Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Player Piano” is thought by many to be Jarrell’s last poem, written shortly before he was killed by a motorist. Its narrator is a woman who meets another woman and has a brief friendly interchange with her, then goes home to consider the poverty of her own life. In this poem, Jarrell’s despair is more muted than in others, but his sorrow at the disappointments of life is very present.
The persona is a woman, although the speaker’s sex is not immediately apparent. She eats at a pancake house where the owner turns out to be a woman about her age who shares memories of Pasadena—memories not so much of the place but of shared elements in their history. After the speaker leaves to go back to her hotel, she starts thinking about her past and about her memories of childhood, which materialize to her as a scene of her childhood living room with a player piano, to which she listens with her parents. Her childhood was clearly not happy, but she absolves her parents—they were not to blame for her childhood misery, because they “weren’t old enough to know any better.” She thinks of the player piano, parents and the daughter listening, pretending to play the keys that are actually playing themselves, going up and down beyond her touch. This scene is a fine image of a life where the music is already set, the would-be player having no way of changing the tune.
It may be that through the use of this woman persona, Jarrell is forgiving his own parents for the instability of his childhood and attempting to set himself free from it and them. The image of the child desiring to play and the keys going up and down without her touching them is one of the most appealing of Jarrell’s many portrayals of powerlessness.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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Chappell, Fred. “The Indivisible Presence of Randall Jarrell.” North Carolina Literary Review 1, no. 1 (Summer, 1992): 8-13.
Cyr, Marc D. “Randall Jarrell’s Answerable Style: Revision of Elegy in ’The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 92-106.
Flynn, Richard. Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
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Jarrell, Mary. Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Pritchard, William. Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. New York: Farrar, 1990.
Quinn, Sr. Bernetta. Randall Jarrell. Boston: Twayne, 1981.