At 7:00 am, the clock announces the time, singing relentlessly, “as if it were afraid” that nobody would get up. At 7:09, still singing, it announces breakfast.
The first character Bradbury describes is not a human or animal but rather a clock. The fact that it sings and has emotions lets the reader know that technology will more closely resemble people in this story than it does in most. The clock’s reaction also hints that something may not be right, since it is concerned that no one can hear it. Nevertheless, it declares that it is time for breakfast. From the very beginning, technology calls the shots.
In the kitchen, the stove prepares a full breakfast for four, complete with toast, eggs, bacon, coffee, and milk. A voice blasts from the kitchen ceiling announcing that today is Mr. Featherstone’s birthday, Tilita’s wedding anniversary, and that certain bills are due. This information is stored on memory tapes in the house’s walls.
Many machines come to life, indicating that the clock is only one of multiple personified machines. The memory tapes seem even more human than the clock because they are attuned to the social interests of the family, such as the birthdays and anniversaries of their acquaintances. At breakfast, the house caters to every imaginable need of its residents. Unlike in nature, where people would have to hunt for food, this meal has been prepared. Here, technology prepares an “ideal” environment.
At 8:01, the clock announces that it is time to leave for school. The clock sings a song to indicate it is raining outside, suggesting that one wear “rubbers, raincoats for today.” The garage then opens, revealing a waiting car. For a long time, nothing happens, then the door closes again.
The house continues to cater to the every need of its residents. In this case, it reads them the weather to protect them from an inclement environment. The house also tries to direct the residents’ every step. It tells the family when to leave for school and how to dress for the day. The garage door opening and then closing is ominous—it again suggests that the family is gone but the house is indifferent to their absence, continuing its business as though nothing were wrong.
The house cleans up breakfast, scraping the uneaten food into a “metal throat” garbage disposal that flushes “away to the distant sea.” The dirty dishes are submerged in hot water and come out “twinkling dry.” The clock announces 9:15, and a hoard of robot mice emerge from nooks and crannies of the house to deeply clean. They suck up dust under their moustache runners, before scurrying back to their “burrows.”
Technology has traits of humans (complete with a “throat”) as well as animals (see the mice as an example). These machines have been created as improvements upon nature, yet they resemble things found in the wild quite extensively. As soon as the residents have been instructed to go to school, the house sets about putting itself in order. At this point in the story, the house seems eager to do everything just right from its own perspective.
The sun comes out at 10:00. The house is the only building left standing amidst “rubble and ashes,” and the city emits a “radioactive glow” that can “be seen for miles” at night.
The “radioactive glow” implies that the town has been hit by an atomic bomb. This revelation gives the entire story a grim twist. Now the reader can guess why the residents are absent—they might be dead.
At 10:15, the sprinklers turn on. The water runs down the west side of the house, whose white paint is completely charred except in “five places”: the silhouettes of a man mowing, a woman gardening, and a boy and girl tossing a ball “which never came down.”
This passage confirms the reader’s suspicion that the residents may be dead. Bradbury includes the silhouettes of the McClellan Family (readers learn the surname later) to demonstrate how fleeting life can be. Based on the everyday actions, each person seems not to have expected that his or her life was about to end. Death comes faster than gravity, as readers see with the “ball which never came down.”
Until today, the house has asked, “What’s the password?” to every fox or cat that passed its door and closed up when no reply was given. It closed up its shades with “an old-maidenly preoccupation with self-protection.” It shook and snapped up its shade if a bird “brushed a window.” The house is like “an altar with ten thousand attendants” of various sizes, maintaining activity, but “the gods had gone away, and the ritual of religion continued senselessly, uselessly.”
The house is hypersensitive to who can pass its threshold, further indicating that it is obsessed with having control over its environment. It shuts out nature, which is embodied by the foxes, cats, and birds mentioned in passing. It is a wonder that these animals have survived a nuclear attack. Their presence suggests that nature remains strong through all adversity. By contrast, the house continues “senselessly, uselessly” after its inhabitants disappear.
At noon, a dog whines at the front door. The house door recognizes the dog and allows it inside. The dog was “once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered in sores.” It tracks in mud.
This scene is an allusion to a famous epic poem, The Odyssey. When the Greek hero, Odysseus, finally returns to his home island of Ithaca after years of war, travel, and shipwreck, his dog, Argos, recognizes him. In that story, Argos perks up his ears and wags his tail. Now the tables are turned—a dog comes home after roaming—and the reader has the chance to observe what kind of welcome the house will offer.
