By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Veldt’ is a short story by the American author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), included in his 1952 collection of linked tales, The Illustrated Man. The story concerns a nursery in an automated home in which a simulation of the African veldt is conjured by some children, but the lions which appear in the nursery start to feel very real. ‘The Veldt’ can be analysed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, especially when it threatens the relationship between parents and their children.
‘The Veldt’: plot summary
Married couple George and Lydia Hadley live in their Happylife Home which has all sorts of automated machinery to do everything for them around the house. The story begins with Lydia telling George to go and look at their nursery, as it is different from how it was. When they both step inside the nursery together, the simulated African veldt, complete with the smell, sight, and sound of lions and other animals, seems more real than it had before. George can feel the hot sun on his face as though he’s actually in Africa.
In light of their unsettlingly real experience in the nursery, Lydia insists that George lock the nursery for a few days so their children, Wendy and Peter, cannot play in there. Lydia even suggests shutting down the house for a few days so that she can do the housework, instead of letting the automated machinery do it for them.
That evening, during dinner, George feels the urge to go into the nursery and examine it. All you have to do to make animals appear is to imagine them and they are conjured before you as if they’re really there. George tries to summon Aladdin and his magic lamp, but instead the lions that he has imagined into being remain standing before him.
Lydia suggests that their children have filled the room with so many thoughts of Africa and death that the room’s ‘settings’ have got stuck on that mode.
When their children, Peter and Wendy, get home from their party, George demands to know what they have done to the nursery. But the children deny that the room is like Africa, and when George goes to investigate with them, sure enough the room is instead a beautiful forest, with no lions. However, George does locate an old wallet of his, which has apparently been chewed by a lion.
George tells his wife he regrets buying them the nursery, but his wife tells him it was designed to help them work through their neuroses. That night, they hear screams from downstairs and realise the children have broken into the nursery. When George suggests that they shut down the whole house for a month, Peter recoils at the idea.
George invites their friend David McClean, a psychologist, to come and inspect the nursery. David is so repulsed by the nursery that he advises George to tear the room down and send his children to him for daily treatment over the next year so they can recover.
He tells George that the nursery has gone from being a space where children’s thoughts would be captured on the walls so they could be analysed to a room which encourages destructive thoughts within the children.
George switches off the nursery, much to the anger of the children; even Lydia asks him to turn it back on for a short while. But instead he goes around the house and switches off all of the machinery.
In retaliation, the children lock their parents inside the nursery and switch it back on. As the lions advance on them, they realise the animals have become real. They scream, and recognise that the screaming they’d heard before were their own screams, which the children had longed to hear.
The story ends with David McClean arriving to speak to the children. Wendy and Peter, who are drinking tea while seated in the nursery, which is now displaying a serene scene, tell him their parents will be here soon. But the vultures flying overhead suggest that the parents have been devoured by the lions.
‘The Veldt’: analysis
A recurring theme in Ray Bradbury’s short stories is the danger of becoming overly reliant on technology so that we lose touch with what makes us human.
In ‘The Veldt’, handing over the job of parenting to the house has fatal consequences for George and Lydia, whose house provides all the ‘creature comforts’ they could desire, but at the cost of the natural, innate bond between parent and child. As the psychologist tells them, the house has replaced the parents in their children’s affections. When they surrendered that bond with their children and handed it over to the house, they created a monster.
In this respect, a comparative analysis of ‘The Veldt’ alongside another of Bradbury’s most celebrated stories, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, could yield some productive commentary on Bradbury’s attitude to technology and the ways in which it threatens our bonds with each other.
In that story, a fully automated house is left deserted, making breakfast for its human inhabitants who have perished in a nuclear war. In ‘The Veldt’, the human destruction is on a more local, domestic scale, but it is similarly a result of our reliance on technology.
In terms of raising children, this issue also carries other implications. Wendy and Peter are clearly named after the characters from J. M. Barrie’s celebrated story for children, Peter Pan, but the naming turns out to be ironic, since Peter Pan was a boy blessed with (condemned to?) perpetual childhood, ‘the boy who would never grow up’, whereas Bradbury’s Peter has already grown up too quickly.
As George comments to his wife, their children come and go as they please, head out to parties on their own and return when they wish: in many respects, the roles of parent and child have become reversed.
But they have also lost the boundless creativity which, Bradbury would doubtless agree, should be fostered in children from a young age. When they are creative and imaginative, their thoughts are destructive rather than creative, bringing to life their animosities towards their parents in a weird and unsettling twisting of the idea of ‘play’.
The nursery – which should, as the psychologist comments, be a space where they paint their thought-pictures upon its walls – has become a room of destruction and death. In a telling remark to his father, Peter objects to the shutting down of the house’s automated features because, rather than learning to paint for himself – a symbol of human creativity – he wants to do nothing except ‘look and listen and smell; what else is there to do?’
Bradbury clearly had a deep unease about such willing passivity: see his short story ‘The Pedestrian’, in which a whole city has happily surrendered its activity in favour of staying indoors every evening and passively consuming hours of television. And such anxieties obviously feed into Fahrenheit 451, in which books are banned not because of what they say, but because of what they represent: free expression and critical thinking rather than passive consumerism.
‘The Veldt’ might be analysed in terms of the uncanny, Sigmund Freud’s theory of the strange feeling we experience when we find the familiar within the unfamiliar, or the unfamiliar lurking within the familiar. One of the classic examples which Freud cites is the idea of inanimate objects coming to life, such as dolls, or the carved crocodiles on a table which start to move.
The lions in the nursery are clearly uncanny in that they are meant to be simulations but suddenly, somehow, become flesh-and-blood creatures, with devastating consequences for the parents in the story. Bradbury’s skill is in tapping into our fears of uncanny phenomena in order to deliver a ghastly cautionary tale about our relationship with technology.