The Sound Machine by Roald Dahl: Summary & Analysis

The Sound Machine by Roald Dahl

The Storyline / Plot Summary:

‘The Sound Machine’ by Roald Dahl, published in his collection “The Complete Short Stories” in 1949, is about Klausner and his obsession with sounds.

According to the protagonist, Klausner, there are sounds which are inaudible to the human ear and he wants to develop a machine which can record these inaudible sounds. He spends hours developing it. At first what appeared to be an innocent wish has now turned into an obsession. Klausner wants to hear the sounds made by bats, flies and even plants. According to him, the plants make painful shrieking noises when they are cut.

One day he takes his machine out into the garden to test his theory. He is rather pensive about the outcome. What if his theory is wrong or even if it proves to be true then what’s next? These are the thoughts circling his mind.

Mrs. Saunders is his nearest neighbour. She, at that moment, comes out to trim the yellow rose plants in her garden. When she cuts off the first yellow rose, Klausner hears in his headphone a frightful noise as if someone is shrieking. He goes up to her and requests her to cut another rose. She does cut another rose and Klausner again hears the same piercing shriek. He explains to her that plants, being living things, feels agony when hurt or struck at.

After Mrs. Saunders goes back inside her house, Klausner continues his experiment, this time with the white daisies. He pulls out a daisy and hears a faint crying noise. He repeats the process but this time he realizes that it is not the sound of pain, but just a cry, a neutral, stony cry. It seems to be an emotionless note, may be expressing some feeling that humans don’t know. He also realizes that it was the same with the roses.

The next day, Klausner goes to a park, carrying his sound machine and an axe. He strikes at a tree’s trunk with the axe and again hears a shriek. He calls Dr. Scott to test his theory. After Dr. Scott arrives, Klausner gives him the headphones and asks him if he can hear anything. Dr. Scott expresses he can’t hear anything but just a humming noise.

Klausner now swings his axe at the tree to record the sound with his machine and make the Doctor hear it. But this time, a branch from the tree crashes down and destroys the machine. Klausner’s hope of proving his theory is shattered.

Greatly shaken, Klausner now asks the doctor to put some iodine on the cut of the tree where he has struck it. Dr. Scott agrees to do that and assures that he would come again the next day to check if the cut has healed. The doctor also claims that he hasn’t heard any sound.

Dr. Scott feels that it’s best to take Klausner back home and that Klausner needs a bit of change in his life. So, he holds his arm and takes him away from the park.

The Sound Machine: A Commentary on the Story

‘The Sound Machine’ by Ronald Dahl, published in 1949, revolves around Klausner (the protagonist) and his obsession with sounds.

The story is written in third person from an unknown narrator’s point of view. The narration is quite intriguing. From the beginning there’s a constant question whether Klausner was just imagining the sound or he really heard anything. It keeps the reader guessing. However, the main concern of the story has been Klausner’s obsession and instability.

The characters are portrayed quite well. Dr. Scott’s character is the opposite of the protagonist’s. He is a compassionate, cooperative and considerate man. He was the closest man Klausner had as a friend. The other character, Mrs. Saunders, appeared rather distant from Klausner. Then comes our protagonist, Klausner, who’s a confused yet intriguing soul from the beginning. The reader just can’t guess if Klausner was actually making sense or just imagining everything. For the matter, it’s possible that Klausner just had a heightened sense of hearing.

The main themes are; obsession, harsh treatment towards plants & wildlife, instability, desire & determination to prove one’s point, and of course, appearance verses reality. Maybe the author just wanted to show how cruel humans are on the plant lives. The theme of ‘appearance versus reality’ is explored in two ways: once by tempting the readers to think that there indeed are sound that we cannot hear, and again towards the end, by a subtle suggestion that the sounds which Klausner claimed to be listening may actually be non-existent.

At times the situations are bound to make you think that Klausner was perhaps unstable; he considered the falling of the branch as the tree trying to defend itself from his blows. This, we know, isn’t possible because the story doesn’t have the slightest supernatural or paranormal touch to it.

At the end of the story, when the machine gets broken by the branch, Klausner is devastated. Dr. Scott had to hold his arm while trying to take him back home. This perhaps suggests that Klausner had a breakdown at that point. After all, he had given all his time, energy and dedication to just one thing and that thing was destroyed in front of his eyes, so obviously it must have been too much for him.

However, it’s left entirely on the readers to guess and wonder the truth about Klausner’s theory. That’s the beauty of the story ‘The Sound Machine’.