About the Author
Roald Dahl (1916-1990) is a popular writer who wrote both for adults and children. His writings meant for children brought him immense popularity. He was born in Wales to Norwegian parents. He joined a boarding school in 1929, and here he helped to test new chocolate bars for Cadburys. In 1934 he left school and began to work for Shell, the famous oil company, because he wanted to travel to Africa and China. Later, he joined the RAF at the start of the Second World War. He became a fighter pilot, flying Hurricane aeroplanes across the Mediterranean Sea. In 1942, Roald was sent to the USA to work in the British Embassy. His first adult story was published and he wrote his first story for children, about mischievous creatures called Gremlins. Walt Disney started work on turning it into a film and Roald went to Hollywood.
Roald Dahl rose to prominence with his works for children and adults. He became one of the world’s best-selling authors. He has been referred to as “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century”. His significant contribution to literature won him many prestigious awards, namely World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement (1983), British Book Awards Children’s Author of the Year (1990), etc.
Dahl’s short stories and his children’s books are known for their unexpected endings. His books champion the kind-hearted and feature and underlying warm sentiment . His major works include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, Tales of the Unexpected, etc.
About the Story
‘The Sound Machine’ combines science fiction and environment in a unique mixture. On the surface level, this story is about an amateur scientist who believes that there are sounds that are so low-pitched or so high-pitched that human ear can’t hear them. He is so fascinated with acoustics that he is yearning to test his theory, for which he has contrived a machine with which he wants to prove that the high frequency sound vibrations are audible to human ear. Klausner is a strange scientist who is experimenting on sound vibrations to study how the plants feel pain when they are cut. With his small machine he studies the vibrations of the plants as he first asks the neighbour Mrs Saunders to snip the stem of a plant. Later he himself finds the pain and vibrations as he strikes an axe on a tree. He is so sure of his experiments that he impresses upon his neighbour and then his family physician Doctor Scott to believe in his theory that plants feel pain when they are cut or injured. But no one is interested in his strange theories. It is so, as the author wants to suggest, that most of us are deaf to the harm we cause to the plant life around us.
Klausner’s unusual experiment : It was on a summer evening that Klausner, an amateur scientist went to the back of his room and shut himself into a shed. There on a long wooden bench stood a black box about three feet long, the shape of a child’s coffin. There was in it a littering of wires and batteries and small tools. He began tugging gently at them in order to test its functioning. His fingers moved swiftly and deftly inside the box. There was an air of urgency about the way he worked. He was extremely excited and breathless. His concentration was intense.
The Visit of Dr Scott : Klausner was fully concentrating of his machine when his friend and physician Dr Scott arrived to check on his health as his throat was bad. The doctor felt the tension in the room. He enquired about Klausner’s health to which the latter said that he was fine. The Doctor, on looking at Klausner working on a strange machine, asked Klausner what it was for. Klausner replied that he was working on his idea of sound and the machine would help him as he said, “I like sound.”
Klausner’s theory of sounds : As Dr Scott showed inquisitiveness, Klausner explained that he had built the device to test his theory about sound. It was that the human ear can’t hear everything. There are sounds that are so low-pitched or so high-pitched that human ear can’t hear them. We can’t hear any note having fifteen thousand vibrations a second. Still there are vibrations higher and higher going to infinity. The same is true about music. If our ears are tuned to listening to so high-pitched sounds in the inaudible regions, they will go mad. Such crazy ideas were troubling the mind of Klausner. But the Doctor thought that such things were not probable. Klausner told the Doctor that he had made a simple instrument to prove the existence of many odd inaudible sounds. His machine was designed to pick up sound vibrations that are too high-pitched for reception by the human ear, and to convert them to a scale of audible tones. By turning on his machine, as if on a radio, he would be able to listen to sounds which an average ear can’t listen.
Klausner at work : The Doctor left Klausner wishing him good luck with his machine. Klausner then carried his device into the garden. He was excited and nervous, not very confident whether the machine might work or not. His right hand was beginning to turn the knob. He put on the earphones. All that he could hear was a faint, spasmodic crackling. He had the feeling that his earns were stretching far into a dangerous ultrasonic region. The little needle of the machine kept moving across the dial when he heard a sudden frightful piercing shriek.
A painful scream : Klausner connected his machine to Mrs Saunders, her neighbour, who was cutting yellow roses across the lawn in her garden. He asked her to cut another rose stem with her clippers. Surprised at Klausner’s request, she did what Klausner had asked her, taking him to be a peculiar but harmless person. Once again, Klausner heard a frightful , throatless shriek in his earphone. He at once interpreted that the plant life screamed when cut. He wished Mrs Saunders to know that a rosebush feels pain when its stem is cut. Mrs Saunders did not believe in Klausner’s ideas.
