Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Themes and Colors
Quality Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Rationality and Irrationality Theme Icon
Duality Theme Icon
Zen Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Identity Theme Icon

Early in the text, the narrator reveals that he underwent electro-convulsive therapy to treat mental illness. This treatment altered the narrator so deeply that he regards his post-therapy self as an entirely different person. The narrator strictly separates his present-day self from his past identity and refers to the latter in the third person, using the name Phaedrus. His is “a mind divided against itself.”

The narrator’s conflicted identity complicates his relationship to his son. Chris is too young to fully grasp his father’s mental turmoil, but he does notice a personality change once the narrator returns from treatment. When Chris laments his father’s altered persona, the narrator observes, “I can imitate the father he’s supposed to have, but subconsciously, at the Quality level, he sees through it and knows his real father isn’t here.” The narrator feels obligated to replicate a role he fulfilled when he was a completely different person, even though such a replication is impossible. He sees this paternal discontinuity as one of the root causes of his son’s anxieties.

This divided identity is especially discordant when considered in the book’s larger context. Through his Chautauquas, the narrator strives to resolve the problems that arise when the world is intellectualized in terms of opposing dualities. However, all the while, the narrator maintains such a strict division between his past self and his present persona that he refuses to consider them the same person. Finally, at the end of the book, the narrator acknowledges this dilemma: “the biggest duality of all, the duality between me and [Phaedrus], remains unfaced.” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance details Phaedrus’s attempts to provide a unifying philosophical framework that explains the universe in all of its physical, scientific, and subjective manifestations. While this new system is a fascinating one, the narrator’s psychological disunity is a constant reminder that Phaedrus’s philosophical system has not yet been perfectly actualized and put into practice.

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Identity Quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Below you will find the important quotes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance related to the theme of Identity.
Chapter 3 Quotes

A second flash...WHAM and everything brilliant—and then in the brilliance of the next flash that farmhouse—that windmill—oh, my God, he’s been here! -- throttle off—this is his road—a fence and trees—and the speed drops to seventy, then sixty, then fifty-five and I hold it there.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

As the group is traveling through the prairie, a storm hits. The quote here describes the sensation of thunder and lightning beginning, coupled with the strange memories that the suddenly illuminated surroundings bring. The second flash is lightning and "WHAM" is its thunder, and in the third flash a familiar farmhouse and windmill are momentarily illuminated. These images spark the narrator to say "oh, my God, he's been here!" and "this is his road." This "he" is the first mention of Phaedrus, though he is not named until later in the chapter.

Once they stop to get out of the rain, the narrator has uncanny knowledge of the town, as if he has been there before. This is the first indication that there is more to his identity than we yet know. We will come to learn about Phaedrus, the narrator's alternate past personality who haunts him like a ghost, after a psychotic break and convulsive therapy caused a mental split. The narrator-as-Phaedrus has been to the town before, which is how he knows where to find the best motel. Later, when the narrator tells Chris a ghost story and introduces Phaedrus, Chris asks his father if he saw Phaedrus out in the storm, since Sylvia said the narrator looked like he had seen a ghost. Chris doesn't know how perceptive his question really is, of course.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

But he saw a sick and ailing thing happening and he started cutting deep, deeper and deeper to get at the root of it. He was after something. That is important. He was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had. But he took on so much and went so far in the end his real victim was himself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter the narrator describes Phaedrus and his style of thought, which is quintessentially classical. It is organized and rooted entirely in logic and reason. To give an example, the narrator breaks down the components of a motorcycle in an extremely detailed, organized list. It is pure analysis; there is no room for the romantic or for value judgements or anything in line with John's worldview. Phaedrus mastered this type of rational thinking and used it as a tool. The narrator refers to the tool, used to cut things and organize them into pieces like the motorcycle, as Phaedrus' knife.

