Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859
Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder” is a cautionary tale that employs vivid imagery, foreshadowing, varied sentence structures, and other literary elements to enhance the reader’s experience. The parallel structure of the short story has thematic importance; side by side, the events of the present day change as the story of the time travelers advances. These two sub-plots explore a world where the passage of time is not as simple a process as an individual’s daily activities might imply. As Eckels travels back and forward in time, the present day that he leaves behind and to which he returns undergoes changes as dramatic as the ones he personally experiences.
The presence of foreshadowing in the short story is significant. From the very beginning, both Eckels and the reader are made aware of the threat of a “stiff penalty” if Eckels breaks the rules of the Time Safari; Eckels goes as far as to ask if his survival of the experience is guaranteed, and a kernel of doubt is planted when he and the reader find out that it is not, in fact, guaranteed. That a stiff penalty is in place for violations suggests that the risks involved in time travel are weighty and that time travelers have a responsibility to follow the rules; Eckels proves to be untrustworthy, and he ultimately pays for his unreliability with his life.
When Eckels dies at the end of the story, his death does not take place for the reasons a reader might expect when hunting big game. He is not injured or killed while hunting dinosaurs, which seems entirely possible considering the size and power of the creatures and Eckels’s lack of familiarity with the circumstances of the hunt. Rather, Eckels dies at Travis’s hand after he causes irreparable damage to the present day. The manner of Eckels’s death ultimately illuminates the irony of his desperate desire to stay alive at all costs—in running for his life, he accidentally seals his fate. Eckels’s rapid-fire questions in the moments before Travis fires the rifle allows the reader to experience his rising desperation as he realizes death is imminent:
Can't we take it back, can't we make it alive again? Can't we start over? Can't we—
Bradbury makes effective use of descriptive language and dialogue to quickly bring the reader into the world of the story. When describing the prehistoric jungle, Bradbury employs vivid, descriptive language that enables the natural environment and the characters within it to come to life. The terseness of the dialogue contrasts with the florid descriptions of the landscape and situation; even when Travis speaks at length in response to Eckels’s questions about time travel, he speaks clearly, using a firm tone of voice that lends him a stern air of authority. Lesperance’s dialogue, too, reveals his role in the story, and his precise and confident manner of speaking emphasizes the scientific authority he brings to their mission.
The short story, published in 1952 in an issue of Collier’s magazine, captures the anxious mood that was prevalent in America at this time in history. Throughout the story, allusions to American capitalistic society appear alongside mentions of a general fear regarding the possibility of an authoritarian leader. As a result of the Cold War, which began in the late 1940s, Americans were increasingly preoccupied with the threat of nuclear war and the rise of authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the American advertising industry was entering a golden age, and splashy marketing ploys stoked American anxieties about nearly every aspect of daily life, promising that consumer products could...
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help individuals resolve any number of issues, from diet to personal hygiene to protecting one’s family in the case of a nuclear bomb. The capitalization of the “Path” and the “Time Machine” in the story marks them as proper nouns, suggesting that Time Safari, Inc., has proprietary rights over the branding of these products. In fact, it is implied that the company's exquisitely persuasive marketing language is precisely what captured Eckels’s imagination in the first place, leading him to the office of Time Safari, Inc., with a check for a large sum of money:
Eckels remembered the wording in the advertisements to the letter. Out of chars and ashes, out of dust and coals, like golden salamanders, the old years, the green years, might leap; roses sweeten the air, white hair turn Irishblack, wrinkles vanish; all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits into hats, all and everything returning to the fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before the beginning. A touch of a hand might do it, the merest touch of a hand.
Ultimately, both the specter of the Cold War and the internal anxieties planted by burgeoning American consumer culture make for a latent message that the present may be just as dangerous for humans as the past.