Despite being terminally ill, the exiled Martian men seem not to fear death itself so much as the lack of mental stimulation that their long, drawn out dying entails. Mars is distinctly devoid of opportunities for intellectual stimulation, a fact that proves especially challenging for the philosophy-loving Saul Williams. Saul rejects desire for bodily pleasures like women and food, instead insisting that all he wants is Earth, “a thing for the mind and not the weak body.” His despair comes not only from intense homesickness, but also from the fact that “intellectuals never get the blood rust and come up” to Mars, and that his fellow exiles have grown too ill to talk at all, let alone discuss Plato and Aristotle. As the sick men find themselves unable to think of anything “but sleep and more sleep,” Bradbury suggests that their existence itself begins to lose any sense of meaning or purpose. “The Visitor,” then, is an argument for the importance of the life of the mind.
For Saul, there is little joy to the mundane monotony that being on Mars entails. “Another morning,” he remarks early in the story, suggesting a certain bored pattern to his days that is further reflected in the oppressive stillness of the Martian landscape. In the opening line of the story, Saul awakens to “the still morning.” Everything is “quiet” and the dead sea-bottom is “silent—no wind on it.”
Before Leonard Mark’s arrival, Saul attempts to engage in conversation with a man lying on a blanket nearby, but the man is too sick to do anything other than sleep. Saul even longs for the day when he, too, will be too sick to care about anything other than sleep because, though this will mean he is closer to death, it would be preferable to staring down a seemingly endless stretch of empty, boring Martian days.
Leonard Mark, then, is a sort of messiah figure, come to deliver the exiles from their monotonous Martian hell and into an imagined heaven. For Saul, Mark presents the opportunity not only to see home once again, but to explore worlds Saul never knew: “We'll be in Greece, he thought. In Athens. We'll be in Rome, if we want, when we study the Roman writers. We'll stand in the Parthenon and the Acropolis. […] To sit and talk with Nietzsche in person, with Plato himself...!” Saul notably calls such imagined opportunities better than life on Earth ever was, again suggesting that intellectual pursuits instill life with an invaluable sense of wonder.
Notably, Mark cannot cure the men, nor can he actually, physically return them to the homes they so sorely miss. He can only offer vibrant images of a world beyond their immediate surroundings. He calls this, in part, hypnosis, underscoring the fact that it isn’t real. Indeed, when Saul believes himself to be swimming in a beloved childhood creek, to Mark it looks simply like he is flailing about in the Martian sand. In a moment of anger, Saul calls Mark’s conjuring “a lie,” and Mark himself refers to it as “a mirage.” Nevertheless, these images—these possibilities for mental removal from the Martian emptiness—prove powerful enough to drive the men to kidnapping and murder in their attempt to access them.
Such a profound desire for an imagined escape raises the question of whether reality is more important than illusion. For these men, it doesn’t matter that the scenes Mark conjures aren’t real; all that matters is their experience of them, their ability to remove themselves from the simultaneous existential terror and numbing drudgery of their lives in exile. The story does not offer an answer as to whether such escapism actually grants life meaning or, on the contrary, is a mask for the ultimate meaningless of life itself. What is clear in Bradbury’s tale, however, is that when the characters reach the point of illness where they can do nothing but sleep—that is, when they can no longer engage in the life of the mind—they have ceased to live.
Saul knows this will happen to him, too; after Mark’s death, he envisions the shape his final months will take, realizing that he will “finally lie, too tired to walk, trying to find New York in his head, but not finding it.” As he drifts to sleep, he hears the figurative “tremendous crash of metal and golden mist and odor and color and sound,” as “New York collapsed, fell, and was buried.” The implication is that Saul, like all the rest, will become too weary to even dream of the world he has left behind. And without such dreams, he has, in effect, already been buried in the Martian soil.
Meaning and Imagination ThemeTracker
Meaning and Imagination Quotes in The Visitor
New York grew up out of the desert, made of stone and filled with March winds. Neons exploded in electric color. Yellow taxis glided in a still night. Bridges rose and tugs chanted in the midnight harbors. Curtains rose on spangled musicals.
Saul put his hands to his head, violently.
"Hold on, hold on!" he cried. "What's happening to me? What's wrong with me? I'm going crazy!"
Leaves sprouted from trees in Central Park, green and new. On the pathway Saul strolled along, smelling the air.
Saul lay on the sand. From time to time his hands moved, twitched excitedly. His mouth spasmed open; sounds issued from his tightening and relaxing throat.
Saul began to make slow movements of his arms, out and back, out and back, gasping with his head to one side, his arms going and coming slowly on the warm air, stirring the yellow sand under him, his body turning slowly over.
Leonard Mark quietly finished his coffee. While he drank he kept his eyes on the moving, whispering Saul lying there on the dead sea bottom.
We'll be in Greece, he thought. In Athens. We'll be in Rome, if we want, when we study the Roman writers. We'll stand in the Parthenon and the Acropolis. It won’t be just talk, but it'll be a place to be, besides. This man can do it. He has the power to do it. When we talk the plays of Racine, he can make a stage and players and all of it for me. By Christ, this is better than life ever was! How much better to be sick and here than well on Earth without these abilities!
The men gazed suspiciously at each other with little bright animal eyes. What was spoken was true. They saw each other in the days to come, surprising one another, killing—until that last lucky one remained to enjoy the intellectual treasure that walked among them.
It didn't work. It wasn’t the same. New York was gone and nothing he could do would bring it back. He would rise every morning and walk on the dead sea looking for it, and walk forever around Mars, looking for it, and never find it. And finally lie, too tired to walk, trying to find New York in his head, but not finding it.
The last thing he heard before he slept was the spade rising and falling and digging a hole into which, with a tremendous crash of metal and golden mist and odor and color and sound, New York collapsed, fell, and was buried.