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. 15 Dec. 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 December 15, 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 December 15, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Part 1, Chapter 5 | Summary



As the travelers near the High Plains, everyone's mood shifts. They stop to refuel in a small town and find their surroundings match their moods. "Everything is more run-down and mechanical-looking," the narrator says, "and sort of randomly located." The road is bad, and there's not a mechanic for miles. The narrator worries about the motorcycles and the group's vulnerability if one of the bikes breaks down in the middle of this vast, empty prairie.

This reminds the narrator of his and the Sutherlands' contrasting views about machinery and technology. He suspects his own worldview is "intellectual, rational, cerebral," while the Sutherlands put a "blanket curse on that whole nuts-and-bolts scene" because they'd rather exist in "the groovy dimension." As the narrator sees it, this conflict may become a problem.

A more serious and immediate problem is Chris's bad behavior. He's acting so bratty he even annoys the Sutherlands. One evening after Chris has gone to bed, the narrator tells the Sutherlands that Chris's doctors believe the behavior is a symptom of encroaching mental illness. For reasons he can't understand—he calls it a mental block—the narrator has refused to let a psychiatrist examine Chris. He finds himself telling the Sutherlands that psychiatrists aren't "kin."

The word kin recalls the German noun for child—kind. This in turn reminds the narrator of a Goethe poem about a man riding on horseback and holding his son, who keeps talking about a ghost he sees. When the man reaches safety at the end of the poem, the boy has died. Later that night the narrator imagines he sees Phaedrus again. "Evil spirit. Insane," he thinks, "From a world without life or death ... he is calling Chris, is that it?"


This chapter's early discussion of the tension between the Sutherlands' and the narrator's beliefs is interesting, but the real meat of the chapter is its emotionally troubled second half. The narrator's news about Chris's incipient mental illness comes as a shock, and it seems irrational the narrator won't consider calling in psychiatrists because they're not "kin," especially when the narrator makes it clear by his reference to the Goethe poem that he considers his son to be in serious danger.

Readers may wish the narrator would provide information that would make it easier to understand Chris's condition, but the narrator's point of view is what matters here. Clearly he identifies with Chris, but perhaps he doubts his own parenting ability. Phaedrus is still a mysterious figure at this point, but he seems linked to Chris's plight. The narrator even suggests Phaedrus is punishing Chris for something in the narrator's past.

As the book progresses, Pirsig presents morally questionable ideas; for example, although Chris is under threat, the narrator refuses to have him see a psychiatrist because they are not "kin." The narrator's paternal anguish, however, can be seen in his recalling the Goethe poem. Here and at many points in the text there is a tension between the narrator's interpretation of events and the likely reaction of readers. Throughout these first chapters, there have been several occasions where the narrator's moral philosophy seems out of kilter, not normal. There is a real tension and conflict in the narrator between his stated, desired beliefs and his emotional state, which often reveals an overly judgmental, anxious man rather than a composed, relaxed Buddhist practitioner. Because readers can only suspect the root of these tensions from the few hints Pirsig has given up to this point, it adds to the darkening of the mood, just at the point the group enters the solemn, lonely, and empty prairies of the High Plains.

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