“The Builder” was first published in Amazing in its December 1953–January 1954 issue. Page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 259–268.
Ernest Elwood is looking out the window distracted when his wife Liz scolds him for his indifference. She urges him to eat his lamb liver as a good example to their son Little Toddy. After Ernest begins eating, their other son Bob reports on the atomic bomb drill at school. He also shows off what he knows about the newest atomic weapons and their power. Ernest apparently disgusted by the conversation walks out. Bob believes that his father’s strange attitude is a result of war psychosis.
Ernest walks to his garage and looks upon his project, a large boat. He works on it whenever he has free time from work and family and is immensely proud of it. Ernest’s neighbor Joe Hunt comes to visit and comments on his distraction. Hunt jokes about the absurdity of the project. Liz reclaims Ernest for the household and Joe is left thinking about how strange Ernest has become.
Ernest’s workplace cafeteria is alive with conversation. The chatter ranges from racist comments, to talking about pretty girls, to fear about Communist infiltration of the government, to baseball. One worker, Jack invites Ernest over for poker and a “stag party.” He leaves the cafeteria without a firm commitment to Jack. Ernest walks home passing the various sights of small-town America, a television shop, jewelry stores, and women’s clothing stores. After the walk he arrives home and announces that he has taken a leave day at work. Liz expresses dismay at his obsession about his work on the boat, but Ernest insist that the work is almost done. He says that he likes to work on it. Liz says she plans to call a psychiatrist to treat Ernest’s mental illness. When Liz leaves Ernest to his work, Toddy shows up to held with the final steps of construction. Later Bob bikes past with some junior high school friends. He boasts to them that his father is building a nuclear powered sub, not a wooden boat. The neighbor Joe Hunt points out that there is no power supply, no sails or motor, on the boat. Only at the end of the construction does Ernest realize the absurdity of the project. When “great black drops of rain” begin to fall, Ernest understands the purpose of the boat.
This story is a modern retelling of the construction of Noah’s ark, but it is highly ambiguous in this form. The “great black drops of rain” may be signs of nuclear war. It is strongly hinted throughout the story that the world is near to war. Reminders about this fact bother Ernest greatly. His own experience in the Second World War probably contributed to this. It may be, however, simply another great flood. Of course, we only see the first drops and Ernest’s conclusion that the boat has a purpose. Ernest could really be completely insane and the rainstorm is just a deluded explanation for his queer actions. We do not know the cause of the rain, or even if the rain is significant to Ernest’s project. The most likely interpretation that the greater purpose is merely in his head and is the result of mental illness brought on by his experience in World War II.
Dick may be playing with the tendency of suburban American men to pursue personal projects in their garages or basements, often to the bewilderment of family and neighbors. Ernest’s largest motivation throughout the story is to escape the banality of family and workplace conversations. The boat was simply his way to create a space for himself free from his family. He brings the young and more innocent Toddy into the project. Toddy copies what his father does and for this has earned the love of his father. His wife and older son—both with their own lives—are less interesting to him. In this way, Ernest is an emasculated patriarch, mocked by his neighbors and commanded by his wife. Even his older son is ashamed of him forcing him to make up lies about his father to impress his peers.
Most of the conversations that are taking place around Ernest are odious to him and to us. His son fetishizes weapons of mass destruction. His co-workers talk about seducing young girls, bragging about their youth, while insulting their manner of speaking. They are racist as well. One fears that black people will move into her community. His wife constantly nags him and threatens to have him institutionalized. He is even bothered by the queer commercialism of the town streets. He has many reasons to seek solitude. Given this context, the twist ending is less significant than the social world Dick describes in the earlier pages. In fact, if you take out the last sentence, this short story is barely science fiction. Dick’s critique of suburban and small town society was there from his earliest stories. It is even a part of “Roog.” “The Builder” is best read as part of that tradition.
Wikipedia entry for “The Builder”.
World War II and war psychosis.
*Note: The scholarship on this is legion. This is just a short research report to get started with.