Please write an in-depth summary of The Portable Phonograph by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please note that this material is intended to supplement the information presented in our eNotes study guide.
The story opens at sunset and establishes a dark and desolate setting. We are told that the clouds blacked the sky "like threats," and everything is cold. The air is filled with a "sensation of torment." It is clear that a catastrophic war has occurred, leaving the world broken and scarred, but this event is never fully explained. Only its aftermath is evident. Pits scar the landscape, created by huge bombs, and the muddy, frozen roads are rutted from tanks. The narrative then describes an icy creek that flows toward a sort of tunnel containing a small red peat fire (real wood must be preserved for the coming winter, which is expected to be a great deal colder than the current season).
Four men sit around the fire, and one is so old that he seems like a "prehistoric priest" performing some ritual as he wraps up his books; he is the one who lives in this small cell. He tells the others that, once he realized what was happening to the world, he decided to take "this." By this, he is referring to his volumes of the collected works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Moby Dick, and The Divine Comedy. He says that he saved what he loved: "'the soul of what was good in us here.'" He expresses his hope that they will help the people who come next.
Two of the other men speak, but the fourth man does not. He coughs a lot, though he is young. The old man, called Dr. Jenkins, seems to have been reading to the group. When no one says anything else, he realizes that they want to hear his phonograph—the young man especially.
Jenkins says that he's been using thorns as needles, but because the young man, a musician, is there, he will will use a real needle to play the record tonight. He says that he only plays a record once a week in order to preserve them for as long as possible. Jenkins reads the different records' information aloud and the young musician is allowed to choose the one to which they will listen. When the piece is finished, Jenkins tells the men to return in a week to listen to another one.
After the men leave, Jenkins—who we, by now, realize to be a cultured and learned man—secures his phonograph as best he can, hiding it in the recesses of his cell. He hides his books in a similar manner. He then lies down facing the entrance to his home and adds to the fire, creating more light. Before he falls asleep, he feels the "comfortable piece of lead pipe" that he has hidden within his bed, ready to defend himself and his possessions.
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