Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


Robert Pirsig

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Themes

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.


At the heart of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is Phaedrus’s quest to understand something that he refers to as “Quality.” He has found that the rational division of the world into “subjective” and “objective” spheres does not appropriately encompass human experience. A pivot point for this division is the phenomenon that allows us to discern the good from the bad, which seems to be neither subjective nor objective, and a great deal…

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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…

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Rationality and Irrationality

Throughout the book, Pirsig’s narrator juxtaposes rational, objective thought with more mystical, subjective ways of thinking. This contrast is evident in the difference between John’s and the narrator’s views on motorcycle maintenance. The narrator calls his own methodical, almost scientific approach the “classical” mindset, while the idealistic, repair-averse outlook John and Silvia share is the “romantic” mindset. The romantic view is a reaction to the classical view’s inability to encompass some aspects of human experience…

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Many of the patterns of thought that Pirsig challenges in the novel are informed by dualist principles. Phaedrus’s breakthrough, for example, comes when he chooses not to subscribe to the duality of the subjective versus the objective that has governed western thought for millenia. The narrator, too, surprises his friends by delivering a long speech condemning the arbitrary dichotomy between art and technology. Later on, he uses the example of the Japanese “mu

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In his Afterword, Pirsig suggests that his book was so successful because it offered, at a pivotal time in American culture, “a positive goal to work toward that does not confine.” In the years leading up to the book’s 1974 publication, romantic and classical ideologies were at odds in the United States. The narrator observes rejection of the capitalist American Dream and mounting popular disgust with the effects of technology as hallmarks of a burgeoning…

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