The story opens during a conversation between the Hadley parents, George and Lydia, in their thirty thousand-dollar Happylife Home. The futuristic Happylife Home fulfills their every need: it clothes them, feeds them, and even rocks them to sleep. As the futuristic Home makes dinner for the family, “humming to itself,” Lydia asks George to take a look at the Home’s “nursery,” or to call a psychologist in to examine it. George agrees to look at it himself. As they walk toward the nursery, motion-sensor lights in the hallway automatically turn on and off as they track the parents’ progress.
The first few lines establish the setting as a technological future of plenty, centered around an easeful domesticity in which the family literally doesn’t have to do any work of their own. At the same time, the branded “Happylife Home” suggests the consumerism behind this seeming paradise and the mention of the need for a psychologist suggests all actually isn’t as wonderful as it seems. “Taking a look” at the “nursery” uses language that makes the nursery sound like a car or machine, and makes it clear that even child-rearing in this world has been “outsourced” to technology.
The parents reach the nursery, the most expensive and sophisticated feature of the Happylife Home. Before their eyes, the blank walls of the nursery transform into a three-dimensional African veldt. George feels the intense heat of the sun and begins to sweat. He wants to get out of the nursery, saying that everything looks normal but that it is “a little too real,” but Lydia tells him to wait. They observe more details in the veldt: the smell of grass, water, animals and dust, and the sound of antelopes and vultures. Lydia points out the lions that have been eating in the distance. They can’t tell what the lions are eating, but it makes Lydia nervous. She hears a scream, but George says he didn’t.
The narrator points out how expensive the nursery is in order to illustrate the extent to which George and Lydia have spoiled their children. But our expectations of what a nursery should look like are totally upended by the frightening veldt that it actually presents. That this veldt reality appears “too real” establishes the allure of manufactured reality, how it can be more stimulating than actual reality. Meanwhile, it’s interesting that the scene the children have created is one of primeval nature, rather than a cartoonish fantasy. The screams will grow in importance as the story continues.
As the lions approach them, George admires the “genius” of the nursery. To him, the room is a “miracle of efficiency.” It is so real that it becomes frightening sometimes; but for the most part, he muses, “what fun for everyone.” The lions stop fifteen feet away from George and Lydia, “feverishly and startlingly real,” and then charge at the couple. George and Lydia run out into the hall and slam the door. Lydia is crying with terror, but George is laughing; he reminds Lydia that the nursery’s reality isn’t real.
George’s amazement at the nursery’s virtual reality attests to this room’s status as the peak of human power and technology. Bradbury’s description of the nursery—“what fun for everyone”—resembles an advertisement for a theme park or movie. The fact that the nursery sometimes feels a little too real again references the overstimulation of mass entertainment – for Bradbury the nursery represents a logical extension of television. Here, Lydia feels the line between reality and virtual reality beginning to blur.
Lydia, still afraid, says that the veldt is “too real.” She tells George to make sure their children, Wendy and Peter, stop reading about Africa, and instructs him to lock up the nursery for a few days. George suggests that Lydia perhaps has been working too hard and needs to rest, but Lydia argues the opposite—that she has too little to do, and is therefore thinking too much. She suggests that they shut off the Happylife Home and take a vacation. She expresses the desire to do routine human tasks that the Happylife Home does for them: cooking eggs, mending socks, cleaning the house. She convinces George that the Home is rendering them unnecessary, and that it’s having a negative effect on their psychological and physical health.
The Hadley parents’ unhappiness isn’t caused by the fact that they are working too hard—rather, it’s that they have nothing to do. The Happylife Home has taken over all of their daily tasks, such that they no longer feel useful and necessary in their own home. Lydia’s desire to cook and clean once again suggests the idea that machines that fulfill our every whim do not create true happiness. The Home has taken away the Hadleys’ sense of purpose: they want to feel like they belong in the world, and in order to belong in the world they must feel like they matter, which requires that there be work that they have to do.
The Hadley parents eat dinner without their children, who are at a carnival. As George watches the dining table make food, he reflects that it would be good for the children to live without the nursery for some time. “Too much of anything isn’t good for anyone,” he thinks. The nursery uses the “telepathic emanations” of the children’s minds to create scenes that fulfill their desires. They can conjure anything up in the nursery. In George’s opinion, Wendy and Peter have been spending too much time in Africa. The animals in the veldt devour their prey right before his children’s eyes. George reflects that it is never too early for a child to think about death; in fact, they wish death on others even before they understand what death is. Lost in his thoughts, he walks to the nursery and listens to a lion’s roar, which is followed by a scream.
