The Portable Phonograph

by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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In "The Portable Phonograph," how do allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible contribute to the story?

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In the story "The Portable Phonograph," Doctor Jenkins has collected four books, an old-fashioned phonograph, and a collection of phonograph records that he saved from destruction. The books are a Shakespeare, the Bible, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and Dante's complete Divine Comedy. The phonograph is an old-fashioned wind-up portable model which will play the records until it breaks down. The few things that Jenkins managed to save from destruction symbolize all the glory of human civilization before human foolishness resulted in worldwide self-destruction.

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As the story opens, an old man named Doctor Jenkins is playing host to a small group of men who, like him, are survivors of an unspecified holocaust which destroyed all of human civilization. Doctor Jenkins is wrapping up four high-quality leather-bound books which he says are all the books...

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he managed to save from destruction. They are a complete Shakespeare, the Bible, Herman Melville'sMoby Dick, and Dante's complete Divine Comedy. (The author does not say whether the Divine Comedy is in the original Italian or in translation.) Evidently he selected these books partly because they are all so big and will provide so much material as well as food for thought. They are only important to the story because they are treasures of a lost civilization. They are poor remnants of the vast cultural riches that used to exist in the world before what must have been a great war destroyed nearly everything. Doctor Jenkins also managed to save a small collection of long-playing phonograph records and an old-fashioned wind-up portable phonograph on which he will be able to play his records until the phonograph inevitably breaks down and the records get worn out. The few things the old man managed to save from destruction symbolize all the glory of human civilization before human foolishness resulted in worldwide self-destruction.

These men gathered to reminisce about their lost cultural heritage are among the small number of people who managed to stay alive. They are now living like their primitive ancestors, and the cultural relics of Doctor Jenkins are their only tangible reminders of the past. Doctor Jenkins' choice of literature might not be books that would appeal to everyone, but they are priceless treasures just because they are books and just because they exist. The same is true of the phonograph records and the phonograph itself, after which the story is named. It is fortunate that it is an old-fashioned portable phonograph which has to have its spring rewound for each record to be played, because there is no electricity, and a more advanced record-player would be useless. 

The moral of the story is obviously a warning that with our increasing technological advances, there is a growing danger that we could destroy our civilization and lose all the culture and knowledge that has been created over the centuries, unless we come to our senses and learn to live with each other. The ending of the story is not optimistic. One of the guests sneaks back with the intention of robbing the old man of his treasures, and the old man prepares to defends them by killing the other man if necessary. Throughout the story there is a strong contrast between the condition of the survivors of the great war and the nearly incredible riches of humanity's pre-war past.

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