by Ray Bradbury
Peter and Wendy Hadley
If you squint hard enough, Peter and Wendy are heroic kids. They're smart enough to reprogram the nursery (maybe), they're independent (they go to a carnival all by themselves), and they go after what they want. So, if Peter and Wendy were, say, fighting against the evil government of Panem in The Hunger Games, we'd be cheering them on.
But these twin 10-year olds aren't fighting against some evil government. They're fighting against George and Lydia, who are generally okay people. What's the worst thing that George and Lydia do, give the kids almost everything they want and then finally tell them no?
Now, these kids aren't burning down the house from page one. It's not like they were born evil or anything. (If you want a child who was born evil, you'll have to check out Bradbury's "The Small Assassin.") They resist their parents in little, seemingly insignificant ways at first. Instead of coming home for dinner, they go to a carnival and stuff themselves full of hot dogs and ice cream (63). And when George tells Wendy not to go to the nursery, she goes anyway because Peter told her to (106-108).
But it gets worse as time goes on. They break into the nursery (146). When George threatens to turn off the nursery, Peter shows all the symptoms of being a bad son: he doesn't look his father in the face (153); his response is "snapped" (155) instead of just "said" or "asked"; he speaks "coldly"; and finally, he threatens his father with a very calm "I don't think you'd better consider it any more, Father" (171). Boy, that's eerie. Bradbury packs all of this into one small scene, to emphasize the fact that Peter has turned into one major delinquent.
And then there's the whole "locking their parents into the nursery with the lions" thing. We're thinking that's the height of juvenile delinquency. Are we right or are we right?
Okay, so maybe these kids are Heroes and Villains. But if we're being totally honest, "The Veldt" doesn't show these two as heroes—not really. And though they are very much the villains here, it's not entirely their fault. They're out-of-control because they're spoiled by their parents and raised by virtual reality, which isn't the most constructive, compassionate parent in the world.
In other words, Peter and Wendy are TV-watching juvenile delinquents. They are not gallivanting around Never Land making mischief with winning pluck. Their deeds are much more sinister, and their pop culture parallels are of a different sort.
And now it's historical digression time. Bradbury isn't just making up this idea about kids going bad. Juvenile delinquents were one of the nightmare bogeyman of 1950s America, right up there with Communists.
There are lots of famous movies from the 1950s involving kids out of control, like Blackboard Jungle (teacher vs. youth thugs), Rebel Without a Cause and The Delinquents, which was about, well, delinquents. And then there were the informational short films, like "What About Juvenile Delinquency?" When you add to that this scary new "rock and roll" music (with Elvis Presley swinging his hips in a most disgraceful fashion), you had a winning recipe for youth revolt. Or so people thought. In any case, it's clear that juvenile delinquency was on people's minds and in their movie theaters. Now, Peter and Wendy are a bit young to be real teenage delinquents, but Bradbury is definitely tapping into this new fear of juvenile delinquents.
Which brings us to The Big Question: What turned them evil? George tells David McClean that the kids started acting out when he a) told them they couldn't go to NY, b) took some machines out of the house (like the picture painter that Peter misses ), and c) turned off the nursery for a few days to make sure they did their homework (198-200). That sounds like standard parenting, right? Sure, you may hate your parents when they ground you for a few days, but that's not going to make you feed your parents to virtual lions. But that's precisely the point: Peter and Wendy start going cuh-razy when their parents act like, well, parents.
In other words, if you're an adult reading this in the 1950s, then Peter and Wendy could be your kids. And they're behind you right now!
Peter in Charge
Peter and Wendy may be twins, but Peter is absolutely the ringleader here. After all, he tells Wendy what to do and when to do it; he's the one who confronts mean old George; and he's the one who supposedly has a high IQ and altered the nursery. So, much in the same way that Lydia doesn't get to play a starring role, Wendy takes a backseat to her male counterpart. In fact, if you wanted to, you could read this story as a conflict entirely between father and son. We don't want to blame the 1950s for everything, but this story is pretty dude-centered; today, when we read it, we sometimes feel that the women in the story get neglected, Wendy especially.
What's in a Name?
Peter. As in Peter Pan—the boy who refused to grow up. And Wendy just might be named after Wendy Darling, the girl who Peter Pan takes with him. (Hey—that's even more evidence that Peter is the ringleader.) The one part that doesn't fit here is that, in J. M. Barrie's story of Peter Pan, Wendy eventually wants to go home to mom and dad. In "The Veldt," it's Peter and Wendy forever—kids rule, parents drool (or, are turned into lion drool). So, in updating the story, Bradbury gives it a darker twist. But that's Bradbury for you.Timeline