“The smell of the silent, waiting world came in to them”: teaching literary atmospheres with Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day
Depicting a future scenario in which human beings have colonized the inhospitable environment of Venus, a planet with an atmosphere so dense that the sky is imagined to be covered with permanently evaporating, thick clouds, Kay Bradbury’s short story All Summer in a Day (first published 1954) allows for a dealing with literary atmospheres in the ELT-classroom that acknowledges the ecopedagogical dimension of affective experience and learning. In this short story, the reader is presented with a future society forced to live primarily underground because of the rainy weather on Venus. Within this bleak world, which has already seen “thousands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain” (Bradbury 2010, 641), the third-person narrator zooms into a group of schoolchildren eagerly awaiting a moment that will change their lives forever: after 7 years of absence, the sun is predicted to come out again for about 2 hours. Due to their young age, none of the children who were born and raised on Venus have memories of the last time the sun appeared in the sky. Only the story’s main protagonist, Margot, a young girl who moved from Ohio to Venus 5 years ago, can actually remember “the color and the heat of it and the way it really was” (643). This, and the fact that Margot has had the pleasures of growing up in an environment not constantly drenched in water and deprived of all colors, is reason enough for her envious classmates to bully her and lock her up in a closet when the sun is about to show her face for the last time for the next 7 years. After the sun has faded behind a veil of mist again, the children remember Margot and, now that they know the beauty and warmth of the sunlight, realize what they have done to her.
All Summer in a Day is not only a story about social exclusion and isolation but, most importantly, a reminder of the entanglement between human beings and the more-than-human world. Margot, who is haunted by her happy memories of the sun, is a good example of how changing environmental factors can have an influence on human well-being. Her description as “a very frail girl who looked as if [...] the rain had washed out the blue from her eyes and the red from her mouth and the yellow from her hair” (642) suggests that the harsh weather conditions on Venus have been transforming her into a shadow of her former self. Besides leaving a mark on her outward appearance, the lack of vitamin D as well as the exposure to Venus’ drab and uncanny vegetation has made her depressive and anxious. Traumatized by “the rain and the loud wet world” (642), she is denied the right to enjoy a carefree childhood and thus becomes more and more disinterested in playing and singing together with her classmates. “Only when they sang about the sun and the summer,” the narrator reveals, “did her lips move as she watched the drenched windows” (642). While Margot suffers from her inability to adapt to the environmental conditions on Venus, her classmates seem to be almost too perfectly adapted to their planet with its colorless, horrifying jungle resembling “a nest of octopi, clustering up great arms of fleshlike weed” (644). Just like this weird ecosystem, the native Venusians behave in a hostile way toward everyone who does not fit in this new world. What Bradbury presents the reader with are human beings so altered by their environment that they have become utterly inhumane and, in the case of Margot, almost ghostlike. The way in which the environment influences the children’s behavior and perception becomes even more apparent when the sun finally makes her appearance:
The door slid back and the smell of the silent, waiting world came in to them. The sun came out. |...| And the jungle burned with sunlight as the children, released from their spell, rushed out, yelling, into the springtime. (644)
Aff ected by the power and beauty of the sun, they feel healthier and happier than ever and begin to feel sympathy for Margot. Now that they know how it feels to play under the sun, they see their wet world in a new light. They suddenly become aware of the chill of the wind and the coldness of the rain and its “gigantic sound” (645), as well as the “terrible” color of the ever-present thunderbolts (646).
To engage discussions on the notion of entanglement of humans and their surroundings that Bradbury’s text seeks to achieve, I suggest that teachers ought to encourage pupils to explore the short story’s distinct atmospheric and affective affordances. Providing pupils with situations in which they can discover how reading a specific literary text can affect their mood and, vice versa, how their individual dispositions can affect their interpretation of a text is a useful strategy to help them reflect on their immersion in ever-changing ambiences. Accordingly, it is important to give pupils the opportunity to be immersed in different, maybe even contrasting ambiences, which can then be made tangible with regard to discussions of the affective responses that they may have triggered. This will allow pupils to discover the plurality of aesthetic affects engendered by literary atmospheres.
One established methodological practice to make pupils explore and reflect upon the aesthetic affects engendered in moments of literary reception is the use of action- and production-oriented tasks and activities within a pro-cess-oriented setting. Divided into three phases — that is, a pre-, while-, and post-reading phase — this setting takes into account and resonates with the processual nature of the reading process and allows ELT-learners to approach even complex literary texts one step at a time. In the pre-reading phase, pupils should be provided with tasks or stimuli that help them activate prior knowledge that they need in order to be better prepared for the reading of the literary text in question. Creative tasks that raise certain expectations about the themes, language, and atmospheres that they are about to encounter in this text are particularly useful in this context (cf. Caspari 1994, 214—8). The while-reading phase is the phase in which pupils actively read parts or excerpts of a literary text. Teachers should consider integrating tasks and activities into this phase that make pupils creatively respond to what is actually engendered by a text’s narrative form, so that they can make sense of its content (cf. Nunning and Surkamp 2006, 74). To make pupils reflect on their individual aesthetic experiences, a post-reading phase should be integrated each time pupils have finished reading part(s) of a text. Tasks that make pupils apply their newly acquired textual knowledge in a different context invite pupils to gain critical distance to a text, thus improving their critical reading skills (cf. Caspari 1994, 221). Since such activities prompt the reader to use his or her personal disposition, experiences, and knowledge to co-construct literary meaning, they can be seen as a powerful means of generating notions of relationality or “atmospheric intricateness” (Keane 2013, 60).
