Irony in “A Sound of Thunder”
In “A Sound of Thunder”, Ray Bradbury uses verbal, dramatic, and situational irony to present conflicts and symbols which communicate the themes that small actions have huge consequences and mankind must protect beauty because beauty cannot protect itself.
Verbally dramatic irony intensifies the Man Vs. Man conflict between Deutscher, whose name and policies allude to Nazi Germany and who symbolizes war, and Keith, a kinder, gentler politician who symbolizes peace. The desk clerk of the old future despites the “anti-Christ, anti-human, anti-intellectual” Deutscher, but the new clerk reveres him: “We got an iron man now, a man with guts, by God!” This victory of war over peace gives Eckels’s denials of wrongdoing (“I’m innocent. I’ve done nothing!”) even more verbally dramatic irony. Eckels’s “r-eckles-s” killing of the butterfly, which symbolizes beauty, is a seemingly insignificant action which catalyses three conflicts: he wins a Man Vs. Nature conflict with the butterfly, loses a Man Vs. Man conflict with Travis, who finally kills him, and ensures Deutscher’s Man Vs. Man victory over Keith.
The catastrophic consequences of Eckels’s decision lend additional credence to two more of his verbally dramatic statements: “If the election had gone badly yesterday, I might be here now running away from the results” and “Every hunter that ever lived would envy us today.” Eckels’s untimely travails throw the election to Deutscher, and because the future Eckels creates is a society of violent hunters, he is quite right that they will all envy him. These four examples of verbal irony highlight the negative results of Eckels’s cowardly actions to present the themes that small decisions can greatly impact the world and that beauty is a quality which mankind must preserve.
Dramatic irony heightens the aforementioned Man Vs. Man conflict between Deutscher and Keith because the reader knows Eckels has changed the election while the desk clerk doesn’t. Bradbury’s description of the environment of the future also shows dramatic irony: “there was a thing to the air, a chemical taint so subtle, so slight, that only a faint cry of his subliminal senses warned him that it was there.” Eckels’s action has created a harsher, more polluted world where people view nature as the enemy. Dramatic irony makes Eckels’s defeat in his Man Vs. Self conflict with his fear more poignant because while he was hiding in the time machine, his comrades defeat the “mountain avalanche” that “can’t be killed”. The hunters’ bravery shows that Eckels’s despair was groundless and his fateful walk off the path was insignificant. The dramatic irony is that Eckels’s contribution is insignificant, but the consequences of his action are enormous, presenting the theme that small actions greatly affect the big picture, and his description of the future as a harsher place thanks to the destruction of the butterfly presents the theme that beauty must be preserved.
Bradbury also drives his themes home through the deft use of situational irony. The central situational irony of the story is that a minute change in the distant past can profoundly change the future: “Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity.” When Eckels steps on the butterfly, he catalyses the story’s conflicts, destroys the symbol of beauty, and creates the theme that small actions can have huge consequences. Another example of situational irony is that Eckels’s misplaced boot creates a future where cowards such as him don’t exist. The society he creates could not stomach “that damn weakling Keith”, so it certainly would not tolerate its inadvertent creator, Eckels. Situational irony also strengthens Eckels’s Man Vs. Nature conflict with the tyrannosaurus rex and Man Vs. Man conflict with Travis. Eckels runs off the path to save himself from the dinosaur, but the consequences of his action cause Travis to kill him instead. These two examples of situational irony show that Eckels symbolizes weaklings who cannot survive nature and its “sound of thunder”. It is situational irony that one weak creature, Eckels, preys on another, the butterfly. Each is finally killed. The many layers of irony wrapped around the death of the butterfly help present its helplessness and humanity’s responsibility to protect it and other beautiful creatures.
Ray Bradbury uses verbal, dramatic, and situational irony in “A Sound of Thunder” to create conflicts and symbols and present his two major themes: small actions have huge consequences, and mankind must protect beauty so that Darwinian malignant forces will not destroy it.