The Reversal Relationship

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Ray Bradbury has a point to make in his short story “The Veldt.” It is a rather simple and obvious point—Bradbury does not like machines. But the more interesting part of this story is not his dislike of a mechanical world but rather it is Bradbury’s explanation of why he does not look upon a world run by machines as some kind of utopia in which human beings are free to pursue things other than the mundane chores of every day living. Quite contrary to the notion of a utopia, in Bradbury’s view, machines turn the world upside down, ruining human relationships and destroying the minds of children. Instead of leaving time for people to ponder the higher thoughts of spirituality and philosophy, a world run by machines leaves people open to boredom and thoughts riddled with fear, anger, and vengeance. And it is these results that make Bradbury very unhappy.

Bradbury’s husband and wife protagonists, George and Lydia Hadley, live in what Bradbury calls a Happylife Home, a place any person in their right mind would drool over, or at least that is what the Hadleys thought when they plunked down the cash to convert their normal habitat into one they thought would solve all their problems. The house was energy efficient, turning lights off and on when people entered or left a room. The house was soothing, rocking them and their children to sleep at night. The house was nurturing, fixing their meals, dressing them, and keeping their environment as clean as if they had a twenty-four-hour maid. Who could ask for more from a house?

Well, as some people believe, there is no such thing as utopia. And this concept partially forms the foundation of Bradbury’s story. In the least, Bradbury contends that an existence heavily dependent on machines will cause as much strife as it eases. It might be fun to imagine fantastic realities but attempting to put them into play in a material world causes unforeseen hardships or maybe even fatal catastrophes. Something always seems to go wrong.

In the case of Bradbury’s creation, a lot of things go wrong, and the Hadleys’ world is turned on its head. Something is wrong, they suspect, but they do not quite know what it is. What they do know is the heart of this unnamed flaw is located somewhere in the nursery.

The Hadleys are well intended parents who do not let money stand in the way of their children’s happiness. They have installed something that Bradbury has imagined well before its time, a personal virtual reality room, which in turn would provide them with well-balanced, happy little minds. But the Hadley children’s minds, as it turns out, are only happy at their parents’ expense, and the debt involves a lot more than their parents’ money. It takes a while for the Hadleys to realize that something is amiss in the nursery. When George steps into the room one day he suddenly is overwhelmed by the heat. And the lions! They seem so real. Is it possible that the virtual reality machine has converted itself, has moved up a notch closer to being less virtual and more real? And what has happened to George, once ruler and lord of his household? He seems incapable of doing anything to change the course of the foreshadowed disaster that looms in the nursery. Even though he tries to avert a catastrophe and recapture the power that once was his, his attempts come up short. He locks the room and threatens to shut the machine off, but the children overthrow his rule. George is a king dethroned in his own castle.

The children, the narrator informs the reader, have taken over the parental role, whether or not George and Lydia want to face this. They throw tantrums when George locks them out of the nursery. And George, the misguided parent that he is, wants his children to be happy. After all, this is the reason he bought the Happylife Home in the first place. So the tantrums work. George does not want to see his children cry. Tantrums make no one happy. George backs down yet another degree as the children mastermind a plot to ensure total authority over their parents.

Next, in steps fear. Lydia is afraid of the nursery. Those virtual reality lions look like they are ready to pounce on George and Lydia. But then Lydia thinks this thought out again. Maybe she is just growing paranoid. After all, she has so much time to think now that she has less to do around the house. As a matter of fact, it is not that she has less to do, rather she has nothing to do at all. And that is another problem. The Happylife Home has left her with too much leisure. The mechanisms of her Happylife Home were supposed to give Lydia time to relax and have fun. So why does George examine his wife and tell her she looks tired? And why does Lydia say that maybe they need a vacation from this perfect little home? What has happened to their initial concept that this house will alleviate all their burdens?

