Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Analysis

Robert M. Pirsig

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance begins as a narrative account of a motorcycle trip that author Robert Pirsig took with his son Chris. It quickly becomes much more than a travel narrative, however, although it is replete with descriptions of the roads traveled and natural wonders observed along the way. The geography of the trip is carefully documented as well, so that it is not difficult to plot the trip along a standard road map.

The book is divided into four parts, with each part subdivided into chapters of various lengths. Sometimes the chapter divisions indicate units of time or geographical space covered, but more often, and probably more important, the divisions punctuate the philosophical discussion in which Pirsig engages. Early in the book Pirsig announces that the book will be a kind of “Chautauqua.” He explains that Chautauquas were “an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.” With these nonthreatening words, he launches into some serious philosophical investigations that eventually attempt to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western ways of thinking.

Since the trip takes place on a motorcycle, Pirsig uses the machine to focus some of his philosophical discussion. The friends who accompany Pirsig and his son as far as Montana, John and Sylvia Sutherland, approach technology from one...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Despite its title, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers little information about either Zen Buddhism or the maintenance of motorcycles. The author includes a direct warning to this effect, indicating that the book is instead a narrative based on personal experience. The narrative functions on three levels. At its simplest, it is a travelogue describing a cross-country motorcycle trip taken one summer by the narrator, Robert Pirsig, a middle-aged technical writer, and his eleven-year-old son, Chris; their westward journey begins in Minneapolis, goes through the Dakotas to Montana, then over to Oregon and down the California coast.

On another level, the book describes a psychological journey. Years earlier, Pirsig suffered a serious mental breakdown culminating in electric shock therapy that virtually erased his previous personality; now his son is showing early symptoms of psychotic illness. Each is haunted by the ghost of Pirsig’s past incarnation, named Phaedrus by Pirsig, and each in his own way is trying to recover a relationship with that self. Their journey literally covers some of the same ground Phaedrus traversed, including the university in Bozeman, Montana, where Phaedrus was a teacher.

Most important, however, the book retraces the theoretical ground of Phaedrus’ thoughts, ideas about the split between classical and romantic thinking and how that dichotomy informs the crisis of modern technological life, thoughts which became so strange and which Phaedrus pursued so intensely that they drove him to madness. These ideas represent the book’s third level.

Pirsig is not so much remembering Phaedrus’ thoughts as he is trying to pick them up and complete them—only this time, without going mad. His pursuit takes the form of a series of meditative soliloquies appropriate to a motorcycle journey, where conversation is difficult but where long solitary bouts of thinking are possible. These soliloquies, while following a generally consistent theme, dip in and out of diverse philosophical systems, from...

(The entire section is 848 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Abbey, Edward. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXX (March 30, 1975), p. 6.

Adams, Robert M. “Good Trip,” in The New York Review of Books. XXI (June 13, 1974), pp. 22-23.

Basalla, George. “Man and Machine,” in Science. CLXXXVII (January 24, 1975), pp. 248-250.

Schuldenfrei, Richard. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in Harvard Educational Review. XLV (February, 1975), pp. 95-103.

Steiner, George. “Uneasy Rider,” in The New Yorker. L (April 15, 1974), pp. 147-150.