars, twenty years after all black people have fled the racism and cruelty of Earth to colonize the Red Planet. The impending arrival of a white man — the first white man to visit Mars since the black people colonized the planet — dredges up the Martians’ deep-rooted feelings of bitterness towards a world that denied their humanity. Bradbury’s story highlights the natural human impulse toward revenge while also presenting vengeance as both unproductive and unsatisfying. Because revenge simply perpetuates animosity and pain, “The Other Foot” ultimately suggests that true emotional healing can only happen when alleged enemies learn to see one another with empathy and understanding.
Bradbury’s story centers primarily on Willie Johnson, a Martian who immediately races home to get his guns upon hearing of the white man’s arrival. Though he doesn’t know who the white man is or what he wants, Willie’s first impulse is toward violence. What’s more, he convinces the entire town to bring guns and ropes to greet the visitor. When Hattie, Willie’s wife, urges her husband to stop and think for a moment, Willie responds by pointing out that he has stewed on racial relations for the past twenty years. “I was sixteen when I left Earth, and I was glad to leave,” he says. “There wasn’t anything there for me or you or anybody like us.” With no sense of closure after leaving Earth, Willie’s pain and spite has been bottled up for two decades and the white man’s arrival triggers its release.
Bradbury presents Willie’s desire for revenge as an understandable human impulse, but complicates matters by revealing how such feelings only perpetuate pain and strife for all involved. Getting increasingly worked up about the white man’s arrival on Mars, Willie tells his wife, “the shoe’s on the other foot now. We’ll see who gets laws passed against him, who gets lynched, who rides the back of streetcars, who gets segregated in shows.” Willie’s plan for revenge means reinstating Jim Crow laws (the United States’ strict racial segregation policies that were abolished in the 1950s), but altering them so that they exclude white, rather than black, people. Such a desire clearly eats away at Willie, however, whose face looks “stern and heavy and folded in upon the gnawing bitterness” as he scours his attic for guns. When Willie later proudly admits to forming a bloodthirsty mob to greet the white man, the mayor admonishes Willie that he is doing the “same thing” he always hated, and as such is “no better than some of those white men” he yells about. The mayor highlights how Willie isn’t solving prejudice by turning his ire on white people; rather, he’s perpetuating the same problems and attitudes that led to misery for people like him on Earth.
Instead of revenge, the story suggests that to combat vengeful impulses people must view others with empathy. During Willie’s angry rant prior to the white man’s arrival, Hattie tells her husband that he doesn’t “sound human.” In his rage, Willie has become cold, heartless, and unempathetic toward people who are different from him; his desire for vengeance has stripped him of man’s more noble qualities. However, after actually meeting the white man and internalizing Earth’s near-complete destruction, Willie realizes that those who oppressed him have finally experienced genuine horror themselves—and, as such, must better grasp the cruelty and horror to which they subjected people who look like Willie. Indeed, Willie’s vengeful impulses melt away once he is able to empathize with the white man over their shared experiences. Willie’s ultimate embrace of the visitor reflects the story’s belief that shared trauma can create understanding, and that understanding is the only path toward peace.
Revenge and Empathy ThemeTracker
Revenge and Empathy Quotes in The Other Foot
“You ain’t going to lynch him?”
“Lynch him?” Everyone laughed. Mr. Brown slapped his knee. “Why, bless you, child, no! We’re going to shake his hand. Ain’t we, everyone?”
I’m not feeling Christian […] I’m just feeling mean. After all them years of doing what they did to our folks—my mom and dad, and your mom and dad—You remember? You remember how they hung my father on Knockwood Hill and shot my mother? You remember? Or you got a memory that’s short like the others?
“Well […] the shoe’s on the other foot now. We’ll see who gets laws passed against him, who gets lynched, who rides the back of streetcars, who gets segregated in shows. We’ll just wait and see.”
All along the road people were looking up in the sky, or climbing in their cars, or riding in cars, and guns were sticking up out of some cars like telescopes sighting all the evils of a world coming to an end.
The people were so close together it looked like one dark body with a thousand arms reaching out to take the weapons.
She wanted to get at the hate of them all, to pry at it and work at it until she found a little chink, and then pull out a pebble or a stone or a brick and then a part of the wall, and once started, the whole edifice might roar down and be done away with. It was teetering now. But which was the keystone, and how to get at it? How to touch them and get a thing started in all of them to make a ruin of their hate?
“The Lord’s let us come through, a few here and a few there. And what happens next is up to all of us. The time for being fools is over. We got to be something else except fools. […] now the white man’s as lonely as we’ve always been. He’s got no home now, just like we didn’t have one for so long. Now everything’s even. We can start all over again, on the same level.”