The Portable Phonograph

by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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Last Updated on June 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

Dr. Jenkins

The main character of the story is a very old man named Dr. Jenkins. He lives in an earthen cave near a frozen stream in a barren landscape that has been ruined by a catastrophic war. Other men come to listen to him read from the handful of books he was able to save and to listen to his phonograph and his small collections of records.

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Dr. Jenkins says that he “saved what [he] love[s]” and “the soul of what was good in us here,” though he admits that his choice of what to salvage may have been “impractical.” He seems to hope that the next people who come to live in this place—most of the old population was killed in the war—will make use of the things that he saved: the things that show the good that was possessed by the people who almost destroyed the earth and themselves.

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The fact that he is called “doctor” and chose to save high-cultural artifacts like literature (the Bible, the complete works of William Shakespeare, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy) and classical music (like the nocturnes of Claude Debussy) indicates that he was a cultured man who has since been altered into a person who must sleep with a leaden pipe beneath his blankets so that he can protect himself and the things he loves. The fact that he is ready and willing to resort to violence, along with the fact that he plays his phonograph for the other men only “grudgingly,” also indicates some possessiveness on his part.

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Latest answer posted August 16, 2009, 7:22 am (UTC)

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The Two Middle-Aged Men

There are three other men in the cave with Dr. Jenkins. One of them believes that Dr. Jenkins will at least “have a little soul left until [he] die[s]” as a result of what he has salvaged. In the absence of art and culture, he feels that his “brain becomes thick,” and he wants paper to write on, but there is none. He is later described as antagonistic. Another man thanks Dr. Jenkins for reading the books to them; he is more soft-spoken and is less bitter than the man who wants paper. Both of these two men are middle-aged.

The Young Man

In the cave with Dr. Jenkins and the two middle-aged men is a young man who coughs a lot. He is—or was—a musician, and Dr. Jenkins lets him choose the piece of music that they listen to, a nocturne by Claude Debussy. They all listen thoughtfully to the music when it begins, but the young musician is the most affected of all of them. He seems to actually endure physical pain while he listens: “He let his head fall back in agony, as if it were drawn there by the hair, and clenched the fingers of one hand over his teeth. . . . His drawn-up legs were trembling violently.” The musician leaves separately from the other two men. When Jenkins (after all the other men have left and after hiding all of his treasures) hears coughing far-off in the dark, he grasps his leaden pipe to be sure it is there.

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