This house that does everything for them is obviously making their life worse. Surely the Happylife Home keeps their house clean, feeds and cares for them in every way a full range of maids and butlers would, but the Happylife Home has also robbed George and Lydia of something very precious to them—their roles. It has taken away Lydia’s need to be a wife, mother, and nursemaid. This is what her dream was. With the Happylife Home having rid Lydia of these chores, in Lydia’s mind, she has no other reason to exist. The house has also corrupted George’s role as head of household and makes George feel superfluous. This makes George very nervous. He smokes and drinks more than he should and is confused about how to handle his children. Whereas he thought the house would make his son and daughter happy and therefore grateful, they have instead turned into vile and spoiled children. This so-called utopian invention is giving them the opposite of what they want.

On top of this, everyone in the Hadley household appears to be stuck in a rut. Lydia wants the family to run away from the home, but the children will not hear of it. George wants to change the course of their lives, but as soon as the children complain, he reverses his intent. The children, too, seem to be stuck. Or at least, their parents think so. George and Lydia have never known their children to become so involved in one nursery theme for such a long time. Why are they so interested in Africa? And worse yet, why are they so fascinated with death?

In an act of desperation, the parents consult David McClean, the psychologist who understands the virtual reality machine and uses it to evaluate the health of children’s minds. The mechanisms are suppose to clean (as in David’s last name) all the bad parts of a child’s psyche by allowing them to play out their neuroses. But when David walks into the nursery, he immediately senses that something is not right. The room has evolved into something unintended by the psychologists. Instead of alleviating negativity, it has drawn the Hadley children toward destructive thoughts. It has encouraged them to run amuck in childhood alienation. As the Hadleys will soon find out, the children’s anger has actually developed more fully with the help of the virtual reality room, and the Hadley kids have become preoccupied with getting rid of their parents. The good doctor, although he suggests that George and Lydia immediately get rid of the mechanisms in the children’s nursery, points his finger of blame not at the virtual reality diagnostic tool but rather at the parents. They have spoiled their children, he tells them, more than most parents would do. And in many ways, as the Hadleys attempt to rein their children in, they are now disappointing them. The children, David tells them, have replaced their parents with their room. The children believe that their parents are disposable. They have everything they need. As a matter of fact, they could quite easily function much better without mom and dad, or so they think.

Turn it all off, the doctor suggests. And George follows his orders. It is not too late, David says, to save the children. But everyone must go through retraining. It appears that George is finally learning a very important lesson. But Lydia is lagging behind him. The children throw tantrums again, and Lydia suggests that they give the children one more trip to the nursery. George gives in. Anything to keep the children happy. Of course, this is just what the children want. They set the trap, and the parents walk right into it and disappear.

But the story does not end here. The doctor returns to make a visit. He engages the children in their room. They seem content, but not everything looks well. That sun, which represents the children’s anger, is still visible and very hot. And now it is the psychologist’s turn to sweat. In addition, George and Lydia are nowhere to be found. But there is even more going on, things that Bradbury just leaves to the reader’s imagination. Although the children believe that things have once more gone topsy-turvy in their favor as they relish what they imagine to be a new-found freedom, readers might question just how free they are in allowing the nursery to replace their parents. The children sit there in their room in apparent calm, acting as adults as they entertain the doctor and offer him some tea. But what is really to become of them? How long can they pull off this charade? Just how much of a benefactor is this Happylife Home? Will it provide the children with food forever? What is the source of its energy? And more importantly, who will pay the bills? The children may be smart, but it is easy to conclude that they have not thought out all the consequences of their actions. They are, after all, just children. So by the end of Bradbury’s story, the factual reality sets in. Despite all the promises of the mechanical world, Bradbury seems to be saying, machines will never fully replace humans. And in the process of humans making machines to improve the world, people should, unlike the Hadleys, think through their choices and the consequences of those choices.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “The Veldt,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2005.

