Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Robert Pirsig
Robert M. Pirsig was born in 1928. His factual biography adheres more or less to the life story of the narrator and his past self, Phaedrus, chronicled in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig was an academic prodigy: at age nine, with an I.Q. of 170. In 1943, at just 15, he was already enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study biochemistry. However, he was expelled in 1945 for poor academic performance.
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Historical Context of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Pirsig’s philosophy aims to remedy the widespread cultural dissatisfaction he sensed in the United States during the mid-twentieth-century. The years from 1950-1975 saw many distinct protests against the establishment, including organized efforts to grant civil rights to African-Americans, nationwide protests against the Vietnam War, and counterculture groups like the Beat Poets and the “hippie” movement. This multifaceted disaffection with the status quo is likely what inspired Pirsig to publish his philosophy.
Other Books Related to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Because Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance uses an unconventional format that blends autobiography, fiction, and philosophy, it connects to a wide array of works. The book engages explicitly with the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, as well as the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Pirsig’s narrator also references the Tao Te Ching, an ancient philosophical and religious text by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Notably, the character Phaedrus is named after a participant in a dialogue with Socrates from Plato’s text, Phaedrus.
Key Facts about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Full Title: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
  • When Written: Early 1960’s to 1973
  • Where Written: Bozeman, Montana
  • When Published: 1974
  • Literary Period: United States Counterculture
  • Genre: Philosophical novel; semi-autobiographical
  • Setting: Various parts of the United States, roughly 1943-1974
  • Climax: Phaedrus’s psychotic break
  • Antagonist: For Phaedrus: “The Chairman of the Committee.” For the narrator: Phaedrus.
  • Point of View: First-person narrator
Extra Credit for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Life Imitates Art. Bob and Gennie DeWeese, mentioned in the book as friends of Phaedrus and the narrator from Bozeman, are real historical figures. Bob worked as an art instructor at Montana State College, and together the couple helped introduce contemporary art into Bozeman’s very conservative cultural environment. The DeWeeses have received many visits from diehard Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance fans, eager to make a pilgrimage to a site mentioned in the book.

Anchors Away. Pirsig isn’t just a motorcycle travel enthusiast. His wanderlust has taken him on many extensive sailing trips as well. In 1977, he wrote an article for Esquire magazine entitled “Cruising Blues and Their Cure,” which details the depression and liberation that can be experienced on the open ocean.