George’s reflection that the children have been spending too much time in the nursery raises the notion that Wendy and Peter might be addicted to their technology. And in this case, George recognizes that the nursery is especially dangerous because it gives the children so much power with so little responsibility. He realizes that the veldt is an expression of his children’s darkest thoughts. George understands that it is natural for children to wish death or destruction on others, before they even know the consequences of such a wish, but fears that Wendy and Peter, by playing out their thoughts of death in the nursery, might reinforce this natural predisposition in a way that leads toward actual violence. The lion’s roar and the subsequent scream seem at the moment to indicate that his concerns are accurate (later it will be revealed that his concerns are accurate but also have come too late).
George enters the nursery and reminisces about the past imaginary worlds his children created. But this new world is unbearably hot and cruel. The children’s fantasy world, he reflects, is becoming “a bit too real.” Alone in the veldt, he can look back and see through the open door of the nursery: through the door he sees his wife, “like a framed picture,” eating dinner. In front of him, lions are eating their own dinner and watching him. George tells them to go away, but they don’t budge. He tries to send out thoughts of Aladdin to get the nursery walls to change, but nothing happens. Frustrated, George goes back to the dinner table and says the nursery is broken; it won’t respond to his thoughts. The parents hypothesize that the room is stuck as a veldt because the children have been thinking about Africa so often, or that Peter has set the nursery to remain in veldt mode.
The children’s transition from scenes of Aladdin to the African veldt signals a loss of innocence, a loss that is perhaps brought about more quickly by their addiction to the nursery and the responsibility-less power it gives them. Furthermore, George’s inability to change the walls of the nursery implies that the situation is slipping beyond his control. The open door that captures Lydia “like a framed picture” is a crucial image. It gives us a view of reality from the perspective of virtual reality. Bradbury describes the view using words that imply artifice: reality is presented in the same way as a painting or a movie. This further blurs the lines between reality and the nursery’s “artificial reality”, and suggests that reality depends on where you stand. The image also presents a neat juxtaposition between a human eating and of the lions feeding, another commentary on the fundamental animal-ness or savageness of human instincts and desires.
Wendy and Peter return home. George asks them about Africa, and the children feign ignorance, insisting they haven’t created an African veldt. Wendy runs to the nursery, and when she comes back, announces that there is no Africa. The four Hadleys walk together to the nursery and see a beautiful forest. George, suspicious, sends the children to bed. He walks through the scenery and picks up something in the corner of the nursery, where he observed the lions earlier. It’s one of his old wallets, chewed up and bloody. George closes and locks the nursery door.
The Hadley children are shameless in their manipulation of their parents. At the same time, Bradbury’s description of them makes them appear almost robotic. All of their actions and utterances are described in unison: one can imagine them speaking together in a flat, emotionless voice. The Hadley’s appear to live perfect lives in their Happylife Home, but in truth the parents feel useless, while the children are un-feeling. The bloody wallet is another hint of what the children have been up to – a hint George seems to at least partly understand when he locks the nursery door.
George and Lydia can’t sleep. They agree that Wendy changed the nursery from a veldt to a forest to try to fool them. They don’t know why, but George is determined to keep the nursery locked until they find out. They reflect that the nursery is supposed to help children express and cure their neuroses, but that perhaps it is not having the desired effect. They decide to discipline their spoiled children, agreeing that Wendy and Peter have become disrespectful and disobedient. They hear two screams from the nursery, and then a roar of lions. Apparently, Wendy and Peter have broken into the nursery. Lydia thinks that the screams sound eerily familiar, but isn’t sure how. George and Lydia are unable to fall asleep for another hour, when their beds finally succeed in rocking them to sleep.
George and Lydia’s assessment of their children is essentially accurate; but, at the same time, the parents don’t recognize the extent of the issue. The fact that Wendy and Peter have so easily broken back into the nursery, and that George and Lydia don’t even try to do anything about it, demonstrates how little power the parents actually have over their children. George and Lydia’s rocking beds further infantilize them—they are like babies in a cradle. Meanwhile, the vaguely familiar screams produced by the nursery’s technology establish a haunting tone, which George and Lydia’s technological infantilization helps them ignore. Technology within the story is both the problem and the cure, which might be the definition of any addiction.
In the next scene, Peter has a conversation with his father. He never looks at his father or mother any more; instead, he looks at his feet. He admits that he and Wendy have been creating the veldt in the nursery, and asks George not to turn off the nursery. When George reveals that he and Lydia are considering turning the Happylife Home off for a month, Peter becomes upset at the idea of tying his own shoes and brushing his own teeth. He says that he doesn’t want to do anything except “look and listen and smell.” He tells his father that he’d better not shut off the Home, and returns to the African veldt.