Bradbury's Use of Literary Devices

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Writing a well-crafted short story is not easy. To be a good short story writer, the writer must know how to use many literary devices. Because the finished piece will not be very long, each word must be carefully chosen to deliver the maximum impact. Edgar Allen Poe, master of the short story, believed that a good short story must provide a “single effect.” In other words, the action of a short story should be concentrated to deliver one strong emotional jolt, especially if that story is dealing with horror, suspense, or terror. Ray Bradbury openly acknowledges that he as a young writer was influenced by Poe, and he always strives to create the single, concentrated effect suggested by Poe. Bradbury masterfully uses similes, metaphors, dialogue, point of view, tone, and many other literary devices to draw the reader in and to heighten the emotional experience. In his story “The Veldt,” for instance, there are many fine examples of how Bradbury uses these literary devices to create a story that is engaging, clever, and shocking.

Bradbury always has a very strong start to his stories, and this is true of “The Veldt” as well. The story opens with the following bit of dialogue:

George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.
What’s wrong with it?
I don’t know.
Well, then.
I just want you to look at it, is all, or call a
psychologist in to look at it.

From these five brief lines the reader learns several things. First, he/she learns that there is a problem with the nursery and that one of the characters is concerned enough about it to ask for a second opinion. Also, through the somewhat unusual request for a psychologist, the reader gets the idea that the problem with the nursery is somehow connected with the human mind, thus raising the possibility that the story is taking place on another planet or during another time far in the future. The opening definitely lets the reader know that something strange is going on here. By dropping bits of provocative information right at the beginning, Bradbury piques the reader’s interest and propels the reader into the story. This opening exchange also clues the reader in to what will become the central problem in the story—the nursery. From these few lines of dialogue, one immediately knows that the nursery is going to somehow be important, and now that Bradbury has accomplished this set-up, he can slowly reveal the strange world of the story bit by bit.

Bradbury often builds his themes around things that should be familiar but that are slightly altered in some way. He uses this idea in “The Veldt.” Many people have an idea of what a nursery is, and they usually picture it as a safe, happy place in which children can play and interact with their caregivers. In this story, however, Bradbury has injected a twist. He has kept the idea of the nursery being a place for play and interaction, but he has replaced the typical caregivers—parents or a nanny—with an inanimate, unfeeling machine. This change becomes the catalyst for all of the disastrous events that take place in “The Veldt.” Because the children have shifted their emotional attachments from their parents to the mechanistic nursery, it becomes both caregiver and an instrument of destruction. The nursery remains a safe, happy place for the children, but it becomes something entirely different for the parents. It becomes a mechanized beast. This tech nique of taking something very familiar and altering it in some way is one that is used by Bradbury consistently. In the volume Voices for the Future, Willis E. McNelly comments upon how Bradbury’s use of this technique provides not only an interesting story, but adds an element of social commentary as well,

He pivots upon an individual, a specific object, or particular act, and then shows it from a different perspective or a new viewpoint. The result can become a striking insight into the ordinary, sometimes an ironic comment on our limited vision.

The atmosphere or ambience in a short story helps to build a reader’s expectations and to set him or her up for the “single effect” that Poe lists as a short story’s desired result. Two literary devices that Bradbury employs to help create a strong atmosphere in his stories, and thus to achieve his desired effect, are similes and metaphors. In his essay “When I was in Kneepants: Ray Bradbury,” Damon Knight calls these similes and metaphors Bradbury’s “trademarks,” and he remarks that the use of these devices is one of the primary features that sets Bradbury apart from other, more traditional science fiction writers. Throughout “The Veldt” there are excellent examples of how Bradbury uses similes and metaphors to help create the ambience in the story. For example, when George is eating dinner and thinking about his recent experience in the nursery, Bradbury uses the phrases, “That sun. He could feel it on his neck, still, like a hot paw.” This simile serves two purposes. Not only does it heighten the description of George’s sensation by making the sun’s heat seem much more tangible, it also foreshadows the ending of the story when George and Lydia are attacked by lions. Bradbury also uses a metaphor effectively near the end of the piece when he has George ask, “Lord, how did we ever get in this house? What prompted us to buy a nightmare?” By using the metaphor of house as nightmare, Bradbury not only conveys the fact that George has become very concerned but also that he still believes everything will turn out all right. After all, a nightmare is only an illusion. Or, at least that’s what George believes.

