Acceptance is one of the two primary themes in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Much of the story directly revolves around this central theme of accepting life as it is without attempting to change it, and acceptances plays a pivotal role in the novel's climax.
In the novel, three different characters have difficulty accepting the realities and inevitabilities of their lives: Charles, Jim, and Miss Foley. All three wage battle against their ages: Charles and Miss Foley feel old and wish they were younger; Jim is frustrated by the limitations of his youth and wishes he were older. None can accept the fact that age is not something you can change. When the carousel arrives, promising them control over their ages, all three are severely tempted.
Charles begins the story with an acute sorrow that his old age (he is fifty-four years old) has left him with reduced mobility and a lack of energy. He wishes he could play catch with his son, and watches with envy as Will and Jim run carefree across town. These are days and sensations that Charles wants back. Eventually, he achieves two levels of acceptance - first, an acceptance of the abstract idea of Death, which occurs when he laughs at the Dust Witch, and second, an acceptance of the process of aging, which occurs in the Mirror Maze - which allow him to move past his regrets and accept his fate.
Miss Foley, on the other hand, is not able to acheive acceptance. Her desire to be young again causes her to ride the carousel backwards, leaving her a sad and lonely little girl. She then agrees to a period of indentured servitude as a "carnival freak" in exchange for help. It seems that this is how all of the carnival members began - as people who couldn't accept the natural unhappiness of life, and so took on the greater unhappiness of defying fate.
Jim's struggle with acceptance is not so clear-cut as that of the adults. He desires the knowledge and wisdom that he feels will come with age, and is able to accept, to some degree, that the carousel will not give him such knowledge. It will age him physically but will leave him emotionally the same. If Jim accepts anything, then, it is the fact that he must go through the process of aging in order to achieve the wisdom that will come in time; he cannot "cheat" and skip years to gain wisdom. At the same time, Jim finds the carousel ultimately irresistable as he hitches a ride at the novel's climax. Jim thus captures the never-ending quality of the struggle to resist one's condition in life. As Charles says, though the carnival is gone at the end of the book, it will return tomorrow. He means that even without the actual, physical carnival, the temptations that it represents will remain. Jim, more than any other character, illustrates the need to continually renew acceptance of one's fate, to resist the carnival in all of its guises, if one wants to avoid the hopelessness of Ms. Foley's fate.
Coming of Age
Something Wicked This Way Comes is in many ways a classic coming-of-age novel. It addresses two boys on the cusp of adulthood, Will and Jim, who, as the Prologue says, will "grow up overnight." The process of growing up is both physical and emotional. Both boys physically age on the carousel. More importantly, though, they also grow in maturity.
Will's move toward maturity is more striking than his friend's. While he begins the novel with an innocent and cautious personality, by the end he has become assertive. He resists Jim's "leader" role in their friendship and also exhibits greater decision-making abilities than his friend. He also demonstrates greater compassion, a hallmark of wisdom. Jim's coming-of-age is more complicated than Will's. He begins the novel with a sense of brash self-knowledge that, he eventually learns, is untenable in the complexity of life. Whereas Will grows more assertive with maturity, Jim finds that he needs to grow less cocksure and to reflect upon the nature of the things he desires, knowledge and age. Through these two friends, Bradbury illustrates the paradox of coming-of-age: one must balance self-assertion and confidence with temperance and restraint. Only in negotiating these extremes, as Will seems to do at the novel's end and as Jim struggles to do as well, can one move from childhood to adulthood.
Good and Evil Knowledge
As in so much literature of the Western tradition, the concept of knowledge in Something Wicked This Way Comes can be divided into two parts: knowledge of good and knowledge of evil. This division echoes the Eden story, the first tale of lost innocence, where Adam and Eve gained moral knowledge upon biting into the apple that grew on the tree of knowledge. Similarly, the characters in Something Wicked are tempted, succumb to temptation (to greater or lesser degrees) and emerge from the story with increased knowledge.
Jim, at the novel's beginning, has already accepted the evil of the world. He accepts human mortality and promises never to have children, as they would just suffer and die like all other mortals. When the mysterious events of the carnival leave Jim confused, he decides that his ignorance of those events is tied to his age and determines to grow older in order to increase his knowledge. This naive view of the relationship between aging and wisdom demonstrates that Jim's supposed knowledge at the beginning of the story is really a smokescreen for his ignorance. Jim talks big but he fails to connect knowledge to experience. As the novel progresses, he has to redefine his knowledge of knowledge, so to speak, to include concepts of good, patience, and fate.
Will, on the other hand, is a more classic example of an innocent who gains knowledge of evil. He is Jim's complementary opposite. Whereas Jim begins the book with a store of morbid cynicism, Will begins the book with patience, modesty and acceptance; and whereas Jim must learn the knowledge Will already has, so too Will must encounter evil. He is reluctant to do so, preferring to look away at the dreadful things that he and Jim see while Jim stares with fascination, but eventually he is able to face his fears and accept the darkness in humanity without flinching.
Charles is another interesting character in terms of the knowledge theme. To some degree, he regrets the knowledge that he has, preferring to return to the innocence of his youth. This desire for innocence is just as vain as Jim's desire for knowledge, and both must learn to accept their places in the aging process. Thus to some degree, like Jim, Charles gains knowledge about the nature of knowledge. At the same time, though, Charles displays a great deal of knowledge, even providing the definitive statement on the subject: "Really knowing is good. Not knowing, or refusing to know, is bad, or amoral at least.... You can't act if you don't know. Acting without knowing takes you right off the cliff." He invites the boys to balance a knowledge of the world as it is, for good or evil -- "really knowing" -- with patient action. Thus Bradbury suggests that true knowledge consists in the balance between clear-sightedness and moral responsibility, combining knowledge of good and evil.
