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. In a grim development, the lions which appear in the nursery start to feel rather more real than merely ‘simulated’ – and the story ends with a touch of horror.
To achieve his effects, Bradbury utilises a number of powerful symbols in ‘The Veldt’. But what is the meaning of these symbols? Let’s take a closer look at some of them, with a view to understanding why the symbolism of this story is such an integral part of its power.
What’s the story about, first?
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.
Symbolism of the Veldt.
Veldt – open, uncultivated country or grassland in southern Africa – summons a landscape that is presumably far removed from the Hadleys’ urban, or suburban, life in future America. It is also a lawless plain where (to mix our metaphors) the ‘law of the jungle’ might be
said to apply: namely, the strongest and fastest animal will win over the weak and the slow.
The fact that the Hadley children are drawn to such a landscape is revealing, because it indicates that they perhaps wish to create a world in which they no longer have to obey their parents and can instead live according to their own ‘laws’.
Although Bradbury’s story is also partly about the ease with which technology can make our lives worse as well as more convenient, this is not the most unsettling aspect of it: instead, that must surely be the realisation that children have the capacity and potential to commit horrible deeds.
Lions are well-known predatory creatures, which can tear a man to pieces and devour his carcass in short order. However, they are also not native to North America, so they are both dangerous and exotic. We might argue that this adds a mysterious quality to them.
Note how George, when he and Lydia are eating dinner and still contemplating what to do about the nursery, ‘chewed tastelessly’ on the meat he is eating. Human beings are often carnivores, too, and this reference subtly hints at the affinities between humans and the animal kingdom. And if humans and lions are both meat-eaters, they are both also hunters and predators – and thus a danger to other creatures (and to each other, as the end of the story will reveal).
Note how, when Wendy and Peter return home shortly after this moment, they have been eating ‘hot dogs’: meat again, but also a particular meat product which mentions another animal.
The vultures appear first of all quite early in the story, and are part of the nursery’s simulation of the African veldt: the sound of ‘papery rustling’, suggesting the fluttering of the birds’ wings, can be heard.
But the vultures return at the end of the story, by which time they have acquired a darker symbolism in light of the Hadleys’ disappearance. If lions are predatory mammals, vultures are predatory birds: birds of prey. But they are also birds known for feeding on carrion, or the flesh of dead animals (and humans).
The names of the characters in Bradbury’s story are also laden with symbolism and significance. The family name of Hadley, for example, may suggest all the modern conveniences and possessions the family own: that they ‘had’ everything (but at what cost?).
Wendy and Peter, the names of the two children in ‘The Veldt’, are also the names of two of the main characters in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, an enduring children’s classic. Indeed, the girls’ name Wendy was even popularised (though not, as is sometimes claimed, invented) by Barrie’s use of it in Peter Pan, and ‘Wendy houses’ became popular presents for children.
Although we tend to encounter Barrie’s story in a somewhat sanitised and child-friendly version, with some readers and playgoers finding Peter Pan on the page and stage overly twee and sentimental in its depiction of children, the original story was somewhat darker. In the original book, Peter Pan has the Lost Boys, his gang of friends, killed – possibly because they are growing up, and Peter – the famous ‘Boy Who Would Not Grow Up’ – cannot allow this.
We cannot say for sure whether the well-read Bradbury was familiar with this darker version of the story, but certainly ‘Peter’ and ‘Wendy’ are names which are meant to denote two young, sweet children who will turn out to be anything but. The names might also signify, however, the fact that the Hadley children are growing up and becoming aware of their own power and agency – with deadly consequences for their parents.