The fact that Peter does not look at his father illustrates how estranged the children are from their parents, and from human interaction in general. Peter does not seem to feel any kind of love or care for his father; he goes so far as to threaten George’s life. Peter’s wish to do nothing except “look and listen and smell” demonstrates once again how the Happylife Home has reduced the Hadley family to beings who are both passive consumers of entertainment and animal-like in their interests. The overstimulation of the nursery has made Peter care only about continuing to stimulate his senses (look, listen, smell). He doesn’t want to think, love, share; he wants to interact with the technology that gives him instant gratification, not with other people.
George and Lydia invite their friend, psychologist David McClean, to examine the nursery. David observes that the veldt doesn’t “feel good.” A psychologist, he says, works based on feeling, not hard fact. And the nursery is giving him a bad feeling. He advises George to destroy the room and send the children to him for treatment. The nursery was originally developed so that psychologists could study children’s minds, but in this case, he says, the room has become a dangerous channel for the children’s destructive thoughts. He remarks that George has turned from a “Santa Claus” into a “Scrooge.” First he spoiled the children by purchasing the Happylife Home; then he allowed them to become dependent on it. Now, he is functionally taking away their new mother and father. The lions begin to make David nervous. George asks if the lions could actually become real, and David says no. Before leaving the room, David finds a bloody scarf that belongs to Lydia. Together, the men turn off the nursery.
David McClean’s assertion that psychologists work based on feeling contrasts with the unfeeling nature of the two Hadley children and suggests Bradbury’s fear that technology robs humans of feeling and empathy, of what makes people human. McClean’s description of the family’s dynamics paints the Happylife Home as being even better than having parents in the sense that eating donuts all day is even better than having healthy food: the Happylife Home gives the children whatever they want and will never say no. The original usage of the nursery to study the human mind reinforces the idea that the veldt the children have produces is a true reflection of human nature. It also implies that this technology could have productive and revolutionary applications, but that in a consumerist culture, it merely becomes an addictive form of entertainment.
In response to the nursery getting turned off, Wendy and Peter become extremely upset and throw a fit. Upset at her children’s crying, Lydia begs George to turn the nursery back on for a little longer. George refuses, and proceeds to go around the house turning off the other automated elements of the Happylife Home. The house becomes as silent as a cemetery. Peter, desperate, tells George that he wishes George were dead. George replies that they have all been dead, but will start to really live now. But upon further entreaty, he agrees to let the children use the nursery one last time before David arrives to help them move out of the house for their vacation.
That Bradbury describes the Happylife Home as a “cemetery” after George turns it off suggests that the Happylife Home, when it was on, had a life of its own. The interaction between Peter and George highlights the familial conflict created by the intense technology of the house, a conflict that actually presents opposite sides of the same coin: Peter chooses technology over his father, while George finds the technology deadening because it steals from him his purpose, his fatherhood. That George then lets his children use the nursery one last time indicates that he doesn’t think that Peter actually means he wants George dead. He thinks, rather, that his son is metaphorically expressing his deep anger. He doesn’t understand the depth of his son’s estrangement from the family and from other people.
Lydia and the children go to the nursery while George gets dressed. Lydia also comes to get dressed, and together they reflect on their foolishness—they should never have bought the Happylife Home! They then hear Wendy and Peter calling for them. George and Lydia run into the nursery, into the veldt, but their children aren’t inside. Then the door of the nursery slams shut, trapping George and Lydia in the veldt. The parents realize that their children have set a trap. As they bang against the door, they hear the sounds of approaching lions on all sides. They scream, and suddenly realize that the screams they have been hearing in the nursery were their own.
The “genius” of the Happylife Home has so completely eclipsed George and Lydia’s roles as parents that it has destroyed the Hadley family: the children have no family feeling at all for their parents, or for people in general. Wendy and Peter, without any remorse, murder their parents in the nursery. In the process, virtual reality becomes full-on reality, which seems like just a final step since, to Wendy and Peter, the nursery is much more real and exciting than reality itself. The children renounce reality—and their parents—in favor of technology. This outcome also speaks to the insidiousness of technology: George and Lydia were worrying about what technology was doing to their children, not realizing what it had already done.
Some time later, David arrives at the nursery doorway, and sees Wendy and Peter eating a picnic in a glade. Beyond them is the veldt. David, feeling the heat of the sun, starts sweating. He asks the children where George and Lydia are, and the children reply that they’ll be coming soon. In the distance, David sees lions eating. He looks harder as the lions move over to a watering hole to quench their thirst. David sees the shadows of vultures approaching from above. In the quiet of the veldt, Wendy offers David a cup of tea.
The heat of the veldt, which reflects the savageness of human nature, contrasts starkly with the civilized tea that Wendy and Peter enjoy in the glade. The end of this story signals the end of a generation and the birth of a new one: a generation in which selfishness, cruelty, and a lack of emotion (induced by excessive technology) supplant the love, care, and understanding that are crucial to our shared humanity. Though they appear civilized, Wendy and Peter are just two more savage animals in the technology-enabled veldt.