Feminist/Queer Theory

Burning Stereotypes in Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”

Karley McCarthy

Ray Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” takes place in the fallout of a nuclear war. The author chooses to tell the story though a technologically advanced house and its animatronic inhabitants instead of a traditional protagonist. The house goes about its day-to-day as if no war had struck. It functions as though its deceased family is still residing in its walls, taking care of the maintenance, happiness, and safety of itself and the long dead family. On the surface, Bradbury’s story seems like a clear-cut warning about technology and humanity’s permissiveness. Given that the short story was written in the 1940s, it’s easy to analyze the themes present and how they related to women of the time. Bradbury’s apt precautionary tale can be used as a metaphor for women’s expectations and role in society after World War II and how some women may have dealt with the fallout of their husbands coming back home with psychological trauma.

To experience “There Will Come Soft Rains” from a feminist perspective, readers must be aware of the societal norms that would have shaped Bradbury’s writing. “Soft Rains” takes place in the year 2026. Yet the house and norms found throughout were, “modeled after concept homes that showed society’s expectations of technological advancement” (Mambrol). This can be seen in the stereotypical nuclear family that once inhabited the house as well as their cliché white home and the hobbies present. According to writer Elaine Tyler May’s book Homeward Bound, America’s view of women’s role in society undertook a massive pendulum swing during the World War II era as the country transitioned through pre-war to post-war life. For example, in a matter of decades support for women joining the workforce shifted from 80% in opposition to only 13% (May 59). Despite this shift, the men coming back from the war still expected women to position themselves as the happy housewife they had left behind, not the newfound career woman architype. Prominent figures of the 40s, such as actress Joan Crawford, portrayed a caricature of womanhood that is subservient to patriarchal gender roles, attempting to abandon the modern idea of a self-sufficient working-class woman (May 62-63). Keeping this in mind, how can this image of the 1940s woman be seen in Bradbury’s work?

Throughout Bradbury’s life he worked towards dismantling clichés in his own writing. A biography titled simply “Ray Bradbury” mentions that even in his earlier work, he was always attempting to “escape the constrictions of stereotypes” found in early science fiction (Seed 13). An example of him breaking constrictions could be his use of a nonhuman protagonist. Instead, Bradbury relies on the personification of the house and its robotic counterparts. Bradbury describes the house as having “electric eyes” and emotions such as a, “preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia,” something that would make the house quiver at the sounds of the outside world (2-3). While these descriptions are interesting, Bradbury’s use of personification here is a thought-provoking choice when one breaks down what exactly the house is meant to personify.

One analysis of this story notes that the house’s personification, “replaces the most human aspects of life,” for its inhabitants (Mambrol). Throughout the story, the house acts as a caretaker, records a schedule, cooks, cleans, and even attempts to extinguish an all-consuming fire. While firefighting is not a traditionally feminine career or expectation from the 1940s (more on that later), most of the house’s daily tasks are replacing jobs that were traditionally held by a household’s matriarch. Expanding further on this dichotomy of male/woman tasks, a chore mentioned in the story that is ‘traditionally’ accepted as a masculine household duty—mowing the law—is still assigned as a male task. This is feels intentional to the house’s design as Bradbury is, “a social critic, and his work is pertinent to real problems on earth” (Dominianni 49). Bradbury’s story is not meant to commentate on just an apocalypse, but society at large.  Bradbury describes the west face of the house as, “black, save for five places” (Bradbury 1-2). These “five places” are the silhouettes of the family who had been incinerated by a nuclear bomb. The family’s two children are included playing with a ball, but the mother and father’s descriptions are most important. The mother is seen in a passive role, picking flowers, while the father mows the lawn. The subtext here is that the man is not replaceable in his mundane and tedious task. Only the woman is replaced. While this is a small flash into the owners’ lives, what “human aspect” or autonomy of the father’s life has been replaced by the house’s actions if the house is mainly personifying only the traditional 1940s female-held positions? The message here is that a man’s position in society is irreplaceable while a woman’s is one of mere support.

