Player Piano-Symbolism

Academic, Literary Analysis

Dunlap High School

Instructor: Chris Friedman

Player Piano-Symbolism

What does a player piano has to do in the novel Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, other than being in the title?  Sure, in the novel, there is a player piano in the corner of a saloon.  But that piano is only mentioned a couple of times and does not have to do anything with the plot of the story.  What does the match with Checker Charley mentioned in the novel,  has to do with the plot?  The answer to these can only be found if searched in the symbolism of the story Player Piano.  Both the player piano and Checker Charley are symbols in the novel Player Piano since they represent machines replacing humans, and giving people hope, respectively.

Though it had nothing to do with the novel at a literal level, the title of the novel Player Piano symbolizes the bigger picture of machines taking over people’s interests and desires. A player piano is a mechanically designed to play music automatically, thus there are no pianist necessary to play music on the piano.  One can conclude that a person who has a player piano, does not need to hire a pianist to play a music during a special occasion since the piano can take care of that itself!  The setting in which the novel takes place is in the future where machines are more effective at doing certain jobs than humans are; some of these jobs which people once did, did them because they loved to do them.  Now, in the current world, machine has taken away from the people, the opportunity to do these jobs.  Bud Calhouns is an engineer in the novel who is about to be replaced by a machine that he himself designed for an assignment he was given.  The machine that Bud designed apparently ends up being more effective at doing Bud’s job than Bud himself.  Bud and his senior, Dr. Paul Proteus, have a conversation over this tragedy:

‘Ah haven’t got a job any more,’ said Bud…Paul was amazed. ‘Really?  What on earth for?…What about the gadget you invented for—’ |  ‘Thet’s it,’ said Bud…‘Works.  Does a fine job.’ He smiled sheepishly, ‘Does it a whole lot better than Ah did it.’ | ‘It runs the whole operation…And so you’re out of a job.’ | ‘Seventy-tow of us are out of jobs…’ said Bud…‘Ouah job classification has been eliminated.  Poof.’

It can be seen from the quote above, that the developments machines are slowly eliminating more and more jobs that humans can do just like a player piano eliminates the needs of a pianist. FINAL STATEMENT HEAR

The challenge with Checker Charley symbolizes hope for people at the toughest situations.  Checker Charley is a device that is designed to play checkers with a human being.  Dr. Paul Proteus is challenged by Fred Berringer to win a game of checkers while he was at a party.  Paul is an expert checker player and thus accepts the challenge:  “‘All right,’ said Paul good-humoredly; ‘if there were ten of you and each one blowing cigar smoke in my face, I’d still win’”.  However, when Paul discovers that he actually accepted to verse against Checker Charley, he gives up any hope of winning.  Paul exclaims, “I can’t win against the damn thing.  It can’t make a mistake”; he also says that one can rather “Bet the sun won’t rise tomorrow”.  However, Paul’s friend encourages him to play and try his best to win the match.  Listening to his friend, Paul plays, and eventually he finds himself doing better and better at the game.  He progresses through the game with increased confidence, until Checker Charley ends up busting and catching on fire.  The reason for Paul’s victory as the friend of Paul states:  “Charley had a loose connection”.  Regarding the occurrence of Paul and Checker Charley, Paul had a very rare chance of winning.  However, Paul slowly gained hope, and his confidence of that he might win, increased.  Near the end of the novel, a group named “The Ghost Shirt Society” formed to revolutionize the world by restoring the machine-controlled world back to the people.  The group’s first attempt to reach its goals, failed.  However, this attempt brought up the hope to more people of the country this goal can one day be accomplished.  In the following conversion from the novel, Paul and Lasher who is one of the group’s leaders, talks about the outcome of their first attempt:

‘You thought we were sure to lose?’ said Paul Huskily. | ‘Certainly,’ said Lasher…‘But you’ve been talking all along as though it were almost a sure thing,’ said Paul.  | ‘Of course, Doctor,’ said Lasher…‘If we hadn’t all talked that way, we wouldn’t have had that one chance in a thousand.  But I didn’t let myself loose touch with reality’.

Lasher explains in the quote above that even though he was aware that there was only one out of one thousand chances of succeeding at the first attempt, he made it appear as though the chances of being successful was very high, to keep the hopes up.  The way Paul had to give himself hope of winning to Checker Charley, symbolizes the hope that had to be brought up for the Ghost Shirt Society’s first attempt of its mission

The Player Piano in Player Piano does a neat job of describing how machines have destroyed the need for many people to exist.  Checker Charley models the real world that The Ghost Shirt Society has to face.  And Paul’s confidence represents the hope The Ghost Shirt Society has to gain.  Player Piano models the replacement of people and Checker Charley models the obstacle which can only be broken by hope.


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