Smith and Braling walk down the street together around 10:00 P.M. Both men are about thirty-five years old, and both are “eminently sober.” Smith complains that Braling has cut their night far too short—it’s Braling’s “first night out in years,” and yet he wants to go home at 10:00 P.M. Braling attributes the short night to his “nerves.”
Smith’s comment about it being their “first night out in years,” coupled with the two men being “eminently sober,” suggests that they used to be more carefree and wild but have since grown up—especially Braling, who seems prudent and nervous.
Smith says he doesn’t know how Braling “managed” to go out tonight at all. He says that he’s been unsuccessfully badgering Braling about going out for “a quiet drink” for ten years. Now that Braling finally agreed, however, he “insist[s] on turning in early.” Braling says dejectedly that he can’t push his luck. Smith asks how Braling got out of the house in the first place, claiming that he must have “put sleeping powder in [his] wife’s coffee.” Braling says “that would be unethical.” He says Smith will understand shortly how Braling managed to get out of the house.
Smith is joking when he says that the only way Braling could possibly leave his house is to drug his wife with sleeping powder. Nonetheless, his joke reveals that Mrs. Braling is incredibly controlling and upright, and Braling feels trapped in his marriage. It’s significant that Braling deems sleeping powder “unethical,” as readers will soon learn that Braling’s own method for getting out of the house isn’t exactly virtuous.
As the two men turn a corner, Smith says that he knows Braling has a terrible marriage. Braling tries to attest it hasn’t been that bad, but Smith continues, saying that word “got around” about how Braling’s wife got Braling to marry her—it was 1979, right when Braling was about to leave for Rio. Braling cuts off his friend’s flashback, lamenting that he never did get to see Rio.
Smith implies that Mrs. Braling somehow coerced Braling into marrying her, introducing the theme of secrets and deception that resonates throughout the story. Meanwhile, Braling’s dream about going to Rio—and the fact that he’s never been able to visit, presumably because of his wife’s controlling nature—will resurface later in the story. In addition, the detail about the year 1979 highlights that this story, which was originally published in 1949, is set in the future.
Smith continues, recounting how the future Mrs. Braling “tore her clothes,” “rumpled her hair,” and “threatened to call the police” unless Braling would agree to marry her. Braling tells Smith that he needs to realize that his wife has always been “nervous.” Smith says that regardless, the whole situation was “unfair.” After all, Braling didn’t even love her. Smith asks Braling if he ever made that clear to his wife before he married her, and Braling says that he did—he “was quite firm on the subject.” Smith can’t believe that Braling still chose to marry her, but Braling admits that he had to. He did it for the sake of his business and for his parents—something “like that would’ve killed them.”
Here, Mrs. Braling escalates from controlling to crazy, as Smith details how she threatened Braling into marriage with a (probably false) rape accusation. Braling attributes his wife’s behavior to “nervous[ness],” echoing his earlier assertion that he’s cutting the night short because of “nerves.” Perhaps Braling is nervous about inflaming his wife’s anxiety. Regardless, it’s clear that the Bralings’ marriage is not built on love, mutual affection, or understanding—one of the story’s first negative examples of marriage.
Smith reflects that the Bralings have been married for ten years. With his “gray eyes steady,” Braling says that all of that is about to change. He pulls out a blue ticket, and Smith gasps—“it’s a ticket for Rio on the Thursday rocket.” Smith is delighted that Braling will finally be able to visit Rio, but he tentatively asks if doing so won’t upset Braling’s wife. With small, nervous smile, Braling says that it won’t upset his wife because she won’t even know he’s gone. Braling will be back from Rio in a month, and the only person who will know he ever left is Smith.
Strangely, Smith says that Braling is taking a “rocket” instead of an airplane to Rio. This detail reminds the reader that the story, originally published in 1949, is set forty years in the future (around the year 1990), and Bradbury is imagining a distant, high-tech future. Although technology hasn’t played a large role in the story yet, it will be pivotal later on. In addition, Braling’s plan to somehow deceive his wife and go to Rio echoes her own deceitful tendencies (like coercing him into marriage), suggesting that dishonesty is self-preserving.
