The Portable Phonograph
Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Walter Van Tilburg Clark's short story, "The Portable
Phonograph", is a tale about the last survivors in the world after the
total destruction of a war. The author gives clues and hints of this
throughout the beginning by writing in a narrative voice and describing the
scene in dark war-like terms. The characters are then introduced as a group of
men huddled around a fire. The older of the men, Doctor Jenkins, is the leader
and his character is full of personality that can be analyzed by the reader.
He is the owner of the shelter that they meet in. This paper will point out
the different aspects of the old man in this story and state conclusions that
can be drawn from them.
The men in this story are obviously amused by the slightest little things.
They occupy themselves through book readings from a collection that one man has.
Each of the men contributes to the group and together they endure a time of
devastation by entertaining each other. The older man has a record player that
he brings out once a week for the listening pleasure of the group. He is very
proud of this treasure. It has sustained hard times just as he has and he limits
his use of it to make it last. He owns only three steel needles and he gets one
out to use because on this particular occasion, there is a musician visitor with
them. The other men act as excited as children. They listen to the record and
then leave the doctor's house.
Doctor Jenkins is nervous and suspicious at the end of the story when the
other men leave. "With nervous hands he lowered the piece of canvas which
served as his door, and pegged it at the bottom. Then quickly quietly, looking
at the piece of canvas frequently, he slipped the records in the case..."
(Clark, page 241). He feels that "everything he has" is at risk
because of greed that hard times like these could produce in the other men. He
is secure and comfortable with the things that he has and he doesn't trust the
others. He then hides his treasures away in a safe place after they leave. As he
gets into his bed he feels the "comfortable piece of lead pipe" with
his hand. The doctor has no problem resorting to violence and that actually
makes him feel more comfortable. The greed that the doctor sees in the others is
a reflection of the feelings and thoughts that he himself has. His views are
distorted and he sees himself in the men. He invites them back every week, it
seems, so it is quite possible that his possessions do not make him as happy as
the company he receives every week.
The contrast between the happiness that the men get from his musical device
and the lack of fulfillment this provides for him is interesting. In the world
that this story describes, the reader expects the doctor to be happy with all
that he has. As the story unfolds, you gain an understanding of the feelings
behind his possessions. Doctor Jenkins is a normal character and his feelings
are presented in a real manner. The reader can conclude that his personality is
not unlike anyone else. What he sees is influenced by the way he is and how he
feels. He views things in a way that ultimately makes his feelings of suspicion
and greed stronger, therefore never breaking the cycle of how he judges those