While reading “The Veldt,” one may notice that there are no very long passages describing what the characters are thinking. Bradbury sometimes provides brief phrases to let the reader know what is going on in a character’s mind, but never more than a few carefully chosen words. This is typical of a well-written short story. Since there is no time for extended descriptions or long discussions, the author’s choice of words must convey as much information as possible quickly and succinctly. As Robin Anne Reid comments in her Ray Bradbury: A Critical Companion, in short stories “more character development occurs through dialogue and description of actions than through in-depth descriptions of characters’ thoughts and emotions.” Bradbury is a master at this technique. He is always economizing and making his descriptive passages and dialogue serve a dual purpose. One fine example of this occurs in the following exchange between George and his son, Peter:

Will you shut off the house sometime soon?

We’re considering it.

I don’t think you’d better consider it any more, Father.

I won’t have any threats from my son!

“Very well.” And Peter strolled off to the nursery.

Here, the reader should notice that, rather than whining or crying when his father says the house might be shut off, Peter very calmly says, “I don’t think you’d better consider it any more, Father.” This well-spoken sentence, coming from a little boy who is upset, clues the reader into the fact that Peter is not your average ten-year-old. The measured, almost overly-subdued tone also conveys a coldness about the child. The reader gets the idea that Peter is a very calculating boy who is well in control of his own emotions. Even the fact that Peter replies with the phrase, “Very well,” rather than saying “okay” provides a clue that this young boy is different than other boys of his age. The word choices convey a subtle creepiness about the boy. Another instance of effective dialogue occurs in the following exchange between George and Lydia:

Those screams—they sound familiar.

Do they?

Yes, awfully.

This is a wonderful instance of foreshadowing, as well as a subtle pun. The phrase, “awfully familiar” usually means extremely familiar. By breaking it up and inserting it into the dialogue in the manner above, however, Bradbury subtly evokes another meaning. Now the screams are not only awfully familiar, but they are also familiar as well as awful.

Bradbury is indeed a skilled writer, who brings together many important literary elements in “The Veldt.” This ability to manipulate and combine words for maximum effect is what has set Bradbury apart from many other short story writers. It is what has cemented Bradbury’s reputation as an important and influential American writer. It is this skill that has also sustained Bradbury’s popularity throughout his long and varied career. In her essay, “Ray Bradbury and the Gothic Tradition,” Hazel Pierce explains the ultimate appeal that Bradbury has had for fans throughout the years. She notes that, while readers admire his imagination and creativity, they also appreciate his artistry. “Devoted readers of Bradbury have long recognized him as a poet in the fullest sense of the word—a maker and doer with words.” Critics and fans alike recognize that Bradbury is a gifted artist who is constantly striving to write the very best story he can. His short stories continue to provide that “single effect” for readers, and they also stand as a fine example for other writers of what can be accomplished if you know how to use the tools correctly. As Damon Knight notes in the essay collection titled Ray Bradbury, “He is a superb craftsman, a man who has a great gift and has spent fifteen years laboriously and with love teaching himself to use it.”

Source: Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on “The Veldt,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2005.

Science Fiction Theatre

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To Ray Bradbury a toaster is an idea encrusted in chrome. A small idea, perhaps—one involving the relationship of heat to bread—but nevertheless an idea. More complex machines such as automobiles, TV sets, computers and missiles conceal ideas of a more complex sort. We are surrounded by these machine-ideas, says Bradbury, and we scarcely give them a thought. Yet they influence our lives more directly than Plato’s forms or Aristotle’s universals ever did.

