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A Sound of Thunder

by Ray Bradbury

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"A Sound of Thunder" Themes

The main themes in "A Sound of Thunder" are the dangers of technology, the preservation of nature, and the nature of time.

  • The dangers of technology: The events of the story suggest that it's impossible for humans to fully negate the risks associated with new technologies.
  • The preservation of nature: The butterfly's death and the drastic consequences that follow illustrate the importance of respecting the natural balance of the world.
  • The nature of time: By highlighting the similarities between contemporary America and the futuristic America of the time travelers, Bradbury underscores the connection between the past and the present.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Dangers of Technology

Bradbury’s short story takes place in an unnamed location in America some time beyond the year 2055. In this futuristic world, advancements in technology now enable humans to travel back in time, but when a technology-assisted expedition back to a prehistoric time goes wrong, the consequences are dire. Unfolding through the perspective of the time travelers who observe the changed world to which they return, this short story functions as a warning, cautioning readers to be wary of technology that enables them to do too much.

In Bradbury’s story, when man-made technological advancements—like the Time Machine and the Path—tamper with natural order, the outcomes are disastrous. Upon the time travelers’ return, they discover that society has been irreparably changed as a result of their actions: language, and perhaps even literacy itself, has been compromised, and Americans are no longer governed by a democracy. Though the leaders of Time Safari, Inc., have taken steps to protect the natural world from their new technologies, their efforts have backfired, suggesting that our ability to control the dangers of new technologies is inherently limited.

The Path, which uses anti-gravity metal to float above the ground, appears to be a reasonable technological innovation, designed to negate the risk of leaving a mark on the past. It provides the hunters with a way to walk through the prehistoric jungle while minimizing their effect on their surroundings. The technology of the Path, however, works only when the people using it respect its role and intentions, and ultimately, the Path gives Travis and Lesperance a false sense of confidence in Eckels. They believe that he is capable of staying on the Path simply because they instructed him to do so, and they seem unconcerned by the fact that the technology of the Path depends on the perfect compliance of imperfect humans. As Eckels vividly illustrates through his blunder, even the most advanced technology can be abused and misused by humans.

The Preservation of Nature

Bradbury employs a reverential tone in the language he uses to describe the prehistoric jungle, presenting nature itself as a power that deserves the respect of humans, and as the Tyrannosaurus Rex emerges from the jungle, Bradbury’s vivid imagery conveys the beauty, strength, and fearsome presence of this now-extinct predator.

Against the backdrop of pristine and reverential nature imagery, the human characters in the story perform terrible deeds. Travis cautions Eckels to follow the rules of the Time Safari in order to protect the natural processes at work. Travis and Lesperance may initially appear to be stewards of nature, given their careful approach to time travel and their apparent awareness of the risks involved in traveling back to prehistoric times. In reality, however, the leaders of the safari contribute directly to a corrupt system that puts nature at risk by facilitating the trips in the first place. Their emphasis on following the rules stems not from some altruistic motive, but from their desire for their employer, Time Safari, Inc., to be allowed to continue to operate. Indeed, when he discovers Eckels has ventured off the Path, Travis's first thought is not for nature but for the company:

He ran off the Path. That ruins us! We'll forfeit! Thousands of dollars of insurance! We guarantee no one leaves the Path. He left it. Oh, the fool! I'll have to report to the government. They might revoke our license to travel. 

Travis even admits that Time Safari, Inc., has to pay bribes in order to carry on their work, perhaps because the ethical implications for nature and mankind are so serious.

When he finds himself in the prehistoric jungle, Eckels grows panicked and clumsy, and he inadvertently tests Travis’s theories about what happens when humans leave even a small mark on the past, proving that one single careless gesture can have terrible consequences. The crushed butterfly on the bottom of Eckels’s boots represents nature, while Eckels himself seems to represent all of mankind. Together, they illustrate the potential havoc humans can wreak by recklessly meddling with the balance of nature.

The Nature of Time

In part because this short story is a work of science fiction (though it can also be classified as speculative fiction), it examines time from a futuristic perspective. The story invites the reader to imagine that someday in the future, time travel will be possible without any ill effects on the present day—so long as time travelers respect the established rules of time travel.

Bradbury creates a universe in which the passage of time is no longer limited to the steady forward movement familiar to readers; time travel enables the hunters and their trip leaders to move backwards and forwards through time, venturing into the past and back to the present again. The passage of time is indicated as centuries flash past the time travelers in the Time Machine. One hundred years or more pass as the reader’s eye moves on to the next word in a sentence in the story. In this way, the reader experiences the disorienting effect of time travel alongside the actual time travelers in the Time Machine; in a mere fraction of second, with the blink of an eye, decades and centuries pass.

The social issues that seem to haunt the future Americans of Bradbury’s story are strikingly similar to the issues that worried Americans in Bradbury’s day: the rise of authoritarianism, the dangers of unrestrained capitalism, and the increasing influence of consumerism and marketing. Though the depiction of time travel and other exciting technologies suggests that this future is an extraordinary place, allusions to these issues suggest that perhaps this future society isn’t all that different from our own. In drawing clear parallels between the issues that face this futuristic America and the concerns facing Americans in the 1950s (when the story was published), Bradbury reiterates the lesson that the time travelers themselves learn: the present is always directly connected to the past.

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