You can read for free here: https://www.btboces.org/Downloads/7_There%20Will%20Come%20Soft%20Rains%20by%20Ray%20Bradbury.pdf.
As I’ve mentioned, no story is written in a vacuum. It comes from the writer’s experience. Supposedly, Ray Bradbury wrote this story as a response to the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The 1940’s experienced a general societal awareness of technology, robots, and their potential role in society. Some feared robots would take over their jobs (how relevant this remains today with AI art and chatgpt). Others believed the rate of technological advancement would outstrip humanity’s ability to keep up with ethical problems that would arise from these advancements. All of this in a background of a world that had survived two world wars in a short span of time, I’ve little doubt, percolated in Ray Bradbury’s head to inspire this fantastic piece of literature.
The title of the story comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale of the same name. Inspiration for this poem came not from WWI, when humanity first really came to grips with the massive destruction they were capable of committing against the environment and each other. It asserts nature cares little for human exploits.
The poem itself features in the story but I’ll present it here out of order. In the story, this poem is a favorite of Mrs. McClellan’s.
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.-Sara Teasdale
The summary of the poem is bleak but also unexpectedly positive. Man will wipe itself (himself? themselves? herein I’ll refer as itself, no offense meant) from the Earth but nature and animals will continue on like nothing ever happened, completely unhindered by the means of man’s destruction. What an optimistic perspective when it comes down to it!
I think with this foundation we can start to probe into the amazing short story:
Now to the discussion:
“‘Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o ‘clock!’ as if it were afraid that nobody would.”
There are already seeds of the ominous despite the cheery, even childish tone. The contrast adds to the horror.
Why would the voice-clock be afraid nobody would wake up? In the next sentence we’re told the house is empty. And yet the house is full of activity, making so much ado about nothing. Is it in denial? Or simply running its programming? I think there’s a bit of both at play.
“At eight-thirty the eggs were shrivelled and the toast was like stone.”
So much food wasted and the eggs are shrivelled after only being out for 1 1/2 hours, the toast is inedible. There is more going on than meets the eye. The house sets everything right and continues on. I, as the reader, am dropped into this world wondering why? Where is everyone? This story doesn’t withhold, soon it’ll tell me.
Mice scurry to clean up the mess. How fascinating that of all the robotic animals Bradbury could have used, he chose mice–the image most people associate with filth. Why? Perhaps to say that so often we humans are the pests of the earth. Or perhaps because man changes nature to suit his needs.
The story has already shown us how advanced this house is, how much thought and energy went into making this a “smart” home and yet not the same thought and energy was devoted to humans caring for one another, communicating with words rather than weapons. It’s an important contrast to see how technology is being used to do so much for people. It almost makes me think of the book Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, where humans lose their sense of purpose because machines complete their tasks. It’s a theme Bradbury touches on in Fahrenheit 451 also.
“Ten o’clock. The sun came out from behind the rain. The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.”
This is our first look outside the house and of everything in its vicinity, it alone remains. Oddly, in fantastic condition given there’s been a nuclear fallout that has seemingly destroyed the rest of the world (or at least any neighboring area).
What a beautiful way to phrase it too. The sun didn’t come out from behind a cloud but from “behind the rain.”
It’s important that it HAD been raining but now the sun is out. Almost to parallel how nature was under the cloud of man’s fancies and now, with them gone (leaving a city of rubble and ashes) nature can resume in the light. These are the soft rains that come.
It also tells us what’s happened to this world. Time is important both in year (we’re told it’s 2026 though in the original version it was 1985) and by the hour as the voice-clock provides the only dialogue. The year itself is not so important–the important bit is this is right around the corner.
A reminder to us that our time is not infinite and we must use what we have of it with care.
“The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down. The five spots of paint – the man, the woman, the children, the ball – remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.”
We meet the “characters” only by absence. A family like any family. Not one warring but innocent, playful. Going about their business like it’s an ordinary day. Children playing ball.
Another point, is this how you pictured the family? Frankly, I find the idea of a man mowing his lawn when he has such a “smart” home contradictory. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t just have a programmed lawnmower for that. But it’s besides the point. Why use this image? It clues us into what their last moments were like. How lucky for them, I think sometimes, that they died oblivious. Or is it lucky? Every war, every violence, has collateral damage. The story isn’t as powerful without this image.
It quivered at each sound, the house did. If a sparrow brushed a window, the shade snapped up.
The bird, startled, flew off! No, not even a bird must touch the house!
The house knows something more is wrong. Does it know the horrors of what? Does it know its people–worse, no people, will ever return? Importantly, the house fears nature. Tries to keep itself separate from it. Nature wants in. The ever-constant struggle.
Then we meet the family dog. The house recognizes it, lets it in, cleans up after it (nature after all is dirty).
“The dog ran upstairs, hysterically yelping to each door, at last realizing, as the house realized, that only silence was here. It sniffed the air and scratched the kitchen door. Behind the door, the stove was making pancakes which filled the house with a rich baked odour and the scent of maple syrup.
The dog frothed at the mouth, lying at the door, sniffing, its eyes turned to fire. It ran wildly in circles, biting at its tail, spun in a frenzy, and died. It lay in the parlor for an hour.
Two o’clock, sang a voice.
Delicately sensing decay at last, the regiments of mice hummed out as softly as blown gray leaves in an electrical wind.”
This story is rich in symbolism. What does the house represent? Perhaps ourselves, man’s hubris, man’s dominance over the world. The legacy we leave behind. The dog? Some say the dog represents nature. I think there is an aspect of that but it’s missing an important core: the dog represents nature as tamed by man. And when man is gone, that too will die, as the dog does. This death is important and pivotal, because it foreshadows the house’s ultimate loss of purpose and its own destruction. Man, and things for man/loyal to man, will all be doomed to the same fate. Again look at the focus to time. It’s only 2 o’clock. Afternoon/midday. Humanity should be in its wise-years but humanity is dead and (almost) all it loved gone with it.
