The tone and atmosphere of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s story “The Portable Phonograph” are effectively established in the first three paragraphs of the work. Simply in his use of nouns, Clark telegraphs a good deal of information about how the story should be read and felt. Such nouns include the following:
- “sunset,” suggesting both a literal and figurative darkening.
- “cloud strips like threats,” suggesting both a literal and figurative diminishment of light and a sense of ominousness and danger.
- “darkness,” “cold,” and “night,” symbolizing a depressing, unpleasant environment and an absence of safety and comfort.
- “wind,” “veil,” “dusk,” “clouds,” again suggesting growing darkness, diminished light, and a sense of nature as unpleasantly out of man’s control.
- “torment” and “violence,” suggesting both extreme pain and genuine danger.
- “stillness,” “weed stalks,” “ice,” “mud,” suggesting death, absence of movement, an absence of beauty, and literal filth.
- “tanks,” “bombs,” remnants,” “barbed wire,” suggesting armed conflict and destruction.
- “caves” and “shadows,” contributing to the literal and figurative sense of darkness.
- “wolf,” suggesting once more the potential dangers of nature.
- “smoke,” reinforcing all the earlier images of darkness, although here the darkness is man-made.
Not all the nouns in the first three paragraphs are as disturbing and unsettling as these (geese, for instance, are mentioned), but nouns of the sort listed above are the nouns the predominate. In fact, some of the nouns listed above are repeated, thus intensifying their dark and gloomy effect.
Clark obviously knew what he was doing when the wrote the opening paragraphs of this tale. He wanted to create a dark and depressing tone and atmosphere. He wanted to suggest, without at first explaining how or why, that something awful had already happened and that something even more awful might happen yet. Alternatively, he wanted to create an atmosphere that would emphasize, through contrast, anything brighter, more positive, more uplifting that might appear later in the story.
Clark realized the importance of the opening of any work in creating interest in the reader. If the first few paragraphs of a story are not effectively written, the rest of the story may never be read. Clark describes a landscape that immediately intrigues us, making us wonder how and why it came to be this way. As the paragraphs progress, the tone and atmosphere become increasingly dark and depressing. At first nature itself seems inhospitable, but as the opening paragraph develops we realize that humans have helped create this increasingly ugly landscape. As the narrator memorably puts it,
These pits were such as might have been made by falling meteors, but they were not. They were the scars of gigantic bombs . . . .