Innocence complements knowledge. Innocence is, after, an absence of knowledge. According to Charles in Chapter 3, Will's innocence will always leave him shocked by the bad things in the world, and will always leave him looking for an explanation. Jim, on the other hand, already knows that there is evil in the world, and he doesn't ask "why?" Indeed, the dichotomy of innocence and knowledge is one the principal characteristics that distinguish Jim's and Will's respective personalities. It is also one of the principal sources of tension between the two boys early in the novel, as Jim's unquenchable thirst for knowledge conflicts with Will's innocence and caution.
However, as the story progresses, this contrast becomes less and less important. The reason for this is that as the strange and shattering events add up, Will gradually begins to lose the innocence that once dominated his personality. Where he once allowed himself to be swept up in Jim's impulses, he eventually begins to resist Jim's wild search for knowledge, asserting himself, starting arguments, and even fighting, to stop Jim from what he feels to be a series of mistakes. He also begins to take specific decisive actions. Evidence of this is everywhere. The first of these is his decision to follow Jim when he sneaks out of the window alone at night to visit Mr. Cooger at Miss Foley's house. A second decisive action is his decision to turn himself into the police when they are framed for robbery. And a third decisive action is his decision to shoot down the Dust Witch's balloon with his bow and arrow set.
Thus, by the novel's end, the simple dichotomy of innocence and knowledge that we started with is not so simple: Jim's recklessness and cynicism is not necessarily knowledge, even if he says it is; and Will's caution is an essential part of knowledge. Both boys, then, have innocence to lose at the beginning of the book. Jim must lose his innocent understanding of knowledge and his naive rashness, and Will must confront the evil in the world. At the end of the novel, one could plausibly argue that Will's escape from innocence is in fact more complete than Jim's.
Fear of Death
The fear of death is the food on which the carnival feeds. It is this fear -- as expressed in the aging process -- that invites both Charles and Miss Foley to ride backwards on the carousel. Moreover, the abstract fear of death drives the curiosity of the boys as they come to terms with human mortality. Charles ultimately disables the carnival when he comes to an understanding of the nature of death, and acts upon that understanding, rejecting fear in favor of acceptance.
Jim expresses his fear of death in a guarded way, such as in his determination never to have children, as they will only suffer and die. He pretends to engage and acknowledge death, but his form of acknowledgement is really a capitulation to fear: that is, he allows his fear of death to limit his future plans.
The adults, Miss Foley and Charles, experience fear of death more concretely, as they are caught up in the aging process. The carnival foments fear of death, showing people what they will look like years in the future in its eerie mirrors, thus inviting them to fear the approach of death. This in turn tempts them to ride the carousel.
While Miss Foley gives in to this fear, Charles has more of a sense of the nature of death. He realizes that our fear of death is a fear of "Nothing," of nonexistence, which always seems terrifying because it is unknowable. But rather than cower in the face of this unknowable, Charles chooses the opposite reaction: to laugh. He laughs in the face of the Dust Witch and in the Mirror Maze, smashing the spell of the carnival. He sees clearly that to fear death is to fear Nothing, and what's the sense in fearing Nothing? There is nothing we can do about Nothing, so to speak, so why cower? Laugh instead.
Love and Common Cause
Why is it that we should laugh in the face of death, as Charles and Will are able to do on several occasions towards the end of the novel? Because if you live life constantly crippled by the fear of death, you will miss out on so many other amazing things that life has to offer. Jim touches on this idea when he tells his mother that he won't have any children because they will eventually die. Chief among the things that you will miss through a fear of death is the love of those around you. Common Cause, according to Charles, is at the foundation of all love.
Bradbury suggests through his characters that our common struggle against fear of inevitable death, and our common ability to choose to laugh or cry in the face of this fear, binds us together and makes love possible. We are all on this earth together, and therefore have a great "common cause against the night" as well as countless smaller empathies and memories and emotions. Without this common cause, it is impossible to care for others. Charles posits that if a stranger is shot in the street, you would hardly move to help. But, on the other hand, if you had just spent ten minutes with that person, "you might just jump in front of the killer and try to stop it."
Love plays a significant role in allowing Charles to eventually defeat the carnival. The turning point here is his first heart-to-heart conversation with his son after they return from the police station. Before this conversation, Charles is depressed and alone. Even his relationship with his own son is a source of his despair. He felt that they had nothing in common, and Will's youth contrasts with his own old age. This conversation marks a breakthrough in their relationship. From this point on, they are partners in the fight against the carnival: they have a common struggle against fear of death, and through this commonality they build love and, ultimately, triumph.
Something Wicked This Way Comes Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Something Wicked This Way Comes is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
And it was wild and crazy and the floor sank away beneath for there was the pink shiny Hallowe'en mask of a small pretty boy's face, but almost as if holes were cut where the eyes of Mr Cooger shone out, old, old, eyes as bright as...
I think he means well and does the best he can. Like Jim, he is drawn to the carnival and the promise of the age-altering carnival. Charles, however, wants to ride the carousel backwards. As the story progresses, Charles develops a closer...