The Portable Phonograph Summary


The Portable Phonograph is a short story by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. It was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in December of 1940. The story is set in the late 1800s, and revolves around a group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world. The main character, an unnamed narrator, finds a phonograph and records the last days of humanity before the apocalypse.

The story is full of literary devices and symbolism. One of the most prominent symbols is the phonograph itself. The narrator finds it in an abandoned house, and it represents the last vestige of civilization. It’s a reminder of a time when people listened to music and shared stories. The fact that it’s portable makes it even more special – it’s a symbol of hope that can be carried with them as they wander the earth.

The phonograph is also a source of irony. The narrator uses it to record the last days of humanity, but in doing so, he preserves their memories and gives them a sense of immortality. In a way, the phonograph is a symbol of hope and life – even after the world has ended, people will still be able to listen to the stories and music of the past.

In ‘The Portable Phonograph,’ four men in a post-apocalyptic world gather once a week to enjoy the arts in a society where such luxuries are no longer available. Under the descriptive language and various literary devices, this short tale by Walter Van Tilburg Clark contains concealed meanings and metaphors. The topic of human nature reverting to primitive or fundamental passions during a period of crisis is examined in this essay. Through use of paradox, symbolism, and irony, the author emphasizes this idea.

The first literary technique that Clark employs is paradox. The very first sentence is an example of this: “In a world desolated by the madness and the clouds of death, four men came together to sit once a week in the darkening room and listen to the records spin on the Portable Phonograph” (Clark 1). The words “desolated” and “darkening” typically have negative connotations, yet these four men still find comfort in coming together and listening to music. This paradoxical situation creates a sense of hope amidst all the darkness and destruction.

In addition, Clark uses symbols to help support the theme of human nature. One symbol is the phonograph itself. It is a “portable” phonograph, which symbolizes how the four men are carrying on the tradition of music and art despite the fact that the world around them has ended. The phonograph is also a symbol of hope because it brings them joy and a sense of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic world.

The final literary technique that Clark uses is irony. Near the end of the story, when the four men are discussing what types of music they should listen to, one of them says: “I think we ought to hear some Beethoven…the last quartets maybe. They’re full of pain and terror and beauty, all mixed up” (Clark 5). This statement is ironic because even though the world is full of pain and terror, the four men still find beauty in it. This shows that despite the darkness of their situation, they have not lost hope.

The tale is, in and of itself, a paradox. The world is now dark and dreary, as these seemingly decent men are survivors of a devastating conflict that has marred it. An uneasy melding of land and sky occurs, with winds howling. The soldiers are grateful for the novels and music Doctor Jenkins was able to save, but they are satisfied with just reading them once a week.

And yet, in the end, it is their love of these things that destroys them. Literary technique is used extensively in “The Portable Phonograph”. The story is narrated by an omniscient third person narrator, which allows for a great deal of irony.

For example, the reader knows that the men are going to die long before they do. This irony is compounded by the fact that the men are constantly listening to music and reading books about war. So while they are enjoying their time together, the reader knows that their time is limited.

Symbolism is also used extensively in the story. The portable phonograph itself is a symbol of both the past and the future. It represents the past because it plays music from before the war. It represents the future because it is a new technology that the men are excited about. The records themselves are also symbols. They represent the men’s memories of the past and their hope for the future.

Even though they have withstood the devastation that the rest of humanity has just experienced, the Doctor is still ready to kill for these few treasured possessions, “…he could feel with his hands, the pleasant piece of lead pipe.” His intended actions appear to make sense, even if it was through violence.

The phonograph is a symbol of the world that was and the hope for a better future. The music it plays is a reminder of what has been lost, but also of what can be regained. It is both a source of comfort and a painful reminder, a paradox that the characters must grapple with.

The portable phonograph is also a symbol of hope. In a world where so much has been destroyed, it represents the potential for rebuilding and for happiness. The music it plays is a reminder that there are still beautiful things in the world, even after all the destruction. Even though the Doctor is willing to kill for it, the phonograph also represents his own humanity. He recognizes the importance of beauty and art, even in a time of violence and destruction.

The irony of the situation is that, even though the Doctor is willing to kill for the phonograph, it is ultimately destroyed by the very violence that he is trying to protect it from. The phonograph represents the best of what has been lost, but it is also a reminder of the fragility of civilization. In the end, it is both a symbol of hope and a reminder of the tragedy of war.

In conclusion, ‘The Portable Phonograph’ is a story that uses literary techniques to explore the theme of human nature. Through the use of paradox, symbolism, and irony, Clark illustrates how even in the midst of great crisis, people will revert back to their basic instincts. Even though the world may be full of pain and suffering, there is still beauty to be found.


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