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The Portable Phonograph – Paradox, Symbolism, and Irony Essay

‘The Portable Phonograph’ tells the tale of four men in a post apocalyptic world who gather once a week to bask in the glory of the arts. This short story by Walter Van Tilburg Clark holds hidden meanings and metaphors underneath the descriptive language and various literary techniques. The theme explores the idea that it is human nature to revert to primitive or basic instincts in a time of great crisis. The writer clarifies this theme through the use of paradox, symbolism, and irony.

The story in and of itself is a paradox. These seemingly decent men are survivors of a terrible war that has left the world dark and dreary. Land and sky meld together and winds howl. The men cannot get enough of the books and music that Doctor Jenkins has managed to save, but are content to savour them once a week. Even though they have survived the violence that the world has so recently gone through, the Doctor is still willing to kill for these few prized possessions, “…he could feel with his hands, the comfortable piece of lead pipe.” His intended actions seem to make sense, although the violence is what got them there in the first place.

All through the story, Clark uses symbolism to support his theme. The musician symbolizes greed and want. His character appears to be frail and week, yet near the end it is implied to the reader that he would do anything for that phonograph, “…he heard what he had been listening for, a sound of suppressed coughing.” Another symbol is the phonograph itself. It is what every man wants, a light in the darkness, “…unable to formulate and expose the enormity of their desire.” This piece of humanity is something for them to grasp on, tightly, and never let go. It is one of their only links to the world they once knew. The most obvious symbol is the lead pipe. It represents all mankind has gone through, and what a person will do, just to keep what little they have.

The irony in the story is evident throughout, and the writer uses it to his advantage. The irony illustrates his point further. After sharing in a night of the arts, the Doctor returns his treasures to their hiding place and proceeds to position himself in front of them. He is willing to die for his “fortune”. The sharp contrast between the music “…religious attention…desire…” and the lead pipe “…guarded…watching…” leads to situational irony. The story is a perfect example of the use of irony to prove a theme or intent.

‘The Portable Phonograph’ is a story of a dark time, but these four men somehow manage to find something to sustain as well as entertain them. This, however, never changes the dark mood. The use of specific literary devices enhances the comprehension for the reader and makes the story more captivating. The descriptive narrative provides an understanding of hiddenintentions that lay underneath the dialogue. ‘The Portable Phonograph’ is a timeless tale full of veiled significance and a magnitude that impact the reader as they read the story.

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