In Ray Bradbury’s “Marionettes, Inc.,” thirty-five-year-old Braling buys a “marionette” (a lifelike android, not a traditional puppet with strings) to temporarily distract his controlling wife, Mrs. Braling, so that he can have a little time away from her. Although the ultra-realistic marionette seems like a creative fix for Braling’s troubled marriage (and later, for that of his good friend Smith), things soon go terribly wrong. Although the story illustrates that technology can provide innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems, it ultimately cautions readers about turning to technology as a quick fix for delicate, interpersonal problems. Doing so may only exacerbate the issue at hand or create several other—and bigger—problems to grapple with.
The story initially shows that technology can provide innovative solutions to complicated issues. For over ten years, Braling has dreamed of going to Rio, but his nervous, controlling wife has always stood in the way of his travels. When Braling (somehow) stumbles across the top-secret company called Marionettes, Inc., he realizes that having his own lifelike marionette is the perfect solution. By using his marionette, Braling Two, the real Braling can slip off to Rio, and Mrs. Braling won’t even know he left—thereby avoiding her controlling tendencies, anxiety, and rage altogether. Similarly, seeing how the marionette will help Braling solve—or at least sidestep—some of the problems in his marriage, Smith decides that he wants one, too. Smith’s problem is that his wife, Nettie, “overdoes it.” Exasperated, Smith explains to Braling that “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.” Having a marionette, Smith thinks, will allow him a “respite.” Nevertheless, Smith is also grateful for his wife and knows that he’s lucky to have her. Therefore, the marionette seems like an ingenious solution to Smith’s discontent: it would allow Smith to have a break from Nettie even just one night a month without hurting her feelings.
However, the story is also cautious about using technology to solve such sensitive interpersonal problems. Through Smith and Braling’s interactions with marionettes, the story shows that technological solutions can actually create new, bigger problems. Although Smith doesn’t follow through with his plan of purchasing his own marionette, his wife does. The marionette costs nearly eight thousand dollars (and Nettie takes an additional two thousand dollars to live on for a while), leaving the couple with a mere five thousand dollars in their once-cushioned joint bank account. Seeing such a dramatic drop in his savings sends Smith into a panic: “His heart throbbed violently. His tongue dried. He shivered. His knees suddenly turned to water. He collapsed.” While Nettie may have been trying to find her own “respite” from her husband—or perhaps wished to leave him entirely but couldn’t bear actually doing so—her seemingly innovative solution ends up sending him into a fit of anxiety, first because of the monetary cost of the marionette and then because of the emotional blow. Upon realizing that his wife has, in fact, skipped out on him and left a marionette in her place, Smith is overcome by “terror,” “loneliness,” “fever,” and “disillusionment” in tandem. Nettie’s solution to her marital problems emotionally crushes her husband, possibly more so than if she just talked to him about her feelings.
Meanwhile, Braling’s plan of distracting his wife with a marionette ends up hurting himself the most, further underscoring the costs of using technology to fix one’s problems. On his very first night of “employment,” Braling Two goes rogue, claiming that he’s fallen in love with Mrs. Braling and plans to take over Braling’s entire life. To do so, the marionette vows to lock human Braling in the cellar toolbox and lose the key forever. Although the story ends ambiguously—with “someone” going back upstairs to rejoin Mrs. Braling—it seems that the marionette has overpowered the human due to his quick thinking, “metal-firm grip,” and ability to withstand “all physical wear.” In this way, the novel darkly points out that technological solutions can sometimes prove fatal, harming the very people they were supposed to help.
In “Marionettes, Inc.,” Bradbury provides a nuanced view of technology, showing how it can help solve (or completely avoid) certain problems while also underscoring how technology invites a slew of its own problems into the mix. He uses Braling, Smith, and Nettie—three characters who either covet or actually purchase their own marionette—to caution readers about turning to technology to quickly fix their problems.
The Cost of Technology ThemeTracker
The Cost of Technology 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?”
Duplicate self or friends; new humanoid plastic 1990 models, guaranteed against all physical wear. From $7,600 to our $15,000 deluxe model.
“It may be splitting hairs, but I think it highly ethical. After all, what my wife wants most of all is me. This marionette is me to the hairiest detail. 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 after ten years of waiting.”
“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.”
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.
“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.