By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Ray Bradbury’s classic short story ‘The Veldt’ (1952) is about a nursery in an automated home in which a simulation of the African veldt is conjured by some children, who have only to ‘think’ the landscape into being for it to appear around them. The lions which appear in the nursery start to feel rather more real than merely ‘simulated’ – and the story ends on a chilling note.
‘The Veldt’ explores a number of key themes. Let’s take a closer look at some of them, with a view to understanding the meaning of Bradbury’s story more clearly.
What ‘The Veldt’ Is About
The story is about a married couple named George and Lydia Hadley, who live in their Happylife Home containing all sorts of automated machinery which performs everyday tasks for them. The children’s nursery features a simulation of the African veldt, but when they step into the nursery they feel as though they actually are in Africa, and the lions on the wall seem real.
They forbid their two children, Wendy and Peter, from playing in the nursery, but the children break into it one night. So George enlists the help of a friend of his, a psychologist, who investigates the room. He advises that George and Lydia destroy the nursery completely. The children aren’t happy about this at all, and when a struggle breaks out, they lock their parents in the nursery.
The story ends with the psychologist talking to the two children, and their parents mysteriously missing from the house. It is implied (for that is all Bradbury gives us) that George and Lydia have been eaten by the lions.
Over-Reliance on Technology.
A recurring theme in many of 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’, the house in which the Hadleys live has effectively become another member of their family. As Lydia observes, it has become ‘wife and mother’ as well as ‘nursemaid’ to their children.
Lydia has effectively talked herself out of a job, rendering herself surplus to her own children’s requirements. Meanwhile, George, their father, is powerless to assert or exert his paternal authority: witness the scene in which he tries unsuccessfully to remove the African scenes from the nursery and his wife is convinced that Peter, a child genius, has changed the settings on the nursery.
Parenting and Children.
At one point during their conversations together, George and Lydia try to figure out why their children would want to turn on them. Haven’t they given Peter and Wendy everything they could possibly want? But George points out that perhaps this is the problem. His proverbial comment comparing children to carpets, because they need to be stepped on occasionally, may be crude, but provides one possible cause for the children’s misbehaviour. Children need discipline and boundaries as well as freedom and indulgence.
George also comments to Lydia that their children come and go to and from the house as they please. Although they’re only ten years old, they act more like independent teenagers: they go out to parties on their own and return when they wish. They have authority over the nursery whereas George and Lydia do not. In many respects, the roles of parent and child have become reversed, or at least severely problematised.
The children are clearly imaginative, but their thoughts are destructive rather than creative, bringing to life their resentments and animosities towards their parents through the lions they summon in that ‘veldt’ – a veldt which is supposed only to feel real, but actually becomes so.
Psychology and the Relation Between the Mind and Its Surroundings.
Psychological perspective becomes important to ‘The Veldt’ from its opening page, where Lydia suggests to her husband that he engage a psychologist to come and examine the nursery. Of course, later in the story they will call upon the professional opinion of a psychologist, who recoils from the nursery in the same way that George and Lydia had.
As Bradbury’s third-person narrator tells us, focalising the story through George’s thoughts, the veldt is conjured out of the children’s minds. They think or imagine the lions and giraffes, and the lions and giraffes appear on the walls of the room. They think about death and death, and carnage, and blood, are summoned. Lydia tells her husband to command the children not to read any more books about Africa: she believes that they are too impressionable and their heads are being filled with the exoticism of far-off lands.
George initially believes that his children are too young for thoughts about death, but he then concludes that you are never too young. Doubtless, Sigmund Freud would agree.
Meanwhile, George and Lydia are positioned very much as the reactors to all this: their children think the lions into being, the nursery displays the lions, and George and Lydia react to their worryingly lifelike presence in the room.
Is ‘The Veldt’, ultimately, a horror story? It certainly ends on a horrific note, albeit with the deaths of the parents happening ‘off stage’, as it were. But is it also not a science fiction story – despite its futuristic setting with its super-house full of all mod cons – but a fantasy, because it contains a supernatural element?
Certainly, Ray Bradbury preferred to view his own work as ‘fantasy’ rather than hard ‘science fiction’, even if much of his work explores the impact of new science and technology on our lives. And given the ‘mechanics’ of the nursery and the way in which people can telepathically alter what it displays, as well as the fact that the lions become real lions, we should probably view Bradbury’s tale as fantastical, because of this supernatural element.
With this in mind, we can link ‘The Veldt’ to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny: that 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.
Uncanny stories often blur the line between what is real and what is fantastical, or what is natural and what supernatural. And the lions and giraffes of the veldt in Bradbury’s story are a prime example of this uncanny theme.