The robot mice return to clean up after the dog, “angry at the inconvenience.” They always appear at the hint of any “offending dust, hair, or paper,” which they grab in their jaws and take back to the burrows. These lead down tubes to the cellar, where “the sighing vent of an incinerator” sits like “evil Baal in a dark corner.”
The robot mice give the dog a cruel welcome. Even though the dog has sores on its body (see above) and hardly any flesh on its bones, the house does not express sympathy. Instead, the robot mice are irritated at having to clean up. By referring to the incinerator as an “evil Baal,” Bradbury uses another ancient allusion to a pagan god to indicate that the house has a sinister purpose.
The dog runs up the stairs “hysterically yelping” until it realizes, “as the house realized,” that no one is home. The dog treks back to the kitchen and paws the door. The stove starts preparing pancakes with maple syrup and the scent wafts through the house. The dog smells this and starts frothing at the mouth. It then runs around in circles, “biting at its tail,” and falls down dead. Its corpse remains on the floor for an hour.
This passage begins with a bombshell—the house knows that its residents are absent. This information prompts all kinds of questions, including why the house chooses to operate without residents. While the house seems indifferent, the dog grieves this loss, wandering around the house with a broken heart. The house does not show any sadness—in fact, it cooks the pancakes that send the dog into a lethal frenzy. Based on this action, the reader suspects that the house may have the capacity to do evil.
The clock announces that it is 2:00. “Delicately sensing decay at last,” the robot mice emerge and buzz around the dog’s body “as softly as blown gray leaves in an electrical wind.” By 2:15, the body is gone. Sparks fly out of the incinerator chimney.
The clock’s reappearance reminds the reader that the house likes to enforce a schedule at all times. When the robot mice quickly dispose of the dog’s body, the reader’s worst suspicions about the house are validated. The most sympathetic character in the story has just died, and instead of grieving the dog’s death, the house simply disposes of the body. The house may demonstrate human qualities throughout the short story, but this passage shows that it lacks a vital capacity for compassion. In this passage, technology’s (the house’s) primary concern is to eradicate nature (the corpse).
At 2:35, the house spreads out bridge tables on the patio. Playing cards, martinis, and egg-salad sandwiches materialize as music plays. Nothing is used, and at four the tables fold away “like great butterflies back through the paneled walls.”
The playing cards, martinis, and egg-salad sandwiches that the house sets out for the McClellans characterize the family as ordinary, since these were all popular items for Bradbury’s contemporaries. He fills the house with games, food, and drinks that feel normal to indicate that this family is like any other. In so doing, Bradbury implies that any conclusions the reader draws about this family apply to society at large. On another note, the bridge tables resemble butterflies. They are another example of technology imitating nature.
At 4:30, the walls of the nursery transform into a moving picture of a safari, complete with “yellow giraffes, blue lions, pink antelopes, lilac panthers…the patter of okapi feet and the murmur of a fresh jungle rain.” After a while, the animals retreat to watering holes and thickets. This is “the children’s hour.”
At 5:00, the bath fills with hot water. From 6:00 to 8:00, the dinner dishes move “like magic tricks” and a hearth fire starts in the study. Opposite the fire, the house lights a cigar that is “smoking, waiting.” At 9:00, hidden machinery warms the beds because nights get cold in the city.
The night’s every activity has been scripted by the house. Technology rules over its residents, trying to maximize their enjoyment of every hour. However, the efforts are futile, since no one is home. Technology uses natural resources, such as water (for baths) and fire (for the hearth) to make its residents more comfortable. This scene offers a great example of technology’s attempt to create a better environment than nature has to offer, even though it has to use nature in the process.
At 9:15, a voice from the study ceiling asks Mrs. McClellan which poem she would like to hear. When the voice receives no response, it picks Sara Teasdale’s There Will Come Soft Rains, remarking that it’s Mrs. McClellan’s favorite. The voice reading poetry recites lines that describe a beautiful country scene. Rain, birds, frogs, and plum trees contribute to a beautiful day. In the second half of the poem, it is revealed that mankind has perished in a world war. The poem concludes, “And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn / Would scarcely know that we were gone.”
Bradbury has included a poem verbatim that discusses a peaceful natural setting after mankind destroys itself. Since this short story addresses a similar scenario, this poem offers the short story a chance to look in at itself. At this point in the tale, there are few similarities between the idyllic scene portrayed in the poem and the tech-ruled household where the story takes place. However, by including this passage, Bradbury clues the reader in that he is interested in the idea of nature triumphing over technology.