Sighing, Smith says that he wishes he could go to Rio, too. Braling notes that Smith’s marriage “hasn’t exactly been roses” either, and Smith agrees. His problem, he asserts, is that his wife, Nettie, “overdoes it.” He remarks to Braling that after ten years of marriage, you’d think your wife would no longer “sit on your lap for two hours every evening, call you at work twelve times a day, and talk baby talk.” Gravely, Smith says that it’s only getting worse—this past month is the clingiest Nettie has ever been. Smith wonders if his wife is “a little simple-minded.” Braling thinks that assessment is “conservative.”
Smith rudely writes his wife off as being “a little simple-minded,” but later it is revealed that Nettie is much more shrewd, intelligent, and deceitful than Smith realized. Smith’s complaints about his marriage reveal how important mutual affection is in marriage. While Smith feels inundated by Nettie’s love, it seems that Nettie is still hungry for affection based on the way she “overdoes it.”
The two men arrive at Braling’s house, and Braling tells Smith that he will now reveal his big secret regarding how he snuck out of the house. Braling gestures to the second floor of the house, and Smith notices a man peering down at him from the window above. The man (later called Braling Two) is about thirty-five years old, has slightly greying hair, “sad gray eyes,” and a small mustache.
The description of the man in the window echoes the earlier detail of Braling’s “gray eyes,” suggesting that Braling and the mysterious man look alike and may even be identical twins.
Smith exclaims in disbelief that the man in the window looks exactly like Braling. When Braling hushes Smith, Braling Two disappears from the window. Thinking he is seeing things, Smith wonders if he’s going insane. Seconds later, the front door opens, and the Braling lookalike steps outside to speak with the men. The two Bralings greet each other, and Smith asks if they’re identical twins. Braling says that they’re not and tells Smith to press his ear against Braling Two’s body. Hesitantly, Smith does so and hears a faint ticking noise coming from inside Braling Two’s chest. Smith exclaims that “It can’t be,” and listens again, only to hear the same ticking noise.
The ticking noise suggests that Braling Two is an extraordinarily lifelike robot who passes for Braling himself. Because of this likeness, it’s no wonder that Braling Two was a surefire distraction for Mrs. Braling, consequently allowing the real Braling to get out of the house for an evening. Smith’s disbelief at the robot emphasizes how convincing Braling Two is as a stand-in for the real Braling—something that is helpful now but dangerous later on.
Smith “stagger[s] back,” and his eyes “flutter.” Reaching out to touch Braling Two’s warm cheeks and hands, Smith asks where Braling got such a thing. Braling answers, “Isn’t he excellently fashioned?” Smith asks again where Braling got it. Braling tells Braling Two to give Smith his card. Performing a “magic trick,” Braling Two produces a business card that reads, “MARIONETTES, INC. Duplicate self or friends; new humanoid plastic 1990 models, guaranteed against all physical wear. From $7,600 to our $15,000 deluxe model.”
The small detail that Braling Two’s cheeks are warm also underscores that Braling is incredibly lifelike—he’s not a clunky metal contraption, but rather a highly sophisticated android. The repetition of Smith’s question regarding where Braling got the robot (later referred to as a marionette) implies that Smith wants one for himself. Meanwhile, the business card illustrates the steep cost of buying one’s own marionette. Braling’s apparent willingness to spend several thousand dollars on his own marionette emphasizes just how badly he wants a break from his wife.
Still in disbelief, Smith asks how long “this [has] gone on,” and Braling answers that he’s had Braling Two for a month, but this is the first time he’s actually put him to use. For the past month, Braling has kept the marionette in a locked toolbox in the cellar. After all, Braling’s wife never goes into the cellar, and Braling is the only one with the key to the box. Tonight, he simply told his wife he was going on a walk to purchase a cigar, went down into the cellar instead, and sent Braling Two back upstairs. The real Braling then slipped out of the house so he could go out with Smith.
