A Sound of Thunder is a science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury.
‘A Sound of Thunder’ is set in the year 2055 when time travel has become a practical reality and the company Time Safari Inc. offers wealthy hunters, a chance to go back in time where they can hunt any species including the extinct dinosaurs. A hunter named Eckels pays $10,000 to be taken back to 66 million years ago on a guided safari to hunt a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Although he is excited about the whole adventure, he is also concerned about his own safety. The company official warns Eckels and gives him a few instructions on how to carry himself throughout the adventure into the past. The company official tells him that they guarantee neither the safety nor the return of the passengers. This is in a way foreshadows the predicament that Eckels finds himself in at the end of the story. The official also tells Eckels and the other two hunters to follow the instructions of Mr. Travis strictly throughout their expedition and not shoot without his nod. While waiting for the departure, Eckels takes an opportunity to discuss the recent presidential elections with the man behind the desk. In the small talk with him, he is very happy with the victory of Keith and the defeat of Deutscher, who is a fascist and a potential dictator. Bradbury’s choice of the name for the dictator, Deutscher befits the plot to invoke the fear of Nazi Germany taking over most of the western world, as this name is stereotypical German and the story was written just after World War II.
The story is concerned with the fears of the 1950s that lurked at the beginning of the cold war and the end of World War II. Bradbury is successfully able to create a futuristic and new America which is far removed from the colonial past, but is still threatened by fascists like the presidential candidate, Deutscher. The time travel in the story is not simply about the act of visiting and exploring the past, it is also about how an apparently inconsequential act of killing an innocent butterfly tilts the balance millions of years later, in favor of that which is evil.
The citizens of America in the story time (1955) are concerned with the political upheavals; the characters of the story are filled with anxiety as they await election results, along with the contrasting scope of exploration, exploitation and a thrilling adventure that lies ahead in their travel into the past. The whole narrative is based on the presidential elections and the two choices that are in front of the nation – democracy or dictatorship. The conflict between American democracy and the totalitarian regime is of utmost importance in the story. The main character Mr. Eckels feels relieved on knowing that democratic Keith has been elected and not Deutscher who is an “anti-everything man”. Eckels even jokes that had Deutscher been chosen, then the safari would serve as a great medium of escape and that he “might be here now running away from results”.The agent comments, “Of course it’s not our business to conduct escapes.” This also foreshadows the terrible political reversal that takes place at the end of the story.
There are four people on board with Eckels; Travis- the Safari leader, his assistant- Lesperance, and two other hunters-Billings and Kramer. Eckels excitedly remarks, “Every hunter that ever lived would envy us today. This makes Africa seem like Illinois.” Just before they step out of the Time Machine, Travis indicates towards a levitating path that has been specially designed for this adventure, so as to not touch anything of the past world and disrupt the environment. Failing to fulfil these obligations will lead to punishment and a hefty fine. He explains that these precautionary measures are in place to minimize the events before they return, as even the slightest of alterations can cause catastrophic changes in history. He elucidates this further by giving an example of how the killing of even a small living organism might disrupt the food chain, further hindering the procreation of different species and even the conception of the whole humankind. “The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very foundation.” He also informs the hunters that his assistant has already marked their prey with red; those beasts who would have died within minutes anyway, and whose death would cause a minimal effect on the future. It is obvious that the company has complete control over the conditions of safari, which in fact, is their hubris. He instructs the hunters not to touch anything there and that they will be fined if they fail to do so. The stillness of the moment when they wait for the kill builds up tension and suspense. As they venture out on the levitating path in search of the Tyrannosaurus, Eckels loses his nerve and gets scared. Travis and the other hunters brace up for the encounter. Suddenly, the beast appears and the encounter is described as ‘A Sound of Thunder’. This is used twice in the narrative which is indicative of mortality and death. A series of metaphors are used to describe the prey. As Eckels gets frightened, Travis tells him to go to the time machine and wait for them. Travis is furious with him as he is the first one who is supposed to shoot; the delay might cost them their lives. Eckels runs blindly towards the time machine, and steps off the levitating path, sinking his feet into green moss. He makes the fatal mistake of intervening with the wilderness of pre-historic times. Meanwhile, the other two hunters and Travis manage to kill the Tyrannosaurus. As it falls down, ‘Like a stone idol, like a mountain avalanche,’ the whole picture looks gruesome. The hunters cannot even take any souvenir of the hunt with them, and after this terrifying encounter, they decide not to take even a photograph. Soon after that, the tree falls on the dinosaur, which is actually how it had died all those years ago. Travis is utterly furious with Eckels when he sees mud on his boots and threatens to leave him in the past, and as a punishment orders him to remove the bullets from the body of the dinosaur. They have no clue as yet about the extent of harm Eckels’ reckless action has caused to the future, i.e. the ‘present’ where they are from. Eckels returns after removing the bullets with great difficulty and faints.
As they return to the present (2055), they immediately feel the change. Travis notices some change and checks with the man behind the desk if everything is alright. There is a strange smell filling their nostrils. Eckels senses the minute and intangible changes around him. The sign upon the wall has changed and the words are spelt differently as in Old English. It scares him a little, so he sits to inspect himself and he finds a dead butterfly embedded in the mud under his boots, ‘…green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.’ Its colours are symbolic of the past, present and the huge change that the killing of the butterfly in the past has brought. Green symbolizes pre-historic times when all the living beings were in harmony with each other; gold symbolizes present (2055) when the civilization has developed and America’s president is Keith; and black is symbolic of the dark time that present has mutated into with the onset of fascism. This sudden revelation panics him and on asking the man behind the desk about the election result, he gets to know that Deutscher has won it and everyone is happy about it. The victory of democracy over fascism is imperilled when Eckels steps off the path. The event that Eckels joked about escaping, i.e. an “anti-everything man”– Deutscher as a president, has not become a reality. The killing of the butterfly is also a reference to how if innocents like the butterfly are crushed in a country and their voices are suppressed, the whole nation might be doomed with dictatorship. The idea is to also learn from history and not repeat the mistakes of the past, as it will always result in disastrous consequences. Democracy might offer us the power to exercise our will and raise our voice, but if either the will is misused or the voice of the commons is subdued, then the consequences will be catastrophic, just the way it happens in the story.
When Eckels realizes that his grave mistake has changed the whole course of the present, he pleads with Travis to take him back into the past and enable him to undo everything. But what is done is irreversible. He sits down and senses Travis entering the room. Travis takes off the safety of his rifle and Eckels hears ‘a sound of thunder’