In “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury, one morning in 2026 in an empty house, the voice-clock sings to wake up a family that is not there. The house automatically performs tasks according to the way it is programmed as if the family is still there. The stove makes breakfast that doesn’t get eaten. Robot mice come out of the wall to clean and then return to their burrows. Garden sprinklers turn on, falling gently and run down the side of the house. The house’s paint has burned black except where the silhouettes of the family in the middle of their everyday lives remain. At noon the door opens for a starving dog that used to live in the house. The dog, finding no humans to help it, dies in the parlor and is carried by the cleaner mice to the incinerator. In the children’s nursery, the walls and floors glow with films of moving animals. Mrs. McClellan’s favorite poem is read by the voice in the study. The poem describes the aftermath of a war that completely wipes out mankind, the way nature will go on undisturbed without humans. That night, a tree branch crashes through the kitchen window, knocking a bottle of cleaning solvent onto the stove and starting a fire. The mechanisms of the house fight the fire for hours with chemicals and water but the reserve water supply runs out. Slowly the house burns with all the mechanisms malfunctioning. The house collapses except for one wall that continues to repeat the date, August 5, 2026, as the sun rises.
The story is kept compelling by employing a shifting variety of literary devices. The story world with its reality of both fact and feeling, its internal laws set in stone, draws us in immediately. Every scene is told with spatial omniscience; the narrator exists externally to the events and can zoom in on meaningful and evocative details. These sensory details give definition to the important subtext, the story under the story – what happened to the world to bring the house to this point. For example, the description of the silhouettes on the house’s otherwise charred wall (the woman picking flowers, the “ball that never came down”, etc) not only lets readers infer that this ravaged town is the result of a nuclear holocaust but also shocks us with the vivid description, putting us in that instant before the blast of the explosion that killed the unsuspecting humans. The matter-of-fact tone of a detached observer works to make the scene even more emotionally intense. Another device that makes the story so compelling is the value added through the frequent use of literary symbolism – everything is related to everything. For example, the soft rains in the poem read by the voice in the study is a reflection of “the gentle sprinkler rain” in the garden from earlier; the fact that the poem is about what will happen after humanity is destroyed establishes the fact that humanity has been destroyed in the story world.
Constant personification of the house makes the house and its robot workers make the house seem bustling and full of life, and at the same time, stresses its emptiness.
The pacing of the story, the presentation of the passage of time, is very effective to build a sense of foreboding as the day passes slowly. Knowing the exact time of each event increases the suspense. The house continues, executing tasks mechanically, senselessly, and uselessly, but still right on schedule. The food is cooked, served, untouched, and thrown away. Also, by knowing the routine of this family, readers can infer that before the destruction of humans, the average family of the time was dependent on technology and organized.
Every event leads up to house “dying” that. Bradbury makes the climax of the story very dramatic and vivid through personification of the fire and the house (“ten billion angry sparks moved with flaming ease”, “the house shuddered”, “the stove could be seen making breakfast at a psychotic rate”, “faucet mouths gushing green chemical”, “the fire was clever”) the scene is brought to life, turning readers into witnesses of a battle. Once again the soft rains are mentioned – “the wall sprays let down showers of mechanical rain” – but this time, the rain stops. Ironically, the reserve water supply is gone because all the water has been used to wash dishes that were never eaten off of and fill bathtubs that remained empty. Right before the house collapses, the house’s mechanisms are all working hyperactively at the same time in a rising crescendo like an orchestra led by a mad conductor and then all of a sudden, everything is gone. (This frenzy before death is foreshadowed by the hunger-crazed dog who wildly spins in circles before collapsing.) Dawn breaks, ironically, at that moment, marking an end and a beginning.
From reading this story, I learned that, in order to fully draw readers into the plot I need a believable story world. To do this, to convince readers that this reality is reality, I need to give specific sensory, physical, and psychological details that are compatible with each other. The story also showed me that I could tell the story through an independent narrator to give details that will gradually establish the setting indirectly. I could also use the “calm before the storm” approach that Bradbury takes to make the “storm”, in this case the fire, more unexpected and dramatic in comparison to the mostly uneventful rising action. In this story, the specific times mentioned work to create a false sense of security – just a run-of-the-mill day, following a scheduled routine, an automated system going along like it always has, and then “at ten o’clock the house began to die”. It kind of hits you.
Why this day?
What idea about scientific advances is Bradbury warning us about? Do you agree with his message, why/why not?
How is the last third of the story different from the first two thirds?
Do you feel like the ending was inevitable?