Here, Braling explains the events that took place mere hours before the story began. At the beginning of the story, Braling claimed that it would be “unethical” to put sleeping powder in his wife’s coffee, but his actual method of using a high-tech marionette seems just as deceitful—if not more so. Once again, the fact that Braling is going to such great lengths to escape from his wife, rather than simply asking or telling her that he’s going out with Smith for a few hours, underscores that Mrs. Braling is extremely controlling.
Smith says Braling Two even smells like the real Braling—“Bond Street and Melachrinos” (cigarettes). Braling admits that “It may be splitting hairs,” but he thinks using his marionette is “highly ethical.” What Braling’s wife really wants is Braling himself, and that is what she is getting. Braling explains, “I’ve been home all evening. I shall be home with her for the next month. In the meantime, another gentleman will be in Rio.” He notes that when he returns from his month abroad, he’ll simply put Braling Two back in his locked toolbox in the cellar.
Comically, Braling argues that using the marionette is “highly ethical,” although he implies that this point is so trivial that doesn’t need to be argued. In reality, the ethics of using a marionette to distract Mrs. Braling seems like the very crux of the issue. In addition, Braling also blurs the line between himself and the marionette by claiming that “I’ve been home all evening,” which is a moment of foreshadowing.
After mulling the situation over for a few moments, Smith asks if Braling Two can go without some sort of “sustenance” for a whole month. Proudly, Braling says that his marionette can last six months without sustenance and can eat, drink, sleep, and even sweat like a human. Braling asks the marionette if he will take good care of Braling’s wife. Braling Two answers, “Your wife is rather nice.[…] I’ve grown rather fond of her.”
It’s strange that Smith’s very first question (besides asking Braling where he purchased the marionette) is how long the marionette can go before it needs to be recharged. This again implies that Smith wants one for himself and thus needs to know how long the marionette would allow him to avoid his wife. Meanwhile, Braling Two’s “fond[ness]” for Mrs. Braling reveals that marionettes have thoughts and feelings just like humans—which could be potentially dangerous for Braling.
Shaking with excitement, Smith asks how long Marionettes, Inc. has been in business, and Braling says they’ve been operating in secret for two years. Tentatively, Smith asks if he could possibly purchase a marionette too. Braling hands Smith the business card, and Smith turns it around in his hands, thanking his friend profusely. He says all he wants is “a little respite,” even just once a month. Currently, Smith’s wife hates when he’s out of the house for even an hour. Even though he loves her, Smith just wants some space. He asks Braling if he remembers the poem that reads, “Love will fly if held too lightly, love will die if held too tightly.”
Smith confirms that he does, in fact, want a marionette for himself. He claims that he just wants a break from his wife one night per month, which begs the question as to why Smith can’t simply talk to Nettie about this seemingly small request—instead, he’s willing to spend eight thousand dollars to ensure he has a few hours alone per month. His serious interest in purchasing a marionette suggest his marital problems run far deeper than he’s letting on.
Braling says that Smith is actually fortunate—Nettie loves Smith too much, while Mrs. Braling simply hates Braling. Smith says the problem is that Nettie loves him “madly,” when he really just wants her to love him “comfortably.” Braling wishes his friend luck and reminds him to visit Braling Two a few times over the next month—it would look suspicious if Smith suddenly stopped coming over. Smith agrees to stop by, and the two friends say their goodbyes.
Smith’s assertions of Nettie’s obsession with him borders on arrogance—later in the story, he will realize that he has been misinterpreting Nettie’s behavior altogether. Later, the story will also cast doubt on Braling’s confident declaration that his wife hates him.
