What are the themes in The Portable Phonograph by Walter Van Tilburg Clark? This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please clearly identify at least 3 themes and devote a separate paragraph to a discussion of each one
The Significance of Art
When Dr. Jenkins realizes that the world is ending around him, he chooses to save what he considers the best efforts of mankind. He saves Shakespeare, Dante, Melville, and the Bible. He saves music that he can sparingly listen to in his world of devastation. The doctor acknowledges that many would find his choices "impractical" as a means of survival, but he does not regret them. While things with more practical value could have possibly lengthened his life, these artistic choices give life to his soul.
Indeed, to prove this point, one of the other men comments that his "brain becomes thick, like [his] hands" due to the absence of beauty and thought in his life. He confesses that he wants paper so that he can write, but there is no paper. The human soul has a need to find beauty—to create things of lasting significance and to make meaning from the confusing world through artistic forms. Without this, the world is devoid of hope entirely.
As it stands, the men anticipate each one of their weekly gatherings when they share literature and listen to a piece of music together. It binds them in the human experience and it resonates in their souls—these are the things worth saving.
The Destructive Power of Mankind
Although mankind has the power to create things of immense artistic beauty, the wisdom humanity has amassed also has the capability to bring total destruction to the world. The story opens with a bleak representation of the new earth. Meteor-sized holes pit the earth, and there are no signs of other humans. Tangles of barbed wire stand guard against a line of caverns that once held men and women holding the front lines of battle. There is little left in this world to physically or spiritually sustain those people who are left.
While great minds like Shakespeare and Dante have emerged to create beautiful things, other great minds have also emerged alongside them with the capacity to create ideas with devastating consequences. The doctor reflects:
We are the doddering remnant of a race of mechanical fools. I have saved what I love; the soul of what was good in us here; perhaps the new ones will make a strong enough beginning not to fall behind when they become clever.
Alienation and Isolation
Interestingly, this group of men comes together to share each other's company through literature and music, but they self-isolate themselves from each other at the conclusion of this time, which is an ongoing arrangement. When the music ends, everyone wordlessly rises to leave the doctor:
The others, however, understood. The musician rose last, but then abruptly, and went quickly out at the door without saying anything. The others stopped at the door and gave their thanks in low voices. The doctor nodded magnificently.
"Come again," he invited "in a week. We will have the 'New York.'"
When the two had gone together, out toward the rimed road, he stood in the entrance, peering and listening.
The doctor stands to make sure that everyone leaves before hiding his treasures. In a desolate world where no other humans are mentioned, the men don't seem to fully trust each other either. They do not look toward the others for ongoing support; instead, there seems to be a bit of dark suspicion among the remaining survivors.
In their fear, the men further alienate themselves in their efforts to survive, which is quite ironic. Not only this, but the doctor stands ready with his lead pipe, his face to the entrance of his little hiding place, ready to protect his treasures at any cost. He still clings to the idea of survival, even if it means complete isolation from the small corner of humanity he and the other men have constructed.
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