Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Study Guide

Robert Pirsig

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Course Hero. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide." Course Hero. 20 Sep. 2017. Web. 21 Nov. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/>.

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Course Hero. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide." September 20, 2017. Accessed November 21, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.


Course Hero, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide," September 20, 2017, accessed November 21, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary



The narrator explains he's motorcycling to Montana with his 11-year-old son, Chris, and a couple named John and Sylvia Sutherland. It's July, and they're on vacation: "Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere." The travelers use back roads and try to navigate mostly by dead reckoning, a method of navigation whereby one figures out a current position based on a previously determined position. This sharpens their awareness of their environment; so does the fact that on a motorcycle, "you're in the scene, not just watching it ... you spend your time being aware of these things and meditating on them."

The narrator's plan is to discuss these meditations in a series of Chautauquas, or educational lectures. His main philosophical topic will not be "What's new?" but "What's best?" As he sees it, modern society is eroding, losing direction, and isolating people from one another: "We're in such a hurry most of the time that we never get much chance to talk ... Some channel deepening seems called for."

Though the narrator exults in the beautiful setting and his mission, John and Sylvia's attitude toward the trip troubles him. They take this vacation to escape from the evils of modern technology, which they find so repellent they refuse to learn even easy household repairs. John refuses to repair his own motorcycle or learn how the engine works; for him, mastering the mechanics of an engine would mean surrendering to the enemy. To the narrator, this attitude is self-defeating. "The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in ... the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower."


Opening the book with the clause "I can see by my watch ..." is a deft way to show that the narrator trusts and relies on technology. True, a watch isn't that complicated—but since Pirsig could simply have told the reader the time, the fact that he refers to his watch is significant. Mentioning his motorcycle in the second clause strengthens the notion the narrator is comfortable around machines. For some, checking a watch might be risky on a motorcycle, but the narrator can do it without even lifting his hand from the left grip. The narrator, his watch, and his motorcycle are a single, fused unit, described as a character unto themselves.

The narrator may not always feel enthralled by the natural world around him. The book's second and third sentences make it clear the weather is uncomfortably hot and humid. A couple of paragraphs later, the narrator recalls walking through sloughs in winter and seeing "nothing but grey skies and dead things and cold." Later, he remarks that it's as easy to view the marshes as "cruel and senseless" as it is to think they're benign. This seems an odd observation: How many people personify marshes as cruel? Is Pirsig setting up a conflict? It's too early to tell, but readers should also keep an eye out for other times the narrator personifies the landscape.

The narrator's main conflict in this chapter is with the Sutherlands, whose real names were used by Pirsig although the narrative is fictionalized. However, he suggests something is also off about his relationship with Chris. The first time his father points out a red-winged blackbird, Chris replies, "I've seen lots of those, Dad!" A few minutes later, the narrator is about to mention another flock of blackbirds when he remembers Chris won't be impressed: "Unless you're fond of hollering you don't make great conversations on a running cycle." Readers will learn that engine noise isn't the only thing that keeps Chris and his father from communicating clearly.

The Chautauqua movement was a traveling adult education program popular in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement took its name from the site of the first of these educational gatherings in 1874 near Chautauqua Lake in New York. Pirsig uses the name for his philosophical lectures, comparing them to these "old-time popular talks" meant to "edify and entertain."

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