In “Marionettes, Inc.,” two friends, Braling and Smith, are unhappy with their respective marriages and decide that marionettes—extraordinarily lifelike androids—will solve their marital problems. With the marionettes standing in for them once in a while, both men think that they will get a much needed break from their wives, and their wives will never suspect a thing. Braling’s wife is too controlling (and would never agree to give her husband a little space), while Smith thinks his wife, Nettie, is annoyingly clingy, and wishes she would “relax her grip a little bit.” Charting the characters’ interactions with one another and with the marionettes, the story highlights how the desire for control is rooted in selfishness, and that attempting to control another person actually has the opposite effect: inspiring them to rebel.
From the very beginning, the story suggests that the desire for control is an act of selfishness. Ten years ago, the future Mrs. Braling coerced Braling into marrying her by threatening to accuse him of rape after the two had what the story implies to be consensual sex. Mrs. Braling “tore her clothes and rumpled her hair and threatened to call the police unless [Braling] married her.” At the time, Braling was about to leave for a much-anticipated trip to Rio, but the soon-to-be Mrs. Braling got in the way of those plans. Even now, ten years later, Braling still dreams of visiting Rio. He’s not even allowed to have a one-night reprieve by going out for a drink with his friend Smith (he can only manage to do so with help from his marionette, Braling Two). In this way, Mrs. Braling’s desire to control Braling—who he marries, where he travels, who he spends time with, whether he can go out at night—is an act of selfishness. It seems she wants Braling to be tied down to her at all times (even if, according to Braling, she “hate[s]” him).
Smith is similarly selfish about his relationship, which manifests as a desire to control his wife. The story never spells out why Smith is incapable of simply talking to Nettie about his feelings about their marriage—or, if he’s that unhappy, why he can’t divorce her. Smith depicts Nettie as being overly loving, bubbly, girlish, and clingy, suggesting that a serious discussion about their marriage would be a huge emotional blow for her. Considering how much Nettie irritates Smith, however, it doesn’t seem that he necessarily wants to protect his wife from having such a difficult, emotional discussion. Instead, it seems that Smith wants to protect himself from having to deal with Nettie’s emotional fallout, which, considering her characterization, is likely to be overblown and emotionally taxing for Smith.
Besides being an indication of selfishness, trying so hard to control someone is actually unproductive, as it can have the opposite effect and make the other person more likely to rebel. Braling depicts his wife as being controlling and manipulating due to her “nervous” nature. However, Mrs. Braling’s attempts to control her husband only make him want to escape from her clutches even more. In fact, Mrs. Braling’s desire for control over her husband is what inspires Braling to purchase Braling Two in the first place, so that the human Braling can spend an entire wifeless month in Rio. Further, Braling tries to control his marionette, Braling Two. The human Braling treats Braling Two as an employee (and when the marionette shows early signs of falling in love with Mrs. Braling, Braling ignorantly says he’s glad the marionette is “enjoying [his] employment”). However, being treated as such gets Braling Two “thinking,” and makes him want to rise up against Braling, which he eventually does.
Similarly, Smith attempts to control his wife financially, which also inspires her rebellion. When Smith decides that he’s going to spend eight thousand dollars on a marionette for himself, he has no hesitation about slipping the large sum of money out of his and Nettie’s joint bank account—even though it’s over half of their savings, and the account belongs to both of them. However, when he finds out that Nettie drew several thousand dollars from the account herself, possibly to buy “that little house on the Hudson she’s been talking about for months,” Smith is furious. Mostly, he can’t believe that his wife took the money “without so much as a by your leave”—that is, without Smith’s permission. Stunned by his half-drained bank account, Smith repeatedly cries, “What’ve you done with my money! […] What’ve you done with my money!” Even though it’s a joint bank account, Smith refers to the money as specifically his, once again emphasizing his controlling nature. Although Smith’s attitude toward his wife and money is reflective of traditional gender norms, it also suggests that his controlling tendencies (like repeatedly ignoring her dreams about buying “that little house on the Hudson”) may have spurred Nettie to defy her husband.
In “Marionettes, Inc.,” Bradbury illustrates how attempting to control someone else is not only selfish, but also futile. Braling, Smith, and Nettie go to great lengths to control their partners, begging the question of why they can’t just talk openly with one another about how they feel. In trying to control one another, the characters add additional complications and strain to their relationships. Bradbury ultimately reveals to the reader that resorting to control is not only unethical but also unproductive, and that there are simpler, more direct (and more honorable) ways to deal with other people.
Control Quotes in Marionettes, Inc.
“What did you do, put sleeping powder in your wife’s coffee?”
“No, that would be unethical.”
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“Thank you […] You don’t know what this means. Just a little respite. A night or so, once a month even. My wife loves me so much she can’t bear to have me gone an hour. I love her dearly, you know, but remember the old poem: ‘Love will fly if held too lightly, love will die if held too tightly.’ I just want her to relax her grip a little bit.”
“They didn’t tell me at the marionette shop that I’d get a difficult specimen.”
“There’s a lot they don’t know about us,” said Braling Two. “We’re pretty new. And we’re sensitive.”
“Did my wife put you up to this?”
“Did she guess? Did she talk to you? Does she know? Is that it?” […]
“You’ll never know, will you?” Braling Two smiled delicately. “You’ll never know.”
Braling struggled. “She must have guessed; she must have affected you!”
Ten minutes later, Mrs. Braling awoke. She put her hand to her cheek. Someone had just kissed it. She shivered and looked up. “Why—you haven’t done that in years,” she murmured.
“We’ll see what we can do about that,” someone said.