The Portable Phonograph

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The Portable Phonograph of Walter Van Tilburg Clark is a science fiction where four survivors of an apocalyptic war acquire in a dugout cave to savor selections from their host who has managed to save 4 books, a few record as well as a portable phonograph. When the nighttime is over, the host lies down to sleep, clutching a “piece of lead pipe” that is “comfortable”. Thus, an evening of high culture is sandwiched between apocalypse and a lead pipe.
Clark covers a number of themes including, chaos and conflict as well as isolation and alienation. The writer also addresses the themes of art and the artists as well as interior lives and music. In a landscape that has been ravaged by war “matted grass and isolated weed stalks… spread into the badlands… they were the scars of gigantic bombs… rakish remnants” (Clark 82), a group of men huddle in the relative safety of a cave. The men must listen to the phonograph and the records sparingly, as they have no other way of replacing them and the music and books are the only pleasures in life. The scarcity of such resources demonstrates the alienation due to the chaotic nature of the previous events.

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At one point, the host decides to use a real needle, not the thorns that act as a poor substitute. The presence of music makes the characters to be carried away from the harshness of their existence “he rose with slow pain… sometimes his body jerked in its rags from the cold… he was sick and often coughed” (Clark 83). The beauty of music affects the young man profoundly, and he seems to be on the verge of a breakdown, “please the music” (84). Still, when the album, a Debussy nocturne, has played to its conclusion, the characters rise mechanically and head into the wilderness.

The central conflict in the text is founded on the fact that the characters have nothing left behind to remind them of their human nature. The preceding events robbed them of everything that they had. Consequently, the men start becoming greedy of the little things left behind. Dr. Jenkins can be noticed fighting with a part of him that wants to share music while another part wants him to conceal the source of music. The source of all these conflicts has been caused by war, and now the characters try to adopt into the peaceful context. The host invites the men in a week, but he hides the books and the music in a hollow cave “with nervous hands ... He slipped the records into the case... deep hole in the wall into which he hid the phonograph” (Clark 86). Ultimately, the music and literature have a significant impact on the lives of the four men who appear to have lost perspective on various aspects of life. However, Dr. Jerkins remains insecure of his cherished art and hides the very things that are supposed to bring pleasure in their torn lives.

Conclusively, the characters who remain permanently underdeveloped and instead act as symbolic survivors of the consequence of violence, realize the importance of art in their lives. The apocalyptic vision is both frightening as well as hopeful, with little context offered for their situation. The author demonstrates that men could have been from any war and lived at any time. Art, it seems, can perpetuate the spirits of men even in the worst of times.

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Work Cited

Clark, Walter Van Tilburg. The Portable Phonograph. 1941. [Accessed February 22, 2017].

September 01, 2021



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