Ray Bradbury’s Butterfly Effect in “A Sound of Thunder”

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Ray Bradbury was a brilliant science fiction author whose ideas presaged some important scientific and philosophical ideas.  Though he didn’t found the field of chaos theory, Bradbury’s fiction presaged one of chaos theory’s important ideas that actions, even seemingly insignificant ones, can have major consequences. In "A Sound of Thunder," Ray Bradbury uses point of view, plot, character, setting, and symbolism to show the theme of how small actions can have large unintended consequences.

The point of view in “A Sound of Thunder” is limited omniscience through the thoughts and observations of the character Eckels. The world of the story is introduced through Eckels’s perspective, but he is not narrating: “The sign on the wall seemed to quaver under a film of sliding warm water. Eckels felt his eyelids blink over his stare…” Eckels later meets a “man behind the desk” whose name is never revealed because Eckels never knows it, establishing the limited omniscience of the narrator. The point of view is important to the theme because the climax and resolution of the story are dependent upon Eckels experiencing the altered future world as the reader might: “Eckels stood smelling of the air, and there was a thing to the air, a chemical taint so subtle, so slight, that only his subliminal senses warned him it was there.” In order for the reader to experience the newness and strangeness of the altered reality, it had to be delivered gradually through the thoughts and feelings of Eckels.

The plot of “A Sound of Thunder” centers around a hunter’s trip into the past, wherein he accidentally changes the future. During his trip back in time, Eckels strays off the safe path and, “walked, not knowing it, into the jungle.” At the moment of crisis in the story, Eckels steps on an insect, a golden butterfly, and the resolution is that upon his return to the future, the world has changed. The most important change is the difference in the outcome of the election, in which a fascist candidate won. The plot connects to the theme by illustrating how Eckels’ minor incident, stepping on a butterfly, changed the outcome of the election in 2055, and presumably the condition of the world. In other words, stepping on a butterfly 65 million years ago caused a fascist candidate to win an election, changing the fate of a nation.

The main character in “A Sound of Thunder” is Eckels, whose roundness in the story is achieved at the end when he realizes the enormous consequences his actions of free will have caused. Eckels begins the story nervous but excited about hunting a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Seeing the beast, however, causes Eckels to lose his nerve. “‘It was never like this before,’” Eckels says. “‘I was always sure I’d come through alive…. This time I’ve met my match and admit it.’” Though Eckels loses his nerve, his undoing comes from his dazed journey into the jungle. When he returns to the present day, Eckels fights the consequences of his actions. Bradbury writes, “Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important. Could it?” The question Eckels asks is answered by the theme of the story—for his moment of losing his nerve and wandering dazed into the jungle, Eckels has changed the world and sealed his fate.

Two more important characters in “A Sound of Thunder” are the presidential candidates of Keith and Deutscher. The characters are only referred to by the other characters, with Keith being described as “a fine President” and Deutscher as “the worst kind of dictatorship.” Neither character grows in the story, but they are not meant to. Instead, Bradbury uses these stock characters to show the shift in the story, and elaborate upon the theme of small actions and large consequences. The world was “right” when moderate Keith was in charge but “wrong” when Deutscher had won.

The setting of “A Roar of Thunder” is a nation like America in the future of 2055, roughly 100 years after the time Bradbury wrote the story. Some of the world is familiar—there are elections for a president, people use dollars, and everyone speaks English. However, the world is also fantastic in that time travel exists. This is the most important part of the story, especially as it connects to the theme. The hunting guide Mr. Travis explains: “‘We don’t belong here in the Past. The government does not like us here…. A Time Machine is finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal… thus destroying an important link in a growing species.’” This is a condition of the world that the characters exist in, and because of this, the present-day setting of the story changes when the time travelers return. This is a strong articulation of the theme—actions, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can alter the future. 

The main symbol in “A Roar of Thunder” is the butterfly, as it is the physical manifestation of Eckels’ mistake. “Eckels moaned. He dropped to his knees. He scrabbled at the golden butterfly with shaking fingers. ‘Can’t we,’ he pleaded to the world, himself, to the officials, to the Machine, ‘can’t we take it back, can’t we make it alive again?” Eckels invokes a prayer to return to the normal world by wanting to bring the butterfly back to life. It’s the symbol of the theme, the small insignificant creature that had a profound impact on society.

In “A Sound of Thunder,” the elements of point of view, plot, character, setting, and symbol contribute to the theme of unintended consequences having huge consequence. Bradbury uses elements of fiction to narrate the sad tale of a man who encountered more than he bargained for in a world where such things have consequences. A nation is changed because of what happened to a butterfly 60 million years ago.