In Walter van Tilburg Clark's short story "The Portable Phonograph," what does the setting reveal about the doctor or the conflict?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In the short story titled “The Portable Phonograph,” by Walter van Tilburg Clark, the setting implies the aftermath of a horribly destructive war.  Details of the setting which imply such a war include the following:

  • A reference to “the narrow and deeply rutted remains of a road.” A deeply rutted road would not be unexpected in some places, but the reference to the “remains” of a road suggests a road that somehow has been nearly obliterated and has not been repaired.
  • A reference to “little islands of an old oiled pavement in the road.” Mention of the “rutted remains” of the road does not imply that the road was rural and originally unpaved. Instead, the road was once paved, but now the pavement has mostly disappeared, and there are no signs that anyone has made any efforts to repair it.
  • A reference to “the toothed impress of great tanks.” This is the first phrase that suggests unambiguously that a war has taken place.  The earlier bits of evidence, cited above, could have been interpreted as not necessarily implying a war, but the reference to tanks suggests some kind of conflict or at least preparation for conflict. The war was not simply a war between lightly armed human beings but involved the use of massive, highly destructive machines.
  • A reference to “pits . . . such as might have been made by falling meteors, but . . . were the scars of gigantic bombs.”  Here the allusion to warfare is even more explicit than before.  It is conceivable that tanks might have caused destruction merely when used in practice or training, but the reference to bombs having fallen and having exploded suggests that this terrain was targeted in actual conflict.
  • A reference to “tangled and multiple barbed wire still erect” once again implies warfare, while the simple word “still” implies that the conflict is for some reason over but that the evidence of conflict has not yet been taken down or removed.  This fact, in turn, implies that perhaps for some reason it has become impossible to dispose of such evidence and move on to a new phase of life.
  • A reference to the fact that “there was no structure or remnant of a structure visible over the dome of the darkling earth” suggests a total destruction of normal human habitation.
  • Finally, a reference to the fact that

the precious remnants of wood, old fence posts and timbers from the long-deserted dugouts, had to be saved for the real cold, for the time when a man's breath blew white

suggests again – especially in the phrase “long-deserted dug-outs – the end of a war unlike the ends of most wars. When most wars end, normal life usually begins to resume in some fashion or another.  This war, however, seems ominously different – a supposition confirmed by later details of the story.


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