The wail of a tree : The next morning Klausner, wishing to experiment , got an axe, carried it across the road into the park and swung it into the base of the beech tree. In his earphones, he heard a harsh, noteless, low-pitched, screaming sound. It appeared to be the wail of the tree. He found that the axe had sunk into the woodflesh of the tree. There appeared a gash in it. He regretted his act and felt sorry for the tree.
The machine got destroyed : At once Klausner called the Doctor, although it was early 6:30 a.m. He wanted to show the result of his experiment on machine. When the Doctor came, he found Klausner greatly excited. Klausner wanted the Doctor to hear, with the help of the earphones, what he could hear when the axe was swung on the tree. The Doctor was asked to put on the earphones as Klausner once again struck the axe on the tree. The Doctor could hear just humming sound, and nothing else. But then the ground shook a bit and a large branch came cascading down smashing the machine into pieces. It was a miraculous escape for both of them. Klausner all the time insisted upon the Doctor to tell him what he heard as the axe was struck. But the Doctor said that he was more concerned about his safety than with hearing anything.
A strange request : Klausner felt deeply hurt at the gash made by the axe on the woodflesh. He asked the Doctor to stitch up the gash but the Doctor said that it could not be done. Then Klausner requested him to put iodine on the wound. The Doctor did as he was directed. After putting the iodine on it, the Doctor left promising that he would come again the next day to look at the tree again. So saying they left the garden and moved back to the house.
New, crazy idea : The story conveys the idea that all discoveries and inventions have been the result of new, crazy ideas. Whenever a new idea is flouted, we are bound to react to it as something crazy and we being to call the person who dares to have such an idea as ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, ‘abnormal’, etc. In this story Klausner, an amateur scientist , is obsessed with acoustics. He believes that the human ear, being unable to hear many sounds and vibrations , can be made to hear them with the help of a mechanical device that can capture sounds subtly. Man then will be able to experience even the slightest vibrations or notes so created by the plants when they are injured or cut. Klausner studies this idea and learns the pain felt by the plant when a rose stem is cut by his neighbour. The similar cry of pain he feels is experienced by the tree when his axe strikes the tree.
Concern for Environment : Another theme of the story is that only very sensitive persons have the hearts and minds to visualise and feel delicate things like the pain of the plants. In this context we find that Dr Scott and Mrs Saunders do not have time or mind to feel the agonies of the plants or even creatures that are killed for fun or experiment. Klausner is so pricked by the pain of the tree that he asks Dr Scott to stitch the gash of the tree and paint iodine on it, which he does just to oblige Klausner. Neither Dr Scott nor Mrs Saunders believe in the strange theory of Klausner . Both of them represent the worldly people who care little for the plant life. In an interesting manner, the writer draws our attention to the harm we cause when we fell down trees. By making us aware that plants are like us he wants us to respect plant life to conserve environment.
It is not difficult to understand the message of this story. The author wants us to stop being deaf to the plant life without which our life is at great peril. He makes us conscious of the conservation of plants and the need to be sensitive to their pain. Only very sensitive people, who are called crazy or mad by the worldly wise people, can feel the cry of pain experienced by the plants when they are cut or injured. Klausner can hear the cry of the rosebush when a rose is snipped from the stem. But Dr Scott and Mrs Saunders remain deaf to such cries. In fact, rational minds of Dr Scott and Mrs Saunders stand in contrast to the sensitive vibrations and feel the pain and anguish of the plants. Klausner could have gone ahead with his theory had his machine not been shattered. Like Sir Jagdish Chander Bose who invented Crescograph to study and record the growth of plants, Klausner could also have given a new invention to record the pain the plants can experience if any harm or injury is done to them.
The title of the story ‘The Sound Machine’ is quite appropriate. The whole story is about the idea that we can hear even inaudible sounds with the help of a machine. Klausner, the protagonist in the story, is an amateur scientist. He is obsessed by sounds. It is his belief that the human ear is not capable of hearing low-pitched or high-pitched sounds which he calls notes. He has made an instrument which can prove the existence of many odd inaudible sounds. The machine has been so designed to pick up sound vibrations that are too high-pitched for reception by the human ear. If the machine is tuned like a radio, it can convert sounds to a scale of audible notes.
Doctor Scott, his physician, calls on him and shows interest in the machine. But he is not convinced that Klausner’s machine can register sounds unheard by man.
Klausner has firm belief in the theory that plants’ vibrations can be heard and their pains felt when they are cut or injured. He first studies this idea when his neighbour Mrs Saunders cuts rose stems in her garden. The very next day he experiments with his machine when he strikes his axe hard on a tree. On detecting that the tree made a similar cry, he rings up Dr Scott.
The theory is demonstrated in the park. As the axe is struck on the tree, a huge branch falls and destroys Klausner’s machine. Klausner asks the doctor what he had head. But the doctor says that he did not hear because he was concerned about his safety. Klausner forces Dr Scott to stitch and treat the ‘wound’ of the tree. Dr Scott obliges him and they go back arm in arm.