Walking down the street, Smith smiles to himself and begins to whistle quietly, business card in hand. The card reads, “Clients must be pledged to secrecy, for while an act is pending in Congress to legalize Marionettes, Inc., it is still a felony, if caught, to use one.” Smith continues reading. The card also says that “Clients must have a mold made of their body and a color index check of their eyes, lips, hair, skin, etc. Clients must expect to wait for two months until their model is finished.” Smith thinks to himself that two months isn’t all that long to wait. In just two months, his ribs will be healed from being constantly crushed by Nettie’s embrace. His hand will be healed from being constantly squeezed and held, and his bruised lip will repair itself, too.
Smith is unphased by the ominous wording of the business card—he appears entirely willing to spend eight thousand dollars, commit a felony by using a marionette, buy from an illegal company, and give said company all of the most intimate details about himself. Once again, this emphasizes the extent of Smith’s unhappiness in his marriage. This is underscored by the way he describes Nettie’s affection as torture—for example, he doesn’t say that Nettie hugs him tightly, he says she crushes his ribs.
Smith thinks to himself that he doesn’t wish to seem “ungrateful.” Turning the business card over, Smith reads, “Marionettes, Inc. is two years old and has a fine record of satisfied customers behind it. Our motto is ‘No Strings Attached.’ Address: 43 South Wesley Drive.” The city bus pulls up, and Smith climbs on, humming as he does. He thinks about how he and Nettie have fifteen thousand dollars in their joint bank account. He can just “slip eight thousand out as a business venture, you might say.” Besides, in some ways, the marionette will actually pay itself off—with interest.
Marionettes from Marionettes, Inc. don’t have physical strings, since they are lifelike androids. However, the motto of Marionettes, Inc., “No Strings Attached,” is ironic because traditional marionettes do have strings attached to them and are operated from above by a puppeteer. This suggests that the robot marionettes do actually have some sort of strings attached—that is, hidden complications and restrictions. Further, “No Strings Attached” could also underhandly refer to the fact that the company is illegal and operates in secret, and that customers are committing a felony by purchasing a marionette. If a problem were to arise, a customer couldn’t just sue Marionettes, Inc., because the customer would be turning themselves in, too.
Smith arrives at his house and wanders into his bedroom and finds Nettie—“pale, huge, and piously asleep.” He is overwhelmed by the sight of her “innocent face.” Softly, he says to Nettie that, if she were awake, she would “smother” him with affection. He accuses her of making him “feel like a criminal,” because she’s been a sweet, loving wife. He says he sometimes can’t believe that she picked him over Bud Chapman. He also can’t believe that she only seems to love him more and more each day, and that in the past month, she’s loved him “more wildly than ever before.”
Smith clearly feels guilty for wanting to have a little space from his wife. This passage also contains Smith’s second mention of how Nettie has loved him even more fiercely this past month than she has throughout the rest of their ten-year relationship—this is an important moment of foreshadowing. Meanwhile, the casual, one-time mention of Bud Chapman is strange for a story with so few characters already. This leaves open the possibility that later, when Smith realizes the real Nettie is gone, she may have run off with her former lover.
Crying, Smith suddenly feels like he wants to rip up the business card and forget about the marionette altogether. When he moves to reach the card, however, his body protests in pain: “his hand ached and his ribs cracked and groaned.” He wanders out into the hall and into one of the other rooms in the house.
In wanting to rip up the business card, Smith wants to also destroy his impulse to escape from his wife. However, his physical pains—from Nettie’s suffocating hugs—remind him that affection is not reciprocal in their relationship, and that he feels smothered by Nettie’s love.
Humming, Smith opens his desk drawer and reaches in for the bankbook. He tells himself that he’s only taking eight thousand dollars and not a penny more. When he opens the bankbook, however, he realizes that something terrible has happened—ten thousand dollars have suddenly gone missing, leaving the couple with only five thousand dollars in their account. Immediately, Smith blames Nettie, yelling that she’s purchased “More hats, more clothes, more perfume.” He thinks she’s even purchased that little vacation house on the Hudson River that she’s been going on about for months—“without so much as a by your leave!”
