John J. McLaughlin wrote that”much of the bulk of [Bradbury’s] fiction has been concerned with a single theme—the loss of human values to the machine.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bradbury’s collection of stories The Martian Chronicles. In this collection, as Edward Gallagher has pointed out, Bradbury has “dealt with the initial… attempts to successfully establish a footing on Mars,” chronicled “the rise and fall of the Mars colony,” and “linger[ed] on the possible regeneration of the human race after the devastating atomic war.” Bradbury’s story “There Will Come Soft Rains” appears in this last section. Yet, in this particular story there is not one single human character, it takes place in Allendale, California, not on Mars, machines are plentiful, and regeneration seems very close to impossible.
The story portrays the life, or inner workings, of a house, standing “alone in a city of rubble and ashes.” The inhabitants of the house, “their images burned on wood in one titanic instant,” have been eradicated by what one assumes is an atomic blast that makes the “ruined city give off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.” The impersonal house, equipped with more technological conveniences than one could imagine, continues about its routine, oblivious to the devastation around it. The voice-clock sings, announces time and the daily schedule; the robot mice dart to do their cleaning; the nursery hour and jungle patterns continue as if someone were there to enjoy it. The only live being in the house is the “dog, once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores,” who enters mid-story. Here the reader is struck by Bradbury’s ability to place images next to each other that bring us up short. Rather than feeling compassion or sympathy for the animal, the robot mice whir around busily, “angry at having to pick up mud, angry at the inconvenience.” We are reminded that the rodent cleaners are mechanical, that feelings—those highly prized human emotions—do not exist in machines.
Later in the story, as the house burns and “trie[s] to save itself,” mechanical rain and “blind robot faces,” attempt to quench the fire as they were programmed to do. The flurry of activity and the growing fire create a “scene of manic confusion, yet unity.” Each of the technological pieces in the story do their work as people have designed them to do, but all are active at once; even the voice in the library continues to read the poem by Sara Teasdale, the American poet known for her lyrics of love who killed herself in 1933. The attempts of the machines are unsuccessful. The house is reduced to “smoke and silence,” similar to the town which surrounds it. Clearly, technology has lost, but so too has humanity. With the exception of one last mechanical voice, both people and machines have met with doom. But, the story closes as “dawn show[s] faintly in the east,” leaving the reader with a bare modicum of hope that not all is lost.
Sidney Finkelstein wrote that Bradbury should be congratulated for his ability to “show [his] deep honesty [and] courage in making so implicit and unmistakable a criticism of the destructive forces he sees about his own land.” Certainly Bradbury has pictured a place so awful, so replete with destruction, that as readers we want no part of it. We can imagine easily that Bradbury is responding not only to his authorial need to show us how similar our decline can be to the decline of Mars after being settled by earthlings, but also to his horror over the atomic bombing in Hiroshima five years before this story was published. A Catholic priest, present when the bomb exploded wrote of the event: “the crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good that might result?” One can imagine Bradbury echoing those words as he mourns the loss of human values to the ease that the machines create.
Many critics deplore Bradbury’s lack of real scientific knowledge, yet they credit him with making science fiction a credible literary form because of his ability to create powerful images. Some of these same critics consider Bradbury’s work to be surrealistic, a part of a literary tradition that tries to create new images through a startling juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images. As an artistic, philosophical, and literary movement begun in the 1920s, surrealism requires that one suspends his or her logical reason in order to see a reality beyond the surface reality. To accomplish this, Bradbury masterfully weaves in imagery, usually in the form of metaphors or similes which compare two unlike things using the words “like” or “as.”
Critic Sarah-Warner Pell acclaims Bradbury’s imagery for two reasons. She says that its success is found in the fact that “the meaning or associative value [of the simile or metaphor] is the same or nearly the same for all of us,” and that the images “relate to common experiences of mankind.” The images that predominate through “There Will Come Soft Rains” absolutely qualify for those reasons. If we remember that the 1950s was a time when nuclear war and technological progress were feared and air raid drills prepared school children for the worst, the images Bradbury creates in the story are certainly “tied” images that evoke similar meanings to all of us. To substantiate this we need do no more than look at several of the images in “There Will Come Soft Rains.” In fact, when we look at the images he uses, we can also discern a pattern that indicates his preference for nature and beauty over technology and war.
Many of the images in “There Will Come Soft Rains” contain references to nature, but the comparisons are almost always done in a negative way. This is how Bradbury juxtaposes his images to give us a sense of the surreal, to help us see that the superficial reality of technology as beneficial is in fact, something else. The stove that cooks by itself, a miracle we all might want, unfortunately creates “toast that was like stone,” quite unlike the delicately browned, crunchy-outside-and-soft-inside toast a person would make for herself. So, too, the compulsive cleaning mice that clean up the dog’s mud and carcass “hummed out as softly as blown gray leaves in an electrical wind.” Although they do clean and thus save the humans the trouble, they are compared to gray leaves and gray is a color often associated with death. We can see further evidence of Bradbury’s concern that technology will displace humanity and beauty when the wall reaches out to the tables and folds them “like great butterflies.” Again, although a house that can provide for all the needs of it occupants is a wishful thought, we see that beauty in such an environment is compromised. The fire that”feeds upon Picassos and Matisses … like delicacies” and the nerves of the house that are “revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air” do not conjure up pleasant visions. On the contrary, beautiful works of human art are destroyed with apparent pleasure. Even the art of the surgeon is diminished when the Hippocratic oath to prevent and treat disease is ignored. In addition, the gorgeously changing nursery that could provide hours of amusement to the young sounds like nature, but carries a strong menace with its sounds of a “great matted yellow hive of bees … [and] the lazy bumble of a purring lion.” Technology and beauty are at war.
There are however, images that contain no reference to nature. Yet these are predominantly negative also. In these we see machinery being compared to humans whose values have gone awry. We see a house that has an “old-maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia.” Bradbury further paints a picture of the same house and we see it”as an altar with ten thousand attendants … but the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.” There are even dinner dishes “manipulated like magic tricks.” Although magic has the power to enthrall us all, Bradbury startles us by reminding us of the manipulative powers some people hold.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” is a simple story. The chronology is clear; the sentences are simple; the ease of reading is hard to surpass. However, the intensity of the images and the repugnance of the setting make Bradbury’s message indisputable. As Richard Donovan puts it, “Bradbury’s fear is that man’s mechanical aptitudes, his incredible ability to pry into the secrets of the physical universe, may be his fatal flaw.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ray Bradbury, Published by Gale, 1997.
Jennifer Hicks, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.