By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ is, like many stories Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) wrote in the early 1950s, haunted by the fear of nuclear war. Sometimes known by the slightly longer title, ‘August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains’, the story appeared in Bradbury’s 1951 collection The Martian Chronicles and remains one of his best-known and most widely studied short stories.
The story is set in a house in 2026, when nuclear war has annihilated human life. However, the technological devices in the house, such as the mechanical clock and dishwasher, continue to perform their daily automated duties, until they, too, are overwhelmed and destroyed by the forces of nature.
‘There Will Come Soft Rains’: plot summary
The setting of the story is a house in the year 2026. A clock announces the date, August 4, 2026, and tells the members of the house that it is time to wake up. However, there are no signs of human activity, or even habitation, within the house.
The various contraptions in the house continue to prepare everything for the day, but the humans these machines are designed to ‘serve’ don’t show up. Machines in the kitchen prepare eggs and toast for breakfast, but the food goes untouched, and is poured down a waste-disposal unit, with the dirty plates being washed by an automated washer. Tiny robotic mice appear out of the wall and clean the house.
At noon, the family dog returns and the automated front door recognises the sound of its whine and opens to let it inside. It is shivering, emaciated, and covered in sores: although it’s not stated, it’s implied that this is a result of the nuclear attack which killed the dog’s owners. The dog traipses mud into the house, and the robotic mice promptly clean up after him. The debris is then deposited in an incinerator which the narrator likens to ‘evil Baal’, a ‘false god’ from the Bible.
In the afternoon, the automated devices in the house continue to prepare things for its owners, but there are still no humans in sight: the cards laid out for a game remain untouched and are cleared away. A robotic voice reads a poem chosen at random (something it does every day for the mother of the family): today, the poem is Sara Teasdale’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, a poem about ‘wartime’ which describes what the world would be like if ‘mankind perished utterly’: in summary, nature would not care and the world would carry on.
Next, a wind gets up and causes a fire in the house. The house responds by turning on water sprinklers to douse the fire, but this fails to put the fire out. The house is destroyed and the technology in it fails, with only the mechanical voice which opened the story ‘surviving’ to announce, the next morning, the new date of August 5, 2026, over and over again.
‘There Will Come Soft Rains’: analysis
‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ takes its title from Teasdale’s poem, which was written during the First World War of 1914-18: the first mass industrial war. By 1951, when Bradbury borrowed Teasdale’s title for his story, technology had made war on an even vaster and more destructive scale possible, as the bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had shown in 1945.
This is the main theme of Bradbury’s story: nuclear annihilation. But there are several grim ironies which Bradbury explores and reveals in ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’. First, the technology in the story, all of the robotic mice and mechanical labour-saving devices, are part and parcel will the technological and scientific ‘progress’ which led to the development of the atomic bomb. Bradbury is inviting us to ask whether technological progress is in itself a good thing: instead, much comes down to how it is used by humans.
Second, the technological aids which fill the house were powerless to protect the house’s inhabitants from a horrible death in the nuclear blast. The robotic mice may continue to clean and the clock persist in announcing the date and time, but this is just a reminder of the emptiness which otherwise fills the house which was designed for human habitation.
This makes all of these technological developments almost laughably pathetic when some other scientific breakthrough – nuclear fission – can make it possible for humans to wipe each other from the face of the earth. Having a mechanised voice read you a poem every evening is a small consolation for the prospect of a nuclear winter.
Finally, and perhaps most poetically of all, there is the dark irony which Bradbury took from Teasdale’s poem, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’. Even the most powerful man-made device of them all, the atom bomb, is dwarfed by the hardy persistence of nature. All it takes is a gust of wind to start a fire, and these two natural phenomena succeed in wiping out all of the remaining technology with the (again, almost grimly comical) voice of the mechanical clock announcing the new day.
With this in mind, Bradbury’s story might be productively compared – in a sort of comparative analysis – with the Wallace Stevens poem, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’, which was published fifteen years before Bradbury’s story but which also offers a post-apocalyptic landscape (specifically, one written, like Bradbury’s from an American perspective) in which mankind has been forgotten and nature goes on.
It’s worth remembering that the United States of the 1950s was, for many, a time of great optimism: America had helped the Allies to win the war in 1945, and, particularly for middle-class America, this was an era of great hope and prosperity.
But it was also a time when the Cold War between the US and the USSR was starting to worry the authorities: the 1950s was the decade of Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts, and Americans were only too aware that their victory in the recent world war had largely been made possible by unleashing a dangerous new weapon upon their enemies. What would happen if the Soviet Union developed, and then launched, atomic bombs on America?
Of course, in an era in which our houses are filled with voice-activated technology, security cameras, electric dishwashers, broadband, and the rest of it (and living, lest we forget, in an age dangerously close to the year in which Bradbury’s story is set, 2026), Bradbury’s vision of a home dominated by such technology has largely come true. It was the architect Le Corbusier who declared that a house is ‘a machine for living in’, but in Bradbury’s story the machine has been stripped of its life.
All of the technology mimics human activity in some way: the clock mimics human speech, and the mechanical mice (almost like something out of a fairy tale or Tchaikovsky ballet) mimic human cleaners.
Bradbury also uses a number of similes and metaphors which describe the house as a human body of sorts: he describes the house as having a ‘paranoia’ which is ‘old-maidenly’ in its nature, and he refers to the ‘nerves’, ‘veins’, and ‘capillaries’ of the house, as if it were a vast living organism itself.
The irony should not be lost on us: the simile is there to point up the ironic distance between the technological house and the recently destroyed humans for whom it was built. However, what does unite the house with its former occupants is that both will ultimately be destroyed by forces greater than themselves.
Bradbury’s reference to the incinerator, which he likens, in another simile, to ‘evil Baal’, is also revealing on several levels. The vent of the contraption is described as ‘sighing’: yet another sign of the house’s imitation of human behaviour. But Baal was a false god worshipped by people in the Old Testament. Bradbury’s point is obvious: like Baal, this incinerator – and, by extension, all technology – is a false god or idol which we worship at our peril.
The fact that the machine so described is an incinerator, something which destroys things by fire, both looks back to the nuclear fire which destroyed the family of the house but also prefigures the burning up of the house in the conflagration at the end of the story.
If we recall that Baal also features as a character in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), in which he is a close associate of Satan in (fiery) hell, we realise that, whilst Bradbury’s story is not overtly religious, he is drawing on such Christian associations in order to suggest the hell, not just of nuclear war, but also a world overly reliant on technology at the cost of human life.