The narrator also reveals that Phaedrus' obsession with an idea or philosophical project seemingly drove him to insanity. But rather than calling him an assassin, the narrator calls Phaedrus a poor surgeon. He does this to make the point that Phaedrus was trying to do something—"he was after something and he used the knife because that was the only tool he had." The "sick and ailing thing" that Phaedrus operates is the dichotomy that the narrator has so far been outlining. The tragedy of this inquiry is that eventually he cuts so far that he ends up permanently damaging himself.

Chapter 21 Quotes

No, he did nothing for Quality or the Tao. What benefited was reason. He showed a way by which reason may be expanded to include elements that have previously been unassimilable and thus have been considered irrational. I think it’s the overwhelming presence of these irrational elements crying for assimilation that creates the present bad quality, the chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus
Page Number: 327-328
Explanation and Analysis:

Still descending the mountain, the narrator says that he wishes to move way from the abstract intellectual pursuits of Phaedrus and connect those ideas back to everyday life and the general dissatisfaction with technology and the spirit of the 20th century. He says that he cannot say for sure if Phaedrus' comparison between Quality and Tao was correct, or good, and he even says that it's possible to "hurt" Quality just by trying to define it.

Rather, the narrator says that Phaedrus' work was done in the service of reason. By climbing the intellectual mountain (investigating Quality), Phaedrus showed how to include irrational and emotional issues under the umbrella of reason. He found a way to connect what had "previously been unassimilable" in reason and academia. The narrator goes on to say that it is the presence of irrational ideas and the need to assimilate them (understand them, and bridge the gap between classic and romantic) that is driving all of the "bad quality' and the "chaotic, disconnected spirit of the twentieth century" which drove him to begin the Chautauqua in the first place.

Chapter 31 Quotes

I can imitate the father he’s supposed to have, but subconsciously, at the Quality level, he sees through it and knows his real father isn’t here. In all this Chautauqua talk there’s been more than a touch of hypocrisy. Advice is given again and again to eliminate subject-object duality, when the biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced. A mind divided against itself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Phaedrus, Chris Pirsig
Page Number: 517
Explanation and Analysis:

The book is winding down; Phaedrus' psychotic break has been reached in the narrator's retelling, and the Chautauqua is mostly complete. Phaedrus is returning, has been slowly resurfacing, and the narrator finally realizes that Chris misses Phaedrus. Chris hates the narrator and is so frustrated because he isn't Phaedrus anymore. At night during nightmares, and in some other moments Phaedrus returns briefly, but these small episodes seem only to further torture Chris.

The narrator says here that he can imitate Phaedrus, the father that Chris wants to have and is used to, but on the level of Quality and the subconscious, Chris can tell that the narrator just isn't Phaedrus. The narrator says that in the Chautauqua he has been hypocritical, since he has worked so hard to eliminate duality—subject/object and classical/romantic—but the "biggest duality of all, the duality between me and him, remains unfaced." His mind is still divided. He is still both Phaedrus and himself.

Finally, the narrator appears ready to confront this rift within himself, and makes preparations for Phaedrus' return. He believes that his current split makes him unreliable as a father, and even plans to send Chris home and check back into a mental hospital. But in the course of the climactic, emotional conversation with Chris, in which the narrator tries to explain his insanity and his plan to send Chris home, Phaedrus emerges to comfort his son. 

Chapter 32 Quotes

For God’s sake relieve him of his burden! Be one person again!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 528
Explanation and Analysis:

Chris has asked Phaedrus if he really was insane, and Phaedrus answers "No!" To this Chris responds, "I knew it." This phrase resonates with Phaedrus, who realizes that the split of his personality and the idea that his father was insane have been plaguing Chris for years, causing many of his problems. He realizes that Chris has been carrying Phaedrus this whole time, and that Chris is the only reason that he ever emerged from the hospital. Feeling new understanding and empathy for his son, Phaedrus/the narrator urges himself to "be one person again!" and to relieve Chris of his burden and the pain the split is causing him.

Note that this chapter, the last in the book, is written in Phaedrus' font. The narrator seems to have reconciled and become one  with Phaedrus, finally, to save Chris.