This process-oriented approach to literacy and language learning can be applied in the context of teaching literary atmospheres with Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day. Each line of this short story, it seems, is thick with notions of climate and atmosphere. The paratactic, almost robotic dialogues convey a sense of coldness and uniformity, which, in turn, mirror the monotonous life of the children on a planet where no one can “remember a time when there wasn’t rain and rain and rain” (641). The repetitious language further intensifies the bleak vision of a world where hardly anything ever changes or evolves. This pessimistic outlook on human and more-than-human existence is expressed right at the beginning of the story and accentuates its overall atmosphere:
It had been raining for seven years; thousands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands. A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again. And this was the way life was forever on the planet Venus, and this was the schoolroom of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives. (641)
The reader is bombarded with repetitions and hyperboles which pour down on her or him just like the raindrops do on the story’s protagonists. Therefore, the reader is forced to share the torture which Margot is experiencing every minute in the desolate and hostile environment of planet Venus.
Since this passage presents readers with the dreary, violent reality of planet Venus, it constructs a very specific atmospheric architecture that can be used productively in the ELT-classroom to prompt pre-GCSE pupils to tune into the storyworld. Thus, it could be used to (1) introduce pupils to and make them experience the atmospheric architecture of the story. As a pre-reading activity, pupils could be asked to listen carefully to different, contrasting ambient sounds such as those of a thunderstorm on the one hand and of birdsongs on the other. While listening, the teacher could have them write down adjectives that describe whatever associations, thoughts, or moods come to their mind. Another idea is to present pupils with Olivia Chin Mueller’s illustration “All summer in a Day” (2014, web) and ask them about their spontaneous associations. The picture shows the portrait of a pale blonde girl dressed in white who is surrounded by big green leaves and dark, raining clouds. One of the clouds is hiding half of her face from the viewer so that one can only guess what the facial expression of the girl might reveal about her mood and feelings. Follow-up questions could therefore focus pupils’ attention on the relationship between weather, environment, and moods and ask them what the look of their own faces is telling them about themselves and their moods as well as the weather on the day of the lesson. Both activities situate the pupils in the here and now, activating their senses and making them aware of the fact that “[sjtory emerges from our presence in the moment, in the situation” (Abba 2017). What is more, they both may function as starting points for discussions on individual responses and imaginations as well as on expectations toward the topic of the lesson. At the same time, they contribute to the cultivation of a classroom discourse in which different interpretations and opinions are valued.
Now that pupils have made either two different immersive experiences in ambient sounds or been confronted to a visual stimulus, they are ready to use their impressions and vocabulary to read parts of the introduction of the short story. Within this while-reading phase, the teacher could have them draw pictures in a column next to the text that capture and support what is being narrated; or they could be asked to come up with a headline or the title of the short story that they are going to read.
Either way, it is important that pupils get the opportunity to connect their individual reading experiences with their previously discussed acoustic or visual impressions in a post-reading phase. Having them answer the question which ambient sound as introduced at the beginning of the lesson they find most fitting with regard to their notes, experiences, and feelings made while reading and why, or, similarly, in what way their drawings correlate or differ from the picture presented in the pre-reading phase, might be a good way of making them reflect on the atmospheric architecture of Bradbury’s short story. In addition to that, they could be asked to rewrite the introductory passage in a way that fits the soundscape of birdsong on a summer’s day. In doing so, pupils can experience atmospheres as contrasts and come to understand how differently they can affect us (cf. Bohme 2000, 15).
Since pupils are familiarized with different presence effects of (literary) atmospheres by now, they are prepared for further readings of Bradbury’s short story in follow-up sessions. By integrating creative pre-, while-, and post-reading activities, teachers could, for instance, have pupils pay closer attention to literary language and how it reinforces aesthetic effects. This could not only sensitize pupils for the affective potential of literary language, but also support them to (2) describe and analyze the literary atmospheres they find in All Summer in a Day. A closer look at the different rhetorical devices that are used in the short story to evoke images and feelings related to sun or rain in particular could then lead to discussions on the capability of narratives to reinforce certain atmospheres. In this context, creative tasks that engage pupils with how weather and environment are influencing and changing the children in the short story could further enhance these discussions.