While this dynamic of husband vs subordinate is harmful, wives supporting their partners is nothing new. Homeward Bound explains that life after World War II for many women meant a return to their previous position as a housewife while many men came home irreparably damaged by years of warfare. PTSD, known then as shellshock, affected countless men returning from the war. Women were often expected to mend the psychological damage as part of their domestic responsibilities, even if they were unprepared for the realities of the severe trauma their husbands had faced (May 64-65). The psychological effects of the war came crashing into women’s lives the same way that the tree fell into the autonomous house in “Soft Rains”. As mentioned earlier, firefighting is not a task someone from the 40s would expect of women, but the house’s combustion and its scramble to save itself can be seen as a metaphor for women attempting to reverse the cold reality that the war had left them with. The picturesque family they had dreamed of would forever be scarred by the casualties that took place overseas. While Bradbury may not have meant for women to be invoked specifically from this precautionary tale, it’s obvious that him wanting his science fiction to act as, “a cumulative early warning system against unforeseen consequences,” would have impacted women of the time as much as men (Seed 22). The unforeseen consequences here is the trauma the war inflicted on families.

While men were fighting on the front lines, women back home and in noncombat positions would still feel the war’s ripples. In “Soft Rains” the nuclear tragedy had left, “a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles” (Bradbury 1). Despite the destruction, the house continues its routine as though nothing had happened. This can be seen as a metaphor for how women responded to the trauma their husbands brought back from the war. Women were urged to, “preserve for him the essence of the girl he fell in love with, the girl he longs to come back to. . .The least we can do as women is to try to live up to some of those expectations” (May 64). Following this, many could have put their desires and personal growth to the side to act as a secondary character in their husband’s lives.

The final line can be read as the culmination of similarities between post-war women and Bradbury’s house. The violence and destruction that fell upon the house in its final moments leaves little standing. What’s remarkable is how the house still attempts to continue despite its destruction. The final lines of the short story exemplify this: “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 5). The house is acting just like the women from the 40s, clinging to their past in an attempt to preserve something that had already been lost, society’s innocence. One analysis points out that, “The house is depicted in this way because it represents both humanity and humanity’s failure to save itself” (Mambrol). While it might be wrong to say that women were unable to save themselves in this situation, this quote does touch on an idea present in the feminist metaphor for “Soft Rains”. The preservation of “the essence of the girl he fell in love with, the girl he longs to come back to” was a failure (May 64). The same way that the house cannot preserve itself from destruction, women cannot preserve an image of themselves that had already dissolved. As mentioned earlier, women had already entered the workforce, a huge step towards removing sexist stereotypes around women’s worth. After garnering work-based independence, it seems impossible that the idea of women solely as men’s support would not immolate.

While Bradbury’s “Soft Rains” can be viewed as an apt precautionary tale with real modern world issues at hand, in many ways it is a period piece. As a writer in the 1940s, it’s hard to imagine that Bradbury’s story would not have been influenced by the framework of a nuclear family and the stereotypical expectations of this time. Bradbury’s use of personification opens dialogue about gender roles in the 1940s and how war had complicated patriarchal expectations. Despite his attempt to bypass science fiction stereotypes, his story is full of metaphor for gender stereotypes. Using a feminist lens to analyze the story allows it to be read as a metaphor for war and its effects on married women. The standard analysis appears to say that, “machine no longer served humanity in “There Will Come Soft Rains”; there humanity is subservient to machinery” (Dominianni 49). From a feminist perspective, instead of machine, the house represents patriarchy and gender norms. While men suffered greatly during World War II, women often put their wants and futures on hold to support their husbands. This is a selfless act that shows the resilience of women despite their society’s wish to downplay their potential and turn them into mere support.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains.” Broome-Tioga BOCES, 1950, pp. 1-5. btboces.org/Downloads/7_There%20Will%20Come%20Soft%20Rains%20by%20Ray%20Bradbury.pdf.

Dominianni, Robert. “Ray Bradbury’s 2026: A Year with Current Value.” The English Journal, vol. 73, no. 7, 1984, pp. 49–51. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/817806

Mambrol, Nasrullah. “Analysis of Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains.” Literary Theory and Criticism, 17 Jan. 2022.

May, Elaine Tyler. “War and Peace: Fanning the Home Fires.” Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. 20th ed., Basic Books, 2008, pp. 58-88.

Seed, David. “Out of the Science Fiction Ghetto.” Ray Bradbury (Modern Masters of Science Fiction). University of Illinois, 2015, pp. 1-45.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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