The Builder

Story Background
“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.

cover

Plot Summary
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.

Analysis
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.

Resources
Wikipedia entry for “The Builder”.

A good book about 1950s urban life and racial politics, including “white flight” a phenomenon hinted at in the story.

Sometimes people really do build arks.

World War II and war psychosis.
*Note: The scholarship on this is legion. This is just a short research report to get started with.

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About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Cold War, Mental Illness, Philip K. Dick, Religion, Suburbia, war and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Builder

  1. No it’s not science fiction really,but I’m sure it would fit comfortably into speculative fiction,which has a greater emphasis on sociological and polictical issues.Dick was a writer strongly within this area,and early novels such as “Time Out of Joint” appear to bear this out.I think you say as much above.

    As you say,it’s a modern retelling of Noah’s ark,but is ambiguous.Of course,it’s not supposed to be a literal retelling of the Bibilical tale,but could be described as a new interpretation of an ancient parable.An atomic holocaust could be seen as a new age atavarism for the old flood,if this is the case.The world Ernest inhabits,is decadent and corrupt as you point out,and could be said to parallel perhaps the one that had to be destroyed because of it’s wickedness in the Bible.He is aware of society’s evil,and his odd behaviour in building the folly that is the boat,can perhaps be seen as an instinctive reflex to this.Even his mental impairment due to WW2,might be said to bring about his presience to this because of his experiences during that time.

    By the way,the story of the ark and the flood,isn’t unique to biblical folklore as I suppose you know.There’s a famous one in Greek myth.It was bound I suppose to turn-up in our literary culture,and this is just another example I assume.I think Dick could have handled it differently and could have been a much stronger piece on the theme.As I said on another review of this on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations,I thought the ending was pointant.

    • tashqueedagg says:

      I think this story can be read many ways. Even taken religiously, I would fit it into Dick’s early curiosity about naturalist explanations for religious beliefs (such as in “The Skull” and “Prominent Author”).

      My current opinion about this story is that it is a story about mental illness.

      And yes, I am aware of large number of flood myths in creation stories. (I often lectured on that in my world history courses). I wonder if Dick was aware of this at the time. He probably read Gilgamesh, yes. (Our first sci-fi tale?)

      • Yes it definitely doesn’t have to be taken literally.It’s ambiguous as you say,and can easyly be read on different levels.Again as you say,even as a modern religious parable,it can be viewed positively to explain Biblical phenomena.It is quite different in emphasis to the darkly surreal “Upon the Dull Earth”.

        Yes I would agree though,it is about mental illness.The point is however,what does it mean to be mentally ill in his own singular fiction? Often those regarded as such,know more about odious condition of the “world”,than those that are supposed to be sane.Dick usually treated them with sympathy,not to be viewed with contempt.This is pertinent to “Clans of the Alphane Moon” of course,where the line between the two,is very thin.The same reasoning should apply here then in this case.

        Yes,he probably did then,but I don’t know about Gilgamesh,and just had to look it up on Wipipedia,but know well of the one in the Greek Myths,where Deucalion is the equvalent of Noah,and his “ark” comes to rest finally on Mount Parnassas.Also the stuff of later “sci fi” I think.Obviously though I think,the people of ancient times had a cultural memory of a catastrophe in the Mediteranean basin,that continued to resonate in modern times.

      • tashqueedagg says:

        I actually doubt if there was an event that these ancient texts refer too. You find flood myths in Inca mythology as well. China has some as well. So unless we want to say these texts point to a global flood (one point for Biblical literalists), there should be another explanation. I think it has more to do with the common