The Portable Phonograph by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

For a very short story, “The Portable Phonograph” develops unusual complex thematic matters. When it was published, there was already war in Europe and a well-founded fear that the United States would soon be involved. The story, both in the manner of its telling as well as in what it tells, develops themes that are not time-bound. Walter Van Tilburg Clark is posing questions about human nature, not just discussing particular historical circumstances.

There is a deliberate indeterminacy as to what human nature may be and how it relates to its own achievements. For example, technology, which has been created by humans, has destroyed itself and so destroyed humans; or, perhaps, human beings, having made technology, have misused it and destroyed themselves. Only in a civilized world is there technology, and technology is control over, sometimes destruction of, nature. Because civilization can be antinature and antilife, it can be an evil. Outside the cave, there is only nature, uncaring about humankind, held off only somewhat by books and music. Elsewhere in his work, Clark has affirmed the natural and primitive man, but here primitiveness is not a simple good.

Jenkins’s wish for the future, that the ones to follow will learn the best of the old civilization from its books, suggests that he still believes that humankind can learn, can truly progress. He believes that human beings may be capable of achieving technological progress and yet use it for good and beautiful purposes, of living in harmony with the natural. There is also a hint that nature itself may offer some hope, although humankind has little to do with this. After the description of tank tracks and bomb craters, the first paragraph ends with the picture of a few young trees “trying again.”

All of this is only a wish. The actualities of the events say that people have killed and very probably will continue to kill one another; the end of the story disturbingly suggests that the young musician, no doubt dying from his disease, may nevertheless be capable of killing Jenkins in order to acquire the phonograph and the records. He may kill, not for power, but for the temporary possession of a certain kind of beauty. Perhaps Clark’s use of music is intended to emphasize the terrible nature of this breakdown of civilization. Music is the nearest art to purity, especially the art of someone like Debussy. The books that Jenkins has preserved are contaminated by social, political, religious, and moral...

(The entire section is 642 words.)