Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is written as a first-person narrative describing the cross-country motorcycle trip of the narrator and his companions. The unnamed narrator refers to himself as ‘‘I.’’ The sections of the book in which the account of the narrator’s travels with his son are being directly related are written in present tense, as are the narrator’s thoughts on motorcycle maintenance and his personal thoughts on the larger implications of motorcycle maintenance attitudes. The narrator’s recollections of Phaedrus and the explanation of Phaedrus’s thoughts are written in past tense, as this personality, his thoughts, and the events of his life occurred in the narrator’s past.
In any first-person narrative, the reliability of the narrator is a subject for consideration: the reader has only the narrator’s account of events as a guide. As this particular story unfolds, the reader realizes that the narrator has a history of mental illness, thereby calling into question the accuracy of all of his observations and thoughts. Yet the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, through both his awareness of his past mental illness and his calm, intellectual, and intelligent way of interacting and expressing himself, establishes a sense of trustworthiness. This view of the narrator as reliable is undercut by the existence of verbal exchanges with his son that he cannot recall, and readers are left to resolve this issue on their own, weighing his apparent intelligence and normalcy against his history of mental illness and the resurgence of his former personality. Readers must also ask whether or not his past or current insanity actually inhibits his ability to be trustworthy and reliable as a narrator.
Throughout the novel, Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for the maintenance of the spiritual/philosophical well-being of an individual. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which two different objects or concepts are equated to one another. Pirsig, for example, early on in the narrator’s journey, uses an oncoming storm as a metaphor for the emotional conflict the narrator is approaching.
A person would not normally refer to caring for himself as motorcycle maintenance. But Pirsig applies his ideas about a person’s attitudes toward motorcycle maintenance to his attitudes about his spiritual and philosophical world view. Because he does this throughout the course of the novel, repeatedly drawing the reader’s attention to these parallels, the metaphor is referred to as an extended metaphor. Pirsig directly addresses this relationship (between motorcycle maintenance attitudes and personal/spiritual/philosophical attitudes) when the narrator observes that
“the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be ‘‘out there’’ and the person that appears to be ‘‘in here’’ are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.”
The narrator advocates looking at life in the same way that one looks at motorcycle maintenance—seeing the fusion of art and technology in all of humanity, approaching tasks with care, and focusing on the task itself without rushing or wishing to get to the final product or the next destination faster. At the novel’s end, Chris asks about having a motorcycle when he is older. His father tells him he may have one, if he takes care of it. The narrator tells Chris that it is not difficult to properly care for a motorcycle ‘‘if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.’’ What these right attitudes are is what he has been explaining throughout the novel; his discussion of motorcycle maintenance dovetails with his thoughts on the integration and the transcendence of art and technology.
The extended metaphor of motorcycle maintenance provides overarching structure to the novel. In addition, Pirsig makes use of metaphorical language throughout the book. For example, the narrator’s comparison of his former personality, Phaedrus, to a ghost, is another use of metaphor. This comparison encourages the readers to think that Phaedrus is dead and that his memory haunts the narrator in powerful ways. Similarly, the journey the narrator and his son take up the mountain serves as a metaphor for the narrator’s journey toward a greater understanding of Phaedrus, toward his ultimate enlightenment. Significantly, the narrator refuses to reach the summit of the mountain, turning to make the descent before the full completion of the journey, much to his son’s disappointment. He is not yet ready to completely face Phaedrus, and the failure to reach the summit is noted by Chris when he accuses his father of not being brave.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Robert M. Pirsig, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.