A creative and affective engagement with literary atmospheres is likely to generate responses of pupils to their experience of being in a weathered world or inspire discussions on contemporary weather extremes in the broader context of anthropogenic climate change. Either way, I want to argue with Greg Garrard that “[t|he point of ecocritical pedagogy is to make its existing environmentality explicit and, above all, sustainable” (Garrard 2012, 9). Therefore, it is important that we as teachers also include sessions on (3) reviewing the eco-ethical relevance of the atmospheric reading experience toward the end of our units. After all, teachers can only succeed in accentuating ecological and ethical aspects of literary writings if pupils engage with the literature they read beyond the level of textual representations (cf. Hohnstrater 2006, 220). What matters just as much is how aesthetic “information” - atmospheres in my understanding — are informed and reinforced by the realities in which they have been inscribed.
With this in mind, an engagement with the historical context behind the creation of Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day provides fertile ground for teaching the eco-ethical relevance of this short story. Published in the 1950s, a decade defined not only by the recovery from World War II and the beginning of the Cold War but also by technological optimism and suburban sprawl, Bradbury’s short story works through the self-destructive tendencies of humanity. It not only expresses anxieties about the nature of suburban community, but also negotiates prevailing fears of a nuclear winter and its cataclysmic consequences for human and more-than-human life on earth. At the same time, the gloomy landscape depicted in Bradbury’s short story uncovers the horrors of an othered environment and invites to reflect on what Morton (2010, 16) calls a “dark ecology” - an ecology without a revered and sublime nature. It mirrors the social and cultural chaos and instability of the newly founded Venusian colony and reveals human beings’ implication in an agentic surrounding world. Since the story does not explicitly thematize issues such as environmental destruction and climate change, pupils might learn that notions of changing surroundings and atmospheres always play an important part in the setting of literary fiction simply because they pervade human experience.
Given the rather dystopian character of Bradbury’s short story, one may well question its practical usefulness in the context of ecopedagogical practice. Isn't imagining hostile environments the root of “ecophobic” responses to the more-than-human world (cf. Estok 2014, 131)? I will have to leave answering this question for future projects. However, and as I hope to have been able to demonstrate, atmospheric reading experiences allow for immersion and critical reflection rather than anxious encounter with notions of otherness. And educational ecology based on literary reading must therefore include discussions of both fears of the more-than-human world and “delusions about human exceptionalism” (136).
In the context of teaching literary atmospheres with Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day, this means that questioning how fears of nature permeate the contemporary imagination and influence personal as well as political decisions, and the way we perceive - and treat - the more-than-human world must be an integral part of this teaching unit. “Only if we imagine that the planet has a future,” Garrard suggests, “[...] are we likely to take responsibility” (Garrard 2004, 107). This means that our pupils should also be compelled to imagine hopeful future scenarios. In addition to interdisciplinary activities which aim at reviewing and comparing persistent environment-related fears in the atomic era and the present day, pupils could be asked, for instance, to imagine what could have caused and prevented the story’s characters to leave planet earth, or they could be assigned to rewrite a more desirable ending of Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day.
Of course, the list of tasks and activities as presented in this paper is by no means exhaustible and can — or rather should - be extended. What all of these exercises have in common is that they prompt pupils to come into contact with phenomena that tend to elude our attention in a present in which, according to Sara L. Crosby, “horror is becoming the new environmental norm" (Crosby 2014, 514). Literary atmospheres model invisibilities and thus make readers cope with what can be denied, but never escaped. By reinforcing ambiguities, they draw the reader into a co-creative process of world-making, while at the same time demonstrating the limits of readerly and human agency. Things appear less certain, less complete than they were believed to be, which is why literary atmospheres may induce a sense of disorientation and loss. This awareness of our inability to fully access the world, however, may foster a deeper understanding of how deeply enmeshed human beings are with the surrounding world (cf. Morton 2010, 28-30).
It cannot be denied that literary atmospheres’ inherent ambiguity and their volatile position beyond clear-cut subject/object demarcation may be frustrating for scholarly analytical language. However, their suggestiveness and effect are incredibly productive in literary learning contexts: since literary atmospheres stimulate certain affects and associations, their affective agency, as it were, can sensitize pupils for the relational processes which characterize not only literary interpretation, but also our “bodily intra-actions with all forms of material agency as effective actors” (lovino and Oppermann 2012, 88). This is why I argue that the teaching of literary atmospheres represents a way to make pupils experience both the material forces and discursive processes that constitute and are part of ecological reality. It follows a posthumanist ethics that, in the words of Serenella lovino (2012), not only recognizes “the inescapable role of the nonhuman in the making of the human, but also the impossibility of being, acting, and thinking in isolation from the nonhuman” (66). Literary experiences and investigations of atmospheric relationality and ambiguity participate in reshaping pupils’ concept of personhood and offer a welcome opportunity to discover human being’s immersion in creative, ecological processes. In a time in which rapidly transforming environments make it clear that human beings affect as much as they are affected by changes in the global ecosystem, this form of “becoming atmospheric” (Keane 2013, 61) might be just what we need to cultivate an educational ecology after all.