Look also at how the dog is disposed. Like common trash, incinerated in the cellar. No ceremony.
“At ten o’clock the house began to die.”
It’s unclear how long it’s been since the radioactive fallout that caused the inciting incident but once into the story, we’ve known the house for only 15 hours before it meets its doom. How does it go out? Nature kills it. But not nature alone. The final blow was the ingredients within the house itself. Ingredients put there by humans to ensure cleanliness.
“The wind blew. A falling tree bough crashed through the kitchen window. Cleaning solvent, bottled, shattered over the stove. The room was ablaze in an instant!”
And for the first time we really see the house as a character unto itself because it’s not passive in its death.
“The house tried to save itself. Doors sprang tightly shut, but the windows were broken by the heat and the wind blew and sucked upon the fire.
The house gave ground as the fire in ten billion angry sparks moved with flaming ease from room to room and then up the stairs. While scurrying water rats squeaked from the walls, pistolled their water, and ran for more. And the wall sprays let down showers of mechanical rain.”
The house must fight because if it doesn’t, it won’t hit that same emotional resonance when it eventually loses to the flames. This is not the 1st try/fail cycle the house has had. It’s the final and most important one, however, because this isn’t just for the people who once lived there. It’s a fight for itself, for all that remains. For the legacy left behind by man. And it almost wins! Almost is never enough.
“And then, reinforcements. From attic trapdoors, blind robot faces peered down with faucet mouths gushing green chemical.
The fire backed off, as even an elephant must at the sight of a dead snake.”
“But the fire was clever. It had sent flame outside the house, up through the attic to the pumps there. An explosion! The attic brain which directed the pumps was shattered into bronze shrapnel on the beam.”
It’s important that attic is referred to as the brain here because as the reader we’re meant to believe this is a stand-in for us. Our hero. Our loyal servant. And we do, or at least I do.
“In the last instant under the fire avalanche, other choruses, oblivious, could be heard announcing the time, cutting the lawn by remote-control mower, or setting an umbrella frantically out and in, the slamming and opening front door, a thousand things happening, like a clock shop when each clock strikes the hour insanely before or after the other, a scene of maniac confusion, yet unity; singing, screaming, a few last cleaning mice darting bravely out to carry the horrid ashes away! And one voice, with sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked.”
Why does Bradbury write this? Why are there parts of the house oblivious to this devastation? Because this is a mirror to ourselves in two ways. One, we can’t be ignorant of the greater politics going on around/without us because whether we participate or not, it will impact us. Another is perhaps this is the house’s last stand. Not cowering but proud. It’s disregard to the flames is “sublime,” inspirational. It dies with poetry thrumming through its burning vocal chords.
“Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:
‘Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…'”
Bradbury begs us to continue for him. Today is what, what type of day will that be? Will we choose kindness over jealousy? Sharing over collecting? Are we getting closer to this nuclear end or have we learned our lesson?
The ending is incredibly sad and nostalgic. That mention of steam, isn’t that how all this began with the industrial revolution? So it ends.
The voice continues on to nobody in its Sisyphean task–and I do think it’s meant to call back to Sisyphus carrying the boulder up the hill only for it to roll down near the summit. The sun shines on this heaped rubble, nature has won. All man and man’s accomplishments are meaningless dust. There is only the voice, until that too will utter its last. Is there no way for nature and man to exist in harmony? The story is not a prediction, it’s not answering “no” to the question. It’s a warning. A question to us. Today is…?
Back to the title, soft rains–any rains, may have spared the house. They do not come. In opposing nature, man destroys itself and its memory.
I can see the title as a good fit because it refers to when those soft rains do come, they’ll not be for man, as the poem goes onto show.
However, and maybe it’s human-centric of me, and this is why Bradbury is Bradbury and Yelena isn’t, the title I think is more appropriate would be “The Last Voice” not because that last voice is man–it’s not. Man is gone. The last voice we hear saying “today is…” the echo of man. Would you re-title it? If so, how? Why? A good title is able to either summarize the story down to its core or aid to recontextualize it. So what is this story about to you?
I hope these thoughts made you think about this fantastic short in a new way. I’d love to continue the discussion in the comments!
1 thought on “Thoughts on “There will Come Soft Rains””
I wouldn’t have thought to make the comparison between “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury and “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.* I am glad we have both.
But, for young me, the emotional gut-punch was greater in Ray’s “There Will Come Soft Rains ” The story title and heart-hollowing cautionary theme were derived from Sara Teasdale’s poem — as you note, Yelena, and I do not think any other title for the story would work as well. Then again, I wouldn’t. 😉 **
* I submit that the more difficult choice would be between Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” and Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” because of their similar gut-wrenching emotional climaxes (for me): the humbling and terrifying realization that ALL human life, all our achievements, all our history — all our stories! — are ephemeral. In Bradbury’s tale, we end ourselves. In Clarke’s, what we conceive as humanity ends.
** Ray’s use of a line of poetry as a title that summates for the well-read reader the essence of the tale he is about to tell influenced me greatly in the choice of story titles for many of my own works. 🙃
Some may say this requires too much from a reader; that it, like a rich vocabulary, makes stories less accessible. What do I expect? Readers to look up the origin of a chosen title? Or to use a dictionary?
My answer: If they wish (I know I would; I do, for I love words and literature). The story should work without the reader exerting themself.
But for those that do, “golden treasures inside are hid.” 🙂