At the center of Ray Bradbury’s “Marionettes, Inc.” are two deeply unhappy marriages. The introduction of the marionettes (the extremely lifelike androids that stand in for specific people) complicates both marriages, as many characters use a marionette to evade their spouse. The story uses the shortcomings in Braling’s marriage to the controlling Mrs. Braling, as well as his friend Smith’s marriage to the clingy Nettie Smith, to highlight why these marriages are toxic and destined to fail. Using these two negative examples of marriage, Bradbury consequently illustrates that three things must be mutual for a marriage to be healthy and thrive: affection, decision-making, and, most crucially, the desire to stay in the relationship.
In a healthy marriage, affection is consensual, but in both marriages that appear in “Marionettes, Inc.” the desire to give and receive affection is extremely unbalanced, which fuels everyone’s discontent in their respective relationships. In the closing lines of the story, “someone” (most likely Braling Two, Braling’s marionette who is implied to have just done away with the human Braling forever by trapping him in the cellar) rejoins Mrs. Braling in the bedroom and wakes her up with a kiss on the cheek: “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.” Mrs. Braling’s startled reaction reveals that her relationship has been stale and affectionless “for years.” While earlier Braling had claimed that his wife “hate[s]” him, Mrs. Braling seems pleased by the sudden kiss, suggesting that she does desire love and affection from her husband, but he’s not interested in giving it.
Nettie and Smith also appear to have an unbalanced desire for affection, which dooms their marriage. According to Smith, Nettie coos in his ear, calls him twelve times a day while he’s at work, sits on his lap for two hours every night, and talks in a baby voice to him. Smith finds all of this incredibly irritating and assumes that Nettie’s behavior means that she craves a lot of attention and love. However, when it is clear that Nettie has skipped out on her husband (temporarily or otherwise) and left a marionette in her place, the story suggests that Nettie also didn’t like playing the role of the clingy, overly loving wife and also wanted space. Meanwhile, Smith cringes at the thought of Nettie’s smothering love. He tells Braling, “remember the old poem: ‘Love will fly if held too lightly, love will die if held too tightly.’ I just want [Nettie] to relax her grip a little bit.” Although Smith thinks Nettie is irritating, he does claim to love her. However, her suffocating, constant affection is a major deterrent and is exactly what prompts Smith to get the business card for Marionettes, Inc. from Braling.
Besides showing mutual affection, spouses in a healthy marriage must also take part in decision-making together—whether that means coming to a consensus or making a willing compromise, neither of which the characters in “Marionettes, Inc.” successfully do. Throughout their ten-year marriage, Mrs. Braling prevents her husband from visiting Rio, which is his lifelong dream. In retaliation, Braling buys a marionette so that he can finally go to Rio in peace. This disagreement about Rio spurs much of the conflict in the story and even leads to—the story implies—Braling’s death. Just as Mrs. Braling keeps her husband from going to Rio, so too does Smith prevent his wife from buying the small vacation house on the Hudson River that she’s been pining over for months. Once again, the decision is lopsided. Since Nettie takes more money from the pair’s joint account than is needed to purchase a marionette, the story implies that she perhaps fled to the Hudson (and possibly bought or rented the vacation property she had her eye on) just as Braling planned to take his much-anticipated trip to Rio. Smith is distraught when he realizes that Nettie took the money “without so much as a by your leave,” meaning without permission. Although this initially seems like Smith is advocating for an egalitarian decision-making process in his marriage, he is actually just affirming what he perceives as his own authority in the relationship. Prior to discovering that Nettie took ten thousand dollars from their account, Smith also planned on slipping several thousand dollars from their joint account. He decided that, if Nettie asked, he’d vaguely attribute the large withdrawal to some “business venture.” Clearly, Smith planned to give Nettie no say in the decision.
Crucially, the desire to stay in the relationship must also be consensual for a healthy, satisfying marriage. Although none of the characters express outright a desire to leave their marriages, none of them express a desire to stay in their marriages either, and nearly all of the characters try to somehow escape their spouses. Before realizing his “wife” is actually a marionette, Smith reaffirms several times that, in the last month, Nettie “loved [him] more wildly than ever before.” Considering this sudden change in behavior, the story suggests that Nettie has been gone for at least a month. Meanwhile, Smith wants a marionette of his own so he can finally have a “little respite. A night or so, once a month even.” Like Nettie and Braling, Smith sees the marionette as a way in which he can avoid his spouse.
Considering all of the trouble the characters go through to escape or alleviate their strained marriages, it’s a wonder that none of the characters just talk plainly with their spouses about how they feel. The marriage between Braling and Mrs. Braling, as well as that of Smith and Nettie, both lack a commitment to mutual understanding, which is exacerbated by their failure to talk honestly with one another. Neither couple demonstrates healthy, consensual affection, and neither couple illustrates spouses making decisions together. Even more significantly, none of the characters seem particularly keen on continuing their marriages, ultimately illustrating that both marriages are destined to fail—if they haven’t already.
Love and Marriage ThemeTracker
Love and Marriage Quotes in Marionettes, Inc.
“What did you do, put sleeping powder in your wife’s coffee?”
“No, that would be unethical.”
“[I’m] married to a woman who overdoes it. I mean, after all, when you’ve been married ten years, you don’t expect a woman to sit on your lap for two hours every evening, call you at work twelve times a day and talk baby talk. And it seems to me that in the last month she’s gotten worse. I wonder if perhaps she isn’t a little simple-minded?”
“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.”
“Really, you make me feel like a criminal. You have been such a good, loving wife. Sometimes it is impossible for me to believe you married me instead of that Bud Chapman you once liked. It seems that in the last month you have loved me more wildly than ever before.”
And then, the horrid thought. And then the terror and the loneliness engulfed him. And then the fever and disillusionment. For, without desiring to do so, he bent forward and yet forward again until his fevered ear was resting firmly and irrevocably upon her round pink bosom. “Nettie!” he cried.
“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.