The Portable Phonograph Questions and Answers
by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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What are the themes in "The Portable Phonograph" by Walter Van Tilburg Clark? How does it connects to our lives?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One theme is that beauty and art are more valuable than ever in a post-Holocaust world in which civilization has been destroyed. The men treat the emergence and playing of the portable phonograph with religious reverence. Hearing the music seems more important to them than eating. The Debussy nocturne they choose to hear on the windup phonograph (it doesn't need electricity) transports them. They recognize and respond to the privilege of hearing good music with an intensity that would not be possible if civilization were still intact.

Beyond the phonograph, they treasure the four books Jenkins saved, and the man who is a writer longs for the paper he does not have. These men understand, as does the reader, that pursuing and enjoying the creative life keeps us human.

Another important theme is threat. The owner of phonograph, Jenkins, hides his precious cache of records and books, as well as the phonograph, and he sleeps by his canvas door with a lead pipe at hand. The beauty and creativity the men crave and appreciate lies side-by-side with the human capacity for violence. The potential for both, as shown in Jenkins, exists in all of us.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Some of what makes Clark's short story so powerful is the theme of defining importance. The fact that the dwellers in the cave hold dear to them literature and artistic expression as few of the items from their "former" world as what would represent them and the things they believe in is powerful. Jenkins' care for literature is compelling and represents a theme that has much resonance in our own lives.  What do we define as quality literature that could withstand the test of time?  What criteria do we use to determine what makes great "literature?"  At the same time, is what we treasure so dearly able to be shared with others?  The fact that the phonograph has to be hidden from others indicate its precious state brings to light another theme from the short story.  In a setting where the things we love are rare, how open are we to sharing these with others?  Is there an intrinsic value to sharing what we love or is what we love meant only for us?  These are powerful themes that arise out of Clark's story.

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