The Veldt: Notes No. 6


Writing a well-crafted short story is not easy. To be a good short story writer, the writer must know how to use many literary devices. Because the finished piece will not be very long, each word must be carefully chosen to deliver the maximum impact. Edgar Allen Poe, master of the short story, believed that a good short story must provide a “single effect.” In other words, the action of a short story should be concentrated to deliver one strong emotional jolt, especially if that story is dealing with horror, suspense, or terror. Ray Bradbury openly acknowledges that he as a young writer was influenced by Poe, and he always strives to create the single, concentrated effect suggested by Poe. Bradbury masterfully uses similes, metaphors, dialogue, point of view, tone, and many other literary devices to draw the reader in and to heighten the emotional experience. In his story “The Veldt,” for instance, there are many fine examples of how Bradbury uses these literary devices to create a story that is engaging, clever, and shocking.

Bradbury always has a very strong start to his stories, and this is true of “The Veldt” as well. The story opens with the following bit of dialogue:

George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.

What’s wrong with it?

I don’t know.

Well, then.

I just want you to look at it, is all, or call a psychologist in to look at it.

From these five brief lines the reader learns several things. First, he/she learns that there is a problem with the nursery and that one of the characters is concerned enough about it to ask for a second opinion. Also, through the somewhat unusual request for a psychologist, the reader gets the idea that the problem with the nursery is somehow connected with the human mind, thus raising the possibility that the story is taking place on another planet or during another time far in the future. The opening definitely lets the reader know that something strange is going on here. By dropping bits of provocative information right at the beginning, Bradbury piques the reader’s interest and propels the reader into the story. This opening exchange also clues the reader in to what will become the central problem in the story — the nursery. From these few lines of dialogue, one immediately knows that the nursery is going to somehow be important, and now that Bradbury has accomplished this set-up, he can slowly reveal the strange world of the story bit by bit.

Bradbury often builds his themes around things that should be familiar but that are slightly altered in some way. He uses this idea in “The Veldt.” Many people have an idea of what a nursery is, and they usually picture it as a safe, happy place in which children can play and interact with their caregivers. In this story, however, Bradbury has injected a twist. He has kept the idea of the nursery being a place for play and interaction, but he has replaced the typical caregivers — parents or a nanny — with an inanimate, unfeeling machine. This change becomes the catalyst for all of the disastrous events that take place in “The Veldt.” Because the children have shifted their emotional attachments from their parents to the mechanistic nursery, it becomes both caregiver and an instrument of destruction. The nursery remains a safe, happy place for the children, but it becomes something entirely different for the parents. It becomes a mechanized beast. This technique of taking something very familiar and altering it in some way is one that is used by Bradbury consistently. In the volume Voices for the Future, Willis E. McNelly comments upon how Bradbury’s use of this technique provides not only an interesting story, but adds an element of social commentary as well.

He pivots upon an individual, a specific object, or particular act, and then shows it from a different perspective or a new viewpoint. The result can become a striking insight into the ordinary, sometimes an ironic comment on our limited vision.

The atmosphere or ambience in a short story helps to build a reader’s expectations and to set him or her up for the “single effect” that Poe lists as a short story’s desired result. Two literary devices that Bradbury employs to help create a strong atmosphere in his stories, and thus to achieve his desired effect, are similes and metaphors. In his essay “When I was in Kneepants: Ray Bradbury,” Damon Knight calls these similes and metaphors Bradbury’s “trademarks,” and he remarks that the use of these devices is one of the primary features that sets Bradbury apart from other, more traditional science fiction writers. Throughout “The Veldt” there are excellent examples of how Bradbury uses similes and metaphors to help create the ambience in the story. For example, when George is eating dinner and thinking about his recent experience in the nursery, Bradbury uses the phrases, “That sun. He could feel it on his neck, still, like a hot paw.” This simile serves two purposes. Not only does it heighten the description of George’s sensation by making the sun’s heat seem much more tangible, it also foreshadows the ending of the story when George and Lydia are attacked by lions. Bradbury also uses a metaphor effectively near the end of the piece when he has George ask, “Lord, how did we ever get in this house? What prompted us to buy a nightmare?” By using the metaphor of house as nightmare, Bradbury not only conveys the fact that George has become very concerned but also that he still believes everything will turn out all right. After all, a nightmare is only an illusion. Or, at least that’s what George believes.

While reading “The Veldt,” one may notice that there are no very long passages describing what the characters are thinking. Bradbury sometimes provides brief phrases to let the reader know what is going on in a character’s mind, but never more than a few carefully chosen words. This is typical of a well-written short story. Since there is no time for extended descriptions or long discussions, the author’s choice of words must convey as much information as possible quickly and succinctly. As Robin Anne Reid comments in her Ray Bradbury: A Critical Companion, in short stories “more character development occurs through dialogue and description of actions than through in-depth descriptions of characters’ thoughts and emotions.” Bradbury is a master at this technique. He is always economizing and making his descriptive passages and dialogue serve a dual purpose. One fine example of this occurs in the following exchange between George and his son, Peter:

Will you shut off the house sometime soon?

We’re considering it.

I don’t think you’d better consider it any more, Father.

I won’t have any threats from my son!

“Very well.” And Peter strolled off to the nursery.

Here, the reader should notice that, rather than whining or crying when his father says the house might be shut off, Peter very calmly says, “I don’t think you’d better consider it any more, Father.” This well-spoken sentence, coming from a little boy who is upset, clues the reader into the fact that Peter is not your average ten-year-old. The measured, almost overly-subdued tone also conveys a coldness about the child. The reader gets the idea that Peter is a very calculating boy who is well in control of his own emotions. Even the fact that Peter replies with the phrase, “Very well,” rather than saying “okay” provides a clue that this young boy is different than other boys of his age. The word choices convey a subtle creepiness about the boy. Another instance of effective dialogue occurs in the following exchange between George and Lydia:

Those screams — they sound familiar.

Do they?

Yes, awfully.

This is a wonderful instance of foreshadowing, as well as a subtle pun. The phrase, “awfully familiar” usually means extremely familiar. By breaking it up and inserting it into the dialogue in the manner above, however, Bradbury subtly evokes another meaning. Now the screams are not only awfully familiar, but they are also familiar as well as awful.

Bradbury is indeed a skilled writer, who brings together many important literary elements in “The Veldt.” This ability to manipulate and combine words for maximum effect is what has set Bradbury apart from many other short story writers. It is what has cemented Bradbury’s reputation as an important and influential American writer. It is this skill that has also sustained Bradbury’s popularity throughout his long and varied career. In her essay, “Ray Bradbury and the Gothic Tradition,” Hazel Pierce explains the ultimate appeal that Bradbury has had for fans throughout the years. She notes that, while readers admire his imagination and creativity, they also appreciate his artistry. “Devoted readers of Bradbury have long recognized him as a poet in the fullest sense of the word — a maker and doer with words.” Critics and fans alike recognize that Bradbury is a gifted artist who is constantly striving to write the very best story he can. His short stories continue to provide that “single effect” for readers, and they also stand as a fine example for other writers of what can be accomplished if you know how to use the tools correctly. As Damon Knight notes in the essay collection titled Ray Bradbury, “He is a superb craftsman, a man who has a great gift and has spent fifteen years laboriously and with love teaching himself to use it.”

Source: Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on “The Veldt,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2005.

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