The Portable Phonograph Analysis
by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Clark’s language is relatively simple, for he is emphasizing what happens, not language in itself. It is a language of concrete images, especially of winter; the points are made largely through the use of imagery, not assertion. Clark develops his themes, however, through the use of a varying point of view as well as of the overall structure, and these two techniques are intimately allied.

Structurally, the story moves from a general view of humankind to the particular. As the story begins, the world is presented from the outside, almost as though through the lens of a camera. These images are of a cruel and unforgiving natural world, and so become comments. For only a sentence or two, an authorial voice tells us what those images mean. This is the one place that this judging, moralizing voice enters. Most of the story does not force the reader to accept a particular meaning, but the authorial voice is momentarily necessary in order to establish the generalizations.

It is the telling of most of the story from the outside, however, that suggests the difficulties of saying what humankind is. Clark does not explain what people are; the interpretation is up to the reader.

When the point of view first shifts to a personal view, the thoughts of the individ-uals, it is momentarily to the mind of the musician, not to Doctor Jenkins. This is significant, for the musician thinks only that he does not have much future. The reader is never in his mind again and so cannot know whether he may be willing to kill for that short future. The reader enters Jenkins’s mind only indirectly: The reader knows that he is listening for the cough but is not told why. Nor is it explained why the lead pipe is comforting. This indirection is one more element in the terrible and threatening ambiguity of the story.