Thus, the sound machine remains in focus throughout the story , and provides an apt title to the story.
Klausner is the protagonist in the story. He is an amateur scientist who is fond of sounds. He is a weak, pale and agitated type of person. He seems to be a crazy fellow. His large head, with his hat on, is generally kept inclined toward his left shoulder as though his neck were not quite strong enough to support it rigidly. His face is smooth and pale, almost white, and the pale grey eyes that blink and peer from behind a pair of steel spectacles, are bewildered, unfocussed, remote. He looks like a moth of a man, dreamy and distracted. While working on his machine, he gets excited and animated. He keeps on gently scratching the lobe of his ear while explaining some point to his friend Dr Scott. In fact, he is taken to be a fantastic, peculiar person by both the Doctor and Mrs Saunders. The movements of his hands are quick and precise.
Klausner is obsessed with sound. He tells his doctor friend Scott that ‘I like sound’. He has formed a theory about sound. He believes that there are sounds, low-pitched or high-pitched that a human ear can’t hear, though dogs do better than us. But with the help of a mechanical device these sound vibrations or notes can be made audible to human ear. Such sounds of music in the inaudible regions of space, with subtle harmonies and grinding discords, can drive us mad. His device is meant to record these sounds. He conducts his experiments, putting earphones over his head, first on the neighbour cutting a rose stem and then himself with his axe on a beech tree. He is deeply animated and excited with the cry coming from a plant or a tree.
Klausner has a close friend Dr Scott with whom he is keen to share his experiences and ideas about the plants and his mechanical device. His obsession makes him go crazy. He seems to be urging on madness. We find him insisting on Mrs Saunders forcefully to cut another rose stem so that he is convinced about his theory. Similarly he insists upon Dr Scott to listen to the sound vibration made when the axe made a gash on the tree.
Klausner is a sensitive person . He has a tender heart for the plants and trees. He is deeply hurt when his axe made a gash or a wound in the tree. He seeks an apology from the tree for his act as he thinks that the tree must have felt a terrible pain when the axe struck it. He is so touched that he wants the Doctor to stitch up the gash, failing which he asks him to apply iodine on its wound, though it would surely sting it but also heal it. It shows his concern for the plants. Klausner’s experiments can go on no further for his mechanical device is shattered when a big branch of the tree falls on it, and both he and the Doctor have a narrow escape.
Klausner thus is a peculiar person with odd, crazy ideas, such as most of the researchers do have. They go on experimenting unmindful of what others think of them.
Dr Scott is a minor character. In a way he is a representative figure. He represents all those who are deaf to the harm we do to the plant life around us, and also those who are insensitive to new thoughts and , like many others, look upon them with suspicion.
Dr Scott is a close friend and physician with whom Klausner freely shares his ideas and experiences. Being very inquisitive and supporting, he listens to Klausner’s theory about sounds and vibrations of plants. No doubt, he lends keen ears to Klausner. He feels such things are not probable. He thinks that the idea of sounds made by plants seems fantastic. All the same he does not contradict Klausner and listens to him attentively and patiently. Dr Scott is a polite and obliging person. He pays Klausner sometimes even a friendly visit to know about his friend’s health. He comes to him to know about the condition of his throat. Later when Klausner is so excited and disturbed and calls for him, Dr Scott wastes no time and comes immediately to know what has happened. He feels relieved to learn that Klausner is normal.
Dr Scott is a timid fellow. He obeys Klausner when the latter asks him to heal the wound of the tree. As the gash in the tree cannot be stitched, he applies iodine and promises to come again to see that the tree is healed up again.
Genre : ‘The Sound Machine’ is a story that belongs to the genre of science fiction, though its aim is not merely to project some fanciful scientific idea. It aims at making us conscious of the harm we are doing to plant life around us.
The story is narrated in the third person by the omniscient author. In keeping with the requirement of the story, graphic details about sounds and machine have been given to explain Klausner’s ideas about sound vibrations and the working of the machine. Suspense is maintained throughout the story. It is ironic that the machine meant to record the sound vibrations gets shattered before the experiment is verified.
Language : The language employed to describe the machine which Klausner has devised to test his theory is quite suggestive. Describing the machine, the author compares it to ‘the shape of a child’s coffin’. The phrase seems to indicate something morbid and evil would occur. The end of the story is indicated in the beginning. Something morbid does happen when a big branch of the tree falls on the mechanical device meant to record the sound vibrations of plants. The tree heaves and the machine is shattered. The story also refers to the massive silent slayings of plant life over the millennia.
The open-ending : The story leaves many questions unanswered. The reader would like to know what good the machine does to Klausner. Has the apparatus actually provided access to the realm of the ultrasonic and allowed him to listen to nature? Has the device triggered further Klausner’s lunacy? One is reminded of Poe’s story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ from the obsessive behaviour and heightened sense of hearing of Klausner, the protagonist of the story.