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. 20 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 20, 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 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycle-Maintenance/.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance | Summary



In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the two protagonists are actually one person. The narrator is a lightly fictionalized version of the author, Robert Pirsig, who is taking a motorcycle trip with his son and another couple. The narrator speaks in the first person and uses the present tense. Phaedrus is the name of the narrator's alter ego. His story is told in the third person and the past tense. (In some editions of the book, the Phaedrus sections use a different font from the narrator's.) As the narrator describes him, Phaedrus is the person he used to be before suffering a mental breakdown in mid-career. By the book's end, the two characters begin to merge into a single individual.

Part 1

The book is divided into four sections. Part 1 establishes basic information about the characters and the trip. The narrator is accompanied by his 11-year-old son, Chris, and John and Sylvia Sutherland, friends of the narrator and his wife. The four of them are on a 17-day motorcycle trip from Minnesota to San Francisco; as the book opens, they're heading toward the Dakotas.

"You don't make great conversations on a running cycle," says the narrator. "Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them." Because the travelers take back roads, there is plenty of time for reflection. The narrator plans to use this time to talk in depth about some topics that seem important to him. He alternates journal-like descriptions of the trip and the landscape with lengthy meditations he calls "Chautauquas." Some Chautauquas discuss people's relationship to modern machines and technology; some describe various schools of philosophy the narrator has studied over the years; many pursue the question of how to live the most meaningful, right-thinking life.

Early in the trip, and then with increasing frequency, a haunting sense of déjà vu visits the narrator: he seems to recognize more and more landmarks as the travelers near Montana. He becomes increasingly agitated as bits of an unfamiliar, troubled past begin to surface in his consciousness. Gradually he begins to suspect his ghostly alter ego named Phaedrus is trying to catch up with him.

Spending so much time together becomes stressful for everyone in the group. Eleven-year-old Chris, who suffers from emotional problems, worries about his father's long periods of silent thought with little interaction between father and son. The narrator rebuffs most of Chris's questions, causing the boy to become increasingly anxious. Tension grows between the narrator and the Sutherlands as well. Meanwhile, the narrator is coming to see that Phaedrus is not a ghost but himself at an earlier period in his life. As he recalls this earlier life in greater detail, he realizes Phaedrus suffered a mental breakdown, and the narrator thinks the "shock" therapy treatments Phaedrus received while committed to a mental hospital destroyed Phaedrus's entire personality. The person who emerged from the hospital was no longer Phaedrus but the unnamed narrator.

Part 2

In Part 2 the travelers reach Montana, where Phaedrus—the narrator's alter ego—was a student and then a professor. Now the narrator has conscious access to his memories of his earlier life in Montana, when he "was" Phaedrus. Phaedrus was brilliant, perhaps too much so for his own good. He enrolled in college at 15, planning to major in biochemistry, but flunked out when he became obsessed with the best way to choose one hypothesis out of many. He then began several years of what the narrator calls "lateral drifting." He joined the army and was sent to Korea, where he became interested in Asian philosophy. On returning to the United States, he reenrolled in college.

Upon his return to college, he switched to philosophy and journalism. The concept of applying the scientific method to philosophical theory fascinated him. But his intellectual struggles did not abate: "He was thinking too hard, and the harder you think in this high country of the mind the slower you go." The differences in various schools of philosophy genuinely bothered Phaedrus, and when he disagreed with a given philosophical statement he became genuinely angry. These emotions, and his increasing alienation from his professors, may have been symptoms of his developing mental illness. Whatever the cause, the Phaedrus of that period was very different from the narrator now—or so the narrator believes.

Phaedrus became an adjunct English professor at Montana State University in Bozeman. His psychological difficulties were now closer to the surface, and his intensity repelled students and administrators alike. Remembering all this makes the narrator increasingly apprehensive as the travelers reach Bozeman; he wonders how people who knew him during those years will greet him. He begins to have nightmares and talk in his sleep, which frightens Chris.

The Sutherlands return home after the trip to Bozeman; Chris and the narrator plan to continue westward. Before they leave Bozeman, the narrator musters the courage to visit the university where he taught. He steels himself to enter the building containing his former office, and there he runs into a woman he doesn't recognize. She recognizes him, though, and is shocked to hear that he's no longer teaching. The narrator recalls that her name is Sarah and that when Phaedrus was teaching here, Sarah was fond of sarcastically asking if he were teaching "Quality" to his students. The word "Quality" triggered a cascade of insights that would ultimately lead to Phaedrus's breakdown.

At the end of Part 2, the narrator despairingly asks, "What the hell is Quality? What is it?" It's no longer clear whether he's speaking in Phaedrus's voice or his own.

Part 3

In Part 3 the narrator and Chris continue traveling west. For the most part, the narrator begins and ends each chapter with brief accounts of their trip and devotes most of his attention to Phaedrus's search for the meaning of Quality before his mental breakdown.

