by Ray Bradbury
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Dreadful with a Pinch of Irony
When you start reading a story where the first conversation is about something vaguely wrong, you might feel a little… anxious. (Unless the people are clowns discussing something wrong with their tiny car.) We'll be honest, the minute we started reading "The Veldt," we felt dread. This story gives us nightmares.
Yep, from paragraph one, we know that something is wrong, and it only gets worse from there. All the time, the Hadleys can hear screams that sound eerily familiar to Lydia. The lions are always eating and vultures are always flying. The sun causes the adults to start sweating almost immediately. Check it out: the fake sun comes out in paragraph 13 and by paragraph 14, George Hadley is perspiring; and when David McClean comes back to get the family (after the parents have been killed), as soon as he walks into the nursery, "He began to perspire" (264). The gadgets are malfunctioning and not listening to commands, especially the nursery. The lesson here is that the Happylife Home is not all it's cracked up to be.
In fact, it doesn't even work properly. Just take a look at this scene, when George Hadley goes to Africa and tries to command it:
"Go away," he said to the lions.
They did not go.
He knew the principle of the room exactly. You sent out your thoughts. Whatever you thought would appear.
"Let's have Aladdin and his lamp," he snapped.
The veldtland remained; the lions remained.
"Come on, room! I demand Aladdin!" he said.
Nothing happened. (74-80)
That one-two structure of (1) George commanding ("Go away") and (2) nothing happening ("They did not go") tells us right off the bat that things are not as they should be. The dude is yelling at his room, for crying out loud. And not only is he yelling at his room, the room isn't responding. The nerve!
Once we're reminded by the phrase "he knew the principle of the room exactly" that the room is supposed to respond the George's thoughts, the fact that the room is rebelling is even more horrifying. Once we hear that, and realize that George still can't make the room change, we know something is really, really wrong. Plus, the fact that George keeps trying to do something that clearly isn't working might make us feel a little worried about his sanity as well.
To be fair, the story isn't out-and-out horrifying all the way through. The screams are familiar to Lydia, but we never hear why until the end. The lions are always eating—but what, we're not sure. Bradbury keeps a little distance here so that the story doesn't scare us with blood like Saw. Instead, it makes us nervous like Paranormal Activity.
This story uses more of a slow burn when it comes to the terror. For instance, after George fails to make the nursery obey his commands, he doesn't freak out and destroy the room because it's evil and creepy. No, the guy just goes back to Lydia and tells her that it's "out of order" (82), as if it were just a vending machine or a public toilet. See, there's something wrong, but George remains calm and there's always a logical explanation for everything. So, there's no reason to worry, right?
But we'd leave the light on, because we're worried. We're very worried. And that's dread.
A Pinch of Irony
Irony isn't always funny. And in "The Veldt," irony overlaps with the dread, which is not something you see every day. What do we mean, exactly? Let's take a look.
You might expect a nursery to be a safe place where children are nurtured, right? Instead, the nursery is the most dangerous room in the house. In other words, Bradbury sometimes flips our expectations—and usually flips them so we see the dark side of things. That's irony.
Or take, for example, the similarities that "The Veldt" shares with the Peter Pan story. Except, in Peter Pan, the kids are reunited with their parents (hooray!), but in "The Veldt," not only are they separated from their parents forever, the twins are the agents of that separation (the opposite of hooray!).
To close, we'll just say this: you know movies where kids do outrageously grown-up things and it's cute? Well, Peter says unexpectedly grown-up things. But it's not cute. Nope, not cute at all. Instead, he utters creepy threats that make our spines tingle—things like, "I don't think you'd better consider it any more, Father" (171). That doesn't sound like a kid. That sounds like an axe murderer. And that, in a nutshell, is Bradbury's dreadful irony.