The Portable Phonograph

by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

These pits were such as might have been made by falling meteors, but they were not. They were the scars of gigantic bombs, their rawness already made a little natural by rain, seed and time. Along the road there were rakish remnants of fence. There was also, just visible, one portion of tangled and multiple barbed wire still erect, behind which was a shelving ditch with small caves, now very quiet and empty, at intervals in its back wall.

The description found early in the story serves to illuminate the setting. There are various indications here that the story takes place in the aftermath of a devastating war. Bombs have ravaged the landscape, leaving craters that resemble those of fallen meteors. Some time has passed since the war, as the earth is already attempting to heal itself with sprouts generating from seed and rain. Barbed wire still prefaces an area of “small caves” (the hiding places in the front line of the past war). Now, all is quiet in this war-ravaged landscape, where it seems very few people have survived.

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.

When faced with annihilation in the war, Dr. Jenkins chose to save what he could. Instead of being practical—saving resources to physically sustain himself—he has chosen to save the most beautiful things humankind has produced. Saving what he considered the best of literature and music is representative of his desire that life should continue in a more art-driven way that it has before.

Although the great minds behind literature and music produced masterpieces in their own time, eventually, Dr. Jenkins argues, humanity became too “clever” with technology, and the creation of things that were beautiful was subsumed and overtaken by the “cleverness” of destructive inventions. Dr. Jenkins hopes that these pieces will keep him and the rest of humanity grounded in the truth of things that are important as they all reach toward a new future.

Shakespeare, the Bible, Moby Dick, The Divine Comedy.

The doctor chose to save these four books. Much could be analyzed about his choices. Shakespeare is considered by many to be the greatest writer in the English language. His works contain comedies, tragedies, and histories, and span a great deal of human experience in their themes. The implication is that this will ground future generations in the idea of holding on to that which is timeless and meaningful.

The Bible symbolizes thousands of years of history but also affords a path toward a meaningful existence in the bleak world which now surrounds the men. It provides hope for this life and for a life to come. One of the themes of Moby-Dick is the limits of knowledge; symbolically, this is representative of all the collective knowledge of humankind that has brought the world to near total devastation. The Divine Comedy provides a pathway for salvation, which helps the survivors conceptualize the notion of a better world and aids them in their spiritual quest for deliverance from sin.

At last he prayed, and got in under his blankets, and closed his smokesmarting eyes. On the inside of the bed, next the wall, he could feel with his hand, the comfortable piece of lead pipe.

The story ends with the doctor both looking toward prayer for guidance and holding on to his “comfortable” piece of lead pipe, which shows the conflicted nature of mankind; while we long for peace and hope, we also cling to symbols of violence in an effort to survive. This symbol of destruction is “comfortable” because it represents how the world has always progressed. In the end, the story seems to indicate, humans value their own survival, no matter the devastation they might inflict on others.

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