The house begins to “die” at 10:00. The wind knocks a tree branch through a kitchen window. Cleaning solvent shatters over the stove, and a fire starts instantaneously. The house begins to shout, “Fire!” with many of its machine voices chiming in together.
The tree branch and resulting fire both stand in for nature as a whole. In this scene, the reader sees nature resist the arrogant agenda that technology has imposed on the story so far. Immediately technology mounts a defense against the fire, which it sees as a dangerous intruder.
The house attempts “to save itself” by shutting its doors and containing the fire. The robot mice double as firemen, shooting water from built-in tubes until their personal supply runs out, then they scurry away to refill. “Mechanical rain” also starts spraying from the ceiling until at last the house’s water reserves are exhausted. It has been used up for baths and washing dishes.
As the house resists the flames, the reader sees how much technology strives for control. Rather than accept death, the robot mice attack the fire with small hoses. Unfortunately for them, the water runs out. As it happens, even though these robot mice were fighting a natural force (fire), they were also being sustained by a natural resource (water). Technology’s battle against nature will always fail because it depends upon natural resources and materials.
The fire continues its rampage. It climbs the stairs and feeds “upon Picassos and Matisses in the upper halls, like delicacies, baking off the oily flesh, tenderly crisping the canvases into black shavings.” It burns beds and destroys the drapes.
This passage highlights the power of death. Not only can it kill machines and humans, but it can eradicate cultural heritage. The reader sees invaluable cultural heritage destroyed when paintings by Picasso and Matisse burn in the fire. Through art, humans enable their best ideas to live on. However, death can just as easily consume the memory of humans as it can humans themselves.
The robot mice make their way into the attic and attack the fire from trap doors in the ceiling, spraying a green chemical. This momentarily causes the fire to back off, “as even an elephant must at the sight of a dead snake.” But the fire is “clever.” It has wrapped around the house and ignites the tank in the “attic brain” filled with the green chemical. The “attic brain” shatters.
This exchange emphasizes the power of nature over technology. Even though the robot mice temporarily gain an advantage over fire, fire quickly outmaneuvers the robot creatures. It is worth noting that both the robot mice and the green chemical spray are compared with animals. These creations were built with nature in mind. They depend on nature for their image, so it is no surprise that nature is the stronger of the two.
The fire delves deeper into the house. It “felt the clothes” in the closets. The pain of the house increases. It “shudder[s], oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing,” and it screams “Fire!” All the voices in the house cry out until the fire reaches each one’s wiring and bursts their vocal mechanisms. The animals in the nursery’s moving fresco run away from the fire within the landscape.
Once fire destroys the last defense of the house, it proceeds to ravage it. The quotation about feeling the clothes in the closet emphasizes how invasive and thorough this victory becomes. Technology (the house) cringes as nature (fire) overpowers it. The reader may think of technology as immortal because it does not have a pulse. However, by depicting the house in human terms, Bradbury emphasizes that even technology is temporary.
The many voices of the house continue to cry out until the fire consumes them one by one. One plays music, another announces the time, still others scream. Machines without voices likewise go haywire. The front door keeps slamming open and shut. Above all this noise, the voice reading poetry continues as though nothing is amiss.
The reaction of the house to its own death shows that it wants to control everything. When the house cannot control its own destiny, it goes crazy. It still tries to do things like open doors and announce the time, even though none of these actions matter. In a humorous twist, the voice reading poetry tries to ignore the house’s demise by continuing to read.
The kitchen begins making an oversized breakfast for the next day “at a psychopathic rate.” Then comes a crash. The attic falls in on the main floor, which falls in on the cellar, which falls even deeper into a sub-cellar. All the machines pile up “like skeletons thrown in a cluttered mound deep under.”
The house is nearly dead by now. In this passage, it is compared to a pile of skeletons. Even though the house had human traits, it did not show compassion in its hay day. Instead, it was always preoccupied with governing the schedule. Even now, as the house dies, it hurriedly tries to make breakfast. It is tragically disconnected from reality. The house was not a heroic figure, so the reader does not mourn its demise.
At dawn, as the sun rises over “heaped rubble and steam,” the clock cries out over the wreckage. It says, “Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…”
The sunrise serves as a grim reminder that there is a new beginning daily—whether or not the legacy of mankind reaches that new day. The house has been reduced to a pile of rubbish, which makes the reader skeptical that technology or the impact of humans will be a part of the future. Even though time, death, and nature all seem to have succeeded where mankind and technology failed, one voice still grasps for control in vain. The clock that spoke at the beginning of the story tries to claim one last day with its dying breath.