In "The Portable Phonograph," Walter Van Tilburg Clark maintains an almost detached tone to narrate a story of the bleak state of humanity in a post-apocalyptic setting.
In the opening paragraph, this tone is combined with a harsh description of the world which remains: the grass is matted, the mud is frozen rigid, there are scars left by "gigantic bombs," and tangled barbed wire encases the caves where soldiers held a front line in this war. Although humanity has nearly disappeared, nature forges on. Geese flee south; the verb connotes a natural desire to escape the carnage left behind by man's wars. In the distance, a prairie wolf howls faintly.
The setting is winter, and an icy cold envelops the setting. A creek stands silent, and the trees are leafless. However, colder weather will come as indicated by the survivor's fire of peat instead of a warmer wood:
But 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, the moisture in his nostrils stiffened at once when he stepped out, and the expensive blizzards paraded for days
This symbolizes that the survivors have not yet seen their worst days. As bleak as the setting is, worse yet are the days to come. It is worth noting that one of the men is sick, coughing often. A harsher winter will no doubt cause the untimely end for this young man.
The men are drawn together by beauty. Once a week, they converge in the cave of the man who rescued books and music from complete devastation. Themes resound of the importance of art in one's life; people need something worth living for. They need to know of the history of mankind—reflected in both the Bible and in the works of Shakespeare—and they need hope to survive their struggles. One man at the fire longs to write, but there is no longer any paper. This conveys a theme that mankind longs to create and to be expressive: to leave a lasting mark upon the world. In this scene, however, there is no such outlet.
The men do not seem to connect with each other, which is ironic. Although art and beauty draw them together, it is not powerful enough to forge human bonds needed to survive life together. At the end of their evening, they all part ways with only their thanks in parting. It seems that the hatred that consumed mankind enough to end this world still dictates the men, as they continue to live isolated and separate lives. The men do not speak of what they have lost and what lies in the past. There is no mention of their families and very little of their backgrounds. They exist only in the present.
In the end, the doctor buries his treasures and lies with his face to the door of his little cave. As he longs for rest, he also reaches for the "comfortable piece of lead pipe" which he keeps at his bed. These lingering effects of the war perhaps reflect the inner workings of mankind; the doctor lives in a fear that what little he has will be taken, and he stands ready to inflict pain on anyone who dares threaten him. Was this the same sentiment which started the war and devastated humanity? Are humans capable of overcoming the desire to simply survive and to instead live in a world that collectively protects the knowledge of history as well as things of beauty?
The bleak narrative of the world which remains after this war seems to indicate that humans are doomed to forge ahead in wars because they live in fear of their fellow man.