Ray Bradbury’s “The Visitor” is above all an allegory about the corrosive nature of greed. In the story, men who have contracted “blood rust”—a contagious and incurable terminal disease—have been sent to live out their final months on Mars. When the arrival of Leonard Mark, the titular visitor, offers an escape from the desolate isolation of their quarantine, every man grows eager to keep this new “treasure” for himself—yet in their violent selfishness, they end up destroying the very thing they’re fighting over. Beyond condemning men’s short-sighted selfishness, Bradbury’s story ultimately argues that humankind’s inability to share resources will spell its end.
Through a combination of telepathy and hypnotism, Mark is able to immerse others in illusions indistinguishable from real life—a highly desirable power for men forced to leave their homes and end their days in foreign solitude. When Saul, one of the Martian exiles, first learns of Mark’s ability, he immediately begins to imagine all the things that the newcomer will do for him—from conjuring images of his childhood home, to allowing him to converse with ancient philosophers. So consumed is Saul by visions of how he will use Mark, that he overlooks the fact that Mark is an independent human being, and not Saul’s personal plaything.
Upon seeing the others flock toward the visitor, Saul insists that they run off to protect Mark from the others’ ravenous greed: “They'll kill each other—kill you—for the right to own you,” Saul warns. Of course, Saul really just wants to keep Mark to himself, and the visitor is notably unfazed: “Oh, but I don’t belong to anybody,” he says, before looking at Saul pointedly and adding, “No. Not even you.” Saul realizes he “didn’t even think of that,” underscoring the way in which intense focus on one’s own needs can deny others the right to self-determination.
Despite this realization, Saul refuses to give up his prize. Instead, he viciously knocks Mark out and carries him to an isolated cave away from the other men. He then ties Mark up, refusing him freedom unless he promises not to run away. In response, Mark mocks Saul’s obvious avarice: “Oh, a fine marriage this is—your greed and my mental ability.” Mark refuses to play along, again insisting, much to Saul’s frustration, that he is a “free agent” who doesn’t “belong to anybody.”
Soon enough, other men find the cave, and their subsequent “arguments and ferocities” ensue until dawn. Mark conjures a marble table, around which sit these “ridiculously bearded, evil-smelling, sweating and greedy men, eyes bent upon their treasure.” Bradbury’s language in this moment highlights the men’s pathetic desperation, depicting them as having grown feral in their selfish desires. They, like Saul, deny Mark his humanity, viewing him instead only as a “treasure” to be won.
Mark rationally suggests creating a schedule so that each man gets an hour with him per week, and which also leaves Mark with some time for himself. Rather than accept this deal—which Mark points out “should be better than nothing”—one man, Johnson, declares that they should simply make Mark do whatever they want, even if that means torturing him. The problem is, however, in addition to sowing violence, greed robs men of trust. Mark angrily declares that, one by one, the men will kill each other out of the need to be the sole possessor of Mark’s abilities: “This is a fool's conference,” he says. “The minute your back is turned one of the other men will murder you.” Greed and selfishness have not only blinded the men to the humanity of that which they desire, but also to one another’s; trust, reason, and empathy, the story argues, cannot co-exist with the single-minded brutality that greed fuels.
Indeed, Mark’s assertion immediately proves correct. The men begin to fight, and in the ensuing chaos accidentally kill Mark. The irony, of course, is that Mark had been prepared to give his talents freely, explicitly telling Saul he desired no reward for his services and simply wanted to bring others joy: “You wanted me all to yourself,” he says. “You were afraid the others would take me away from you. Oh, how mistaken you were. I have enough power to keep them all happy. You could have shared me, like a community kitchen.” In their greedy inability to share this joy, however, the men have destroyed it altogether.
Bradbury’s story is not simply a condemnation of interpersonal squabbles. The tale is more broadly an allegory for the depletion of natural resources and disrespect of the planet—which provide the real versions of everything Mark conjures, and yet which human beings treat with no more respect than the men do their telepathic would-be savior. Indeed, Bradbury subtly hints at the way the Martian drama plays out on a planetary level through Mark’s backstory: Mark implies his abilities are the result of the “blow up” of 1957, ostensibly in reference to a nuclear explosion. This would suggest that those on Earth, like those on Mars, have refused to share resources (resulting in nuclear war), or have used them to their own ends without regard to the potential danger to the planet. “Blood rust” itself could, like Mark’s telepathy, even be a byproduct of environmental degradation and nuclear fallout. The human tendency toward greed and selfishness, then, creates a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that will ultimately spell humankind’s doom.
Selfishness and Greed ThemeTracker
Selfishness and Greed Quotes in The Visitor
“Come on. Don’t you realize what’ll happen once they discover your talent? They’ll fight over you. They’ll kill each other—kill you—for the right to own you.”
“Oh, but I don’t belong to anybody,” said Leonard Mark. He looked at Saul. “No. Not even you.”
Saul jerked his head. “I didn’t even think of that.”
“If you’d had any sense and done things intelligently, we’d have been friends. I'd have been glad to do you these little hypnotic favors. After all, they’re no trouble for me to conjure up. Fun, really. But you’ve botched it. You wanted me all to yourself. You were afraid the others would take me away from you. Oh, how mistaken you were. I have enough power to keep them all happy. You could have shared me, like a community kitchen.”
By dawn the arguments and ferocities still continued. Mark sat among the glaring men, rubbing his wrists, newly released from his bonds. He created a mahogany paneled conference hall and a marble table at which they all sat, ridiculously bearded, evil-smelling, sweating and greedy men, eyes bent upon their treasure.
“The rest of the week I’m to be left strictly alone, do you hear?” Mark told them. A little should be better than nothing. If you don’t obey, I won’t perform at all.” […]
“Let me talk,” said Johnson. “He’s telling us what he’ll do. Why don’t we tell him! Are we bigger than him, or not? And him threatening not to perform! Well, just let me get a sliver of wood under his toenails and maybe burn his fingers a bit with a steel file, and we’ll see if he performs! Why shouldn’t we have performances, I want to know, every night in the week?”
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.