When he realized Nettie took the money “without so much as a by your leave” (without permission), Smith automatically assumes Nettie has spent ten thousand dollars on hats, clothes and perfume—a comical assumption that suggests Smith views his wife as foolish and impractical. He then speculates that she bought the vacation home on the Hudson that she’s been talking about for several months—a desire to travel and a fixation on one particular place that mirrors Braling’s longing for Rio (and the way his wife stands in the way of his plans).
Smith runs back into the bedroom, yelling for Nettie to wake up explain what she’s done with his money. At first, Nettie doesn’t wake up, but when she finally begins to stir, Smith’s mouth goes dry, and his knees give in. Collapsed by Nettie’s bedside, Smith frantically asks her again what she’s done with his money.
Smith repeatedly calls the money his instead of theirs—even though it’s a joint bank account. This paints Smith as a traditionally masculine, domineering husband who is responsible for making and managing the couple’s money. It seems, then, that Smith is the controlling one in the relationship, just as Mrs. Braling plays that role in her marriage to Braling. Since Mrs. Braling’s insatiable need for control makes Braling want to flee to Rio, the story implies that perhaps Smith’s controlling nature makes Nettie want to run, too.
Suddenly, Smith has a “horrid thought,” and “terror and loneliness” overwhelm him, followed by “fever and disillusionment.” Although he doesn’t want to confirm his suspicion, he leans into Nettie and presses his ear against her chest. All he hears is “Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.”
This is a pivotal moment for Smith, as he realizes that Nettie is actually a marionette—her chest makes the same ticking sound that Braling Two’s chest made. As much as Smith has complained about his wife and dreamed of having a break from her, when he realizes that he’s the one who’s been abandoned, he feels terrified, lonely, and frantic.
Smith walks alone in the street in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, Braling and Braling Two chat on their way to the cellar. Braling tells the marionette that it’s time to get into the toolbox, but Braling Two hesitates, saying, “That’s what I want to talk to you about […] The cellar. I don’t like it. I don’t like that toolbox.” Braling says he’ll try to make more comfortable arrangements for Braling Two, but the marionette continues, saying that “Marionettes are made to move, not lie still. How would you like to lie in a box most of the time?” He reminds Braling that there’s no way to shut him off.
The brief image of Smith walking down the road alone in the middle of the night is the story’s last mention of him. Perhaps he’s going back to Braling’s house for consoling, or maybe to the bus station or airport in an attempt to locate the real Nettie. Meanwhile, Braling Two is shown to have thoughts and feelings of his own, making him less of the obedient employee that Braling assumed he would be. Earlier, Braling blurred the line between himself and the robot (in claiming that “Braling” would be with his wife all month, while “another gentleman” would be in Rio). Braling Two gestures to the hazy differentiation between robot and human by asking the real Braling how he would feel being locked in a toolbox.
Braling tells Braling Two that he only needs to be in the toolbox for a few days—just until Braling leaves for Rio. The marionette protests, saying that after Braling comes back from his month of “having a good time,” the marionette will be forced back into the box. Concerned, Braling says that the people at the marionette shop didn’t tell him that he was getting “a difficult specimen.” Braling Two replies, claiming, “There’s a lot they don’t know about us.”
Braling Two’s responses grow increasingly dark and ominous, setting the stage for the conflict ahead. His discontent with being in a toolbox—especially after the real Braling’s trip to Rio—suggests that Braling Two may want to take over Braling’s life completely.
Braling Two says he dislikes the thought of Braling spending a month in warm, happy Rio while Braling Two and Braling’s wife are “stuck here in the cold.” Braling protests, claiming that he’s dreamed of this trip for his whole life. He squints, imagining the tranquil waves, golden sand, and good wine. The marionette cries, “I’ll never get to go to Rio. Have you thought of that?”