While Phaedrus struggles to develop a workable philosophy, his huge teaching load becomes a burden. His intellectual struggles naturally make their way into his teaching methods: "Quality became a working concept for him in the teaching of rhetoric." He dreams up innovative ways of teaching rhetoric to students who believe they have nothing to say. He also comes up with new methods to motivate his students with the result that even formerly failing students begin working hard enough to achieve passing grades.

Phaedrus's brilliant lectures help his rhetoric students become much better writers. But Phaedrus increasingly begins to doubt himself—and even to question the value of formal education—as his fixation on Quality grows more powerful. "When spontaneity and individuality and really good original stuff occurred in a classroom, it was in spite of his instruction, not because of it." Phaedrus decides to throw all his energy into helping his students arrive at a good definition of Quality.

Back on the trail, Chris suffers. Eager to prove his mountain-climbing skills to his father, he pushes himself too hard. The narrator perceives the boy's struggle as ego-driven and does not acknowledge Chris's pain. But a recurring dream reveals he's thinking about Chris on a subconscious level. In this dream, he and Chris are separated by a glass door. Chris waits for the narrator to open the door, but he is powerless to do so.

The narrator and Chris are nearing the top of the mountain when they hear several small rockslides. Fearing an avalanche, the narrator ends the climb, and they begin their descent. Chris finds this disappointing, but the descent allows the narrator a chance to break off from his memories of Phaedrus and instead focus on his own ideas about Quality. He finds problems with Phaedrus's conclusion that notions of Quality are essentially the same as notions of Tao. He then looks at the work of the French philosopher and mathematician Henri Poincaré and realizes he can illustrate his thinking about Quality by using the analogy of motorcycle maintenance.

The narrator commences to discuss "stuckness" using a stuck screw in one of his motorcycle's covers to illustrate his thinking. He argues that the biggest problem facing humanity is neither the lack of nor proliferation of technological and scientific solutions to social, political, and economic crises, but that reason and objectivity are the sole basis for these solutions. The narrator calls this "technological ugliness," referring to the alienation of much of humanity from the technology surrounding them. Because of this, humanity loses connection to the "passions, the emotions, the affective domain of man's consciousness." These are a "part of nature's order too. The central part." Uniting the technical and emotional, the objective and subjective, is a matter of "peace of mind." This is the prerequisite to any understanding of the importance of the joining of these two sides of our consciousness and to understanding Quality: "So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle ... is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one's self from one's surroundings."

Part 4

Part 4 begins with the narrator's recollections of the days leading up to Phaedrus's final breakdown; he relives the terror and alienation his alter ego suffered back then. Moreover, in his current life, the narrator's relationship with Chris has become so strained he decides to send the boy home and finish the trip alone. Chris senses something is wrong with his father and has no idea how to cope.

The narrator summarizes Phaedrus's decision to move to Chicago and pursue a PhD in philosophy. In addition to immersing himself in his own coursework, Phaedrus earns a scanty living teaching rhetoric at a community college. This schedule proves unbearably punitive. Adding to his torment is a prestigious but sadistic and dictatorial professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who dislikes Phaedrus because he has the audacity to challenge the chairman's analyses in class. The situation rapidly became untenable, and Phaedrus withdraws from the university.

Phaedrus continues to ponder the nature of Quality at the expense of everything else. His memory fails to the point where he no longer knows how to get home; he stops teaching and spends days sitting motionless on the floor, suffering visual hallucinations. Finally, his wife has him committed to a mental institution. There, Phaedrus is given a series of electroconvulsive treatments against his will. He leaves the hospital with what the narrator believes is an entirely new personality and identity.

The narrator is startled when Chris says he used to be more fun in the Phaedrus days. "Subconsciously, at the Quality level, [Chris] ... knows his real father isn't here." Having spent so long trying to elude what he believed to be Phaedrus's malign presence, the narrator begins to realize that Phaedrus is still part of him. Shock therapy eliminated many memories of Phaedrus but did not stamp him out and replace him with the narrator. The healthy parts of his alter ego survived hospitalization and are an indelible part of his character.

Chris also surprises his father when he describes the glass door from the narrator's recurring nightmares. It was a real door, one that divided visitors to the mental institution from the inmates. Too young to understand what was happening, Chris thought Phaedrus had chosen to abandon his family. Chris would stare at Phaedrus through the door and wish they could be together. Why, he now asks his father, didn't he open the door to Chris and the rest of the family?

As if in a flash of revelation, the narrator remembers—and tells Chris—he was insane at the time; he did want to open the door but wasn't allowed. The instant Chris hears this, his confidence in his father is restored. He has one more question: "Were you really insane?"

Phaedrus/the narrator knows the question's underlying meaning to be: "Were you really so sick that you stopped loving us?" "Of course not," he answers stoutly. Father and son resume their journey, confident things will be okay for now.

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