Bradbury is a man who is seriously concerned with the ideas that machines have woven around us. One of the most prolific and widely read science fiction writers, he has written more than 300 short stories and several novels. Much of the bulk of his fiction has been concerned with a single theme—the loss of human values to the machine. Now Bradbury has brought his message to a new medium, the theatre, and, typically, he has mustered all the resources of imagination, talent and ingenuity available to make the stage speak for him with the effectiveness of the printed page.

“The World of Ray Bradbury,” an evening of three one-act plays, opened in Los Angeles to generally favorable reviews. The appearance of a theatrical company dedicated to producing his own work represents more than dabbling in a new literary form for Bradbury. It is a full commitment to put time, energy and money into the theatre. He has spent $20,000 out of his own pocket, gathered a professional group of actors and stage technicians, and set out to establish a permanent theatre where his plays can be staged for as long as he cares to write them.

Two of the three plays now runing, The Pedestrian and The Veldt, examine the future effects of two of our most proliferating machines: the automobile and the television set. One of the favorite techniques of science fiction writers is to take a contemporary problem and push it to its logical extreme. What happens, for example, when cars and TV sets insinuate themselves increasingly into our lives? Quite simple: no one walks any longer. So The Pedestrian is set in 1990—as are all three of the plays—when it is illegal to be out on the street at night on foot. A nonconformist drags his friend away from his TV set to sample the forbidden fruit: the smell of night air, the sound of crickets, the sight of a jeweled sky, the feel of grass. They are detected by a patrol car, robot driven, speaking in a voice taped by someone long since dead, and the dangerous pedestrian is carted away to a psychiatric center.

In The Veldt, television is pushed to the point where it becomes a “complete environment”—a room where one is surrounded by three-dimensional pictures that reproduce any spot on earth with perfect realism. A man and his wife install such a TV playroom for their children and bustle them off to the room to keep them from under foot. But instead of duplicating the wonders of Egypt, the spectacle of Niagara, or any of the other enticements in the machine’s repertory, the children keep the dial locked on a single ominous scene: an African veldt inhabited by lions that tear flesh from unidentified carcasses. The denouement is not too surprising: the children, psychotic from lack of love, lock their parents in the room, and during a blackout the audience hears them being torn to pieces by lions that have somehow become all too real.

The final play, and in many ways the best of the three, deals with a theme that has concerned Bradbury for some time—mediocrity, and whether or not it has any value. In To the Chicago Abyss Bradbury sings a Whitmanesque song in praise of junk. The action takes place after an atomic holocaust when famine and dearth are so complete that remembering the affluent times of the past is forbidden. But an old man appears who cannot forget and cannot keep from talking. He remembers “the junk of a racetrack civilization”—the cigarette packages, candy bars, the look of the dashboard on a Cadillac, and the sound of the Duncan sisters. He becomes a fugitive who is doomed because “somehow my tongue moves” and he is compelled to recite his catalogues. Roses are nourished by manure, he says, therefore the “mediocre must be, so that most excellent fine can bloom.”

Bradbury buffs will recognize the plots of these plays because all three appeared originally as short stories. There is, of course, nothing new about adapting narrative material to the stage, but in the case of science fiction it presents several difficult problems. As a genre, science fiction combines the plot and moral tone of melodrama with the fantasy of romance, a combination which is a genuine literary novelty. The methods of melodrama are easily accommodated on the stage, but successful fantasy occurs more naturally in narrative fiction where the imagination can create worlds that never were. When fantasy is dramatized, it is usually combined with music, dance and comedy—the worlds of Camelot or Brigadoon are best evoked by the arts of song and dance. Film is much more congenial to science fiction than the stage because special-effects technicians are able to take the most fantastic imaginings of the writer and actually construct them from plastic or plaster-board. In a movie we don’t have to use our imagination—the Martian landscape is there before our eyes.

How is a playwright to place science fiction on the stage? Will a bare stage and an appeal to the audience’s imaginative powers be adequate for a play like The Veldt? Can we believe in such a machine without some hint of what it looks or sounds like? Bradbury’s solution to these problems has been the same as the film maker’s: turn it over to the technician. We are presented with a stunning array of futuristic projections and costumes, control panels with blinking lights, and a persistent sound track that bleeps and hums like a satellite orbiting around the balcony.

All this is done with a professionalism that commands admiration, for Bradbury has assembled a technical staff that includes such top Hollywood special-effects men as John Whitney who did many of the futuristic effects for the New York World’s Fair. The sound is, on at least one occasion, terrifyingly effective: in the final scene of The Veldt where, sitting in the darkness amid horrifying screams, you hear lions about to spring into your lap. But for the most part the technical éclat intrudes upon the play—it becomes gimmicky rather than theatrical, crushing the drama rather than supporting it. The sounds, projections and costumes are attempts to tell us rather than to suggest what the future may be like. They are particularly obtrusive in the final play, To the Chicago Abyss, where Bradbury insists on actually showing the trivia his old man is describing—producing it magically by sleight of hand. The effect is a little like Lady Macbeth doing the sleepwalking scene carrying a bottle of cleaning fluid. This is especially sad, for the play doesn’t need the technical hokum; it is sensitively written and well acted and is quite able to get by on its own dramatic values.

Many of the defects of the three plays can be attributed to the difficulties a playwright is bound to encounter when he creates a theatre for his own work. In Bradbury’s case the complications were compounded by the fact that this was his initial experience in theatrical production and he had to defer to the judgment of the professionals who surrounded him. Yet he was compelled to make the final decisions—it was his money, after all, and he was the producer. Taking into account inexperience, it is not too surprising that the theatrical balance, which one would expect to be weighted toward action and dialogue in a play-wright’s theatre, was instead shifted noisily in the direction of stagecraft.

One of the problems that might have emerged in a theatre company so completely dominated by the playwright never occurred; there was no clash of ego between the author and his professional cast of Equity actors. Bradbury is a man of benign manner but intense loyalty, and he easily won the respect and admiration of his company. His actors, most of whom work in television and films, turned in consistently fine performances. Harold Gould was particularly notable as the memory-plagued survivor in To the Chicago Abyss.

When asked recently whether he would do it the same way again, Bradbury refused to make excuses. “The final decisions were mine and I take full responsibility for what appears on the stage,” he said. He did admit, however, that if he had learned anything from his first attempt to stage his own work it was “to trust the word.” “You’ve got to believe in your own language,” he said. But he is not defensive about his new theatre. “I don’t think much of most of the theatre I see today,” he said. “I’m not interested in writing an Albee play or a Baldwin play because it’s the fashionable thing to do. I’m interested in experimenting with something different and in having fun doing it.”

He intends to run the current program until he recovers his investment and then to produce three more. After that he has three comedies ready. He is also making plans to film the three one-acters now running and there is a possibility that they will be produced off-Broadway.

Bradbury is in an enviable position as a playwright, having made enough money from his writing to subsidize his own company, and prolific enough as a writer to keep it going indefinitely if he chooses. In effect, he has found his own cure for one of the endemic sicknesses of the American theatre: the playwright’s subservience to the profit motive. This independence is made possible, of course, by the fact that he has a large pool of professional actors and technicians to draw from in Los Angeles, but also because he apparently has a ready-made audience of pre-conditioned Ray Bradbury fans anxiously awaiting his latest work for the stage.

He professes not to understand why other established writers with yearnings toward the theatre don’t produce their own plays with their own company. “Why shouldn’t a writer take risks on his own work?” he asks. “I’m not the only writer who saves his money; besides, it doesn’t cost that much. The fun I’m having is well worth it.”

Source: John J. McLaughlin, “Science Fiction Theatre,” in Nation, Vol. 200, No. 4, January 25, 1965, pp. 92–94.

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Critical Overview