Braling Two’s argument against Braling’s trip to Rio sounds as if it’s coming from Mrs. Braling herself, persuading her husband over the past ten years to give up his dream of visiting Rio. This implies that Braling Two has decided where his loyalty lies, and it’s with Mrs. Braling, not Braling.
Braling Two continues, saying that he’s “grown quite fond” of Mrs. Braling. Braling says he’s glad the marionette is “enjoying [his] employment,” but the marionette explains that it’s not quite that—he’s in love with Braling’s wife. Braling sputters, but the marionette continues, saying he’s “been thinking [about] how nice it is in Rio,” and how he’ll never be able to travel. He’s also been thinking about Braling’s wife, and how they could be “very happy” together.
This passage points back to the marionette’s previous declaration that he’s “grown rather fond” of Mrs. Braling over the course of the evening. It’s clear that the marionette sees himself as a true contender for Mrs. Braling’s love—not a mindless, obedient employee of Braling. The marionette’s capacity to think and feel proves dangerous, as it’s clear he wants Mrs. Braling and the Rio trip for himself.
Braling walks nervously toward the cellar door and stutters, saying that he needs to make a quick phone call, and that Braling Two should wait a few moments for him. The marionette challenges Braling by asking if he is calling Marionettes, Inc. to come pick Braling Two up. Braling quickly says, “No, no—nothing like that,” but tries to dash out of the cellar.
Braling’s nervousness and stutter show that he’s finally internalized the costs of using a marionette—Braling Two wants (and probably has the power) to take over the real Braling’s life. Braling has been so captivated by the chance to go to Rio that he’s failed to fully process the potential repercussions of using a top-secret, poorly understood, illegal piece of technology to do so.
Braling Two grabs Braling with a “metal-firm grip,” and tells him not to run. Braling asks the marionette if Mrs. Braling “put [him] up to this,” but the marionette says no. Continuing, Braling asks if she found out about the marionette. With a smile, the marionette tells Braling that he’ll never know. Squirming unsuccessfully to get out the marionette’s grasp, Braling cries, “She must have guessed; she must have affected you!”
Braling Two’s “metal-firm grip” emphasizes that, although he looks human, he’s still a product of technology and has abilities and strength beyond that of humans—making the outlook for the real Braling appear rather bleak. Interestingly, Braling is certain that Mrs. Braling is somehow behind the plan for the marionette to take over the human Braling’s life. In this way, Braling affirms again that his wife hates him—though the story will later suggest that this isn’t exactly the case.
With Braling still in his grasp, Braling Two explains that he is going to put Braling in the toolbox, lock it, and get rid of the key. Then, he’ll buy a plane ticket to Rio for Braling’s wife. Braling cries out that they need to “talk this over,” but the marionette simply says, “Good-by[e], Braling.” Panicked, Braling asks the marionette what he means by “good-by[e].”
Earlier, Braling Two asked Braling if he would like being locked up in the toolbox in the cellar. At the time, this seemed like the marionette searching for empathy from the human Braling, but now it’s clear that the marionette intended to lock Braling up all along. The marionette simply says goodbye to Braling, implying that he means to lock Braling up forever—allowing him to die in the process.
Ten minutes later, Mrs. Braling wakes up to a kiss on her cheek. She whispers, “Why—you haven’t done that in years.” In reply, “someone” says, “We’ll see what we can do about that.”
The fact that it took ten minutes for someone (be it Braling Two or the real Braling) to rejoin Mrs. Braling in the bedroom suggests that there was a longer struggle between the two Bralings than the story showed. However, because of Braling’s earlier “metal-firm grip,” it seems nearly impossible that the human Braling could have overpowered the marionette. This detail, coupled with the sudden act of affection toward Mrs. Braling, suggests that the marionette succeeded in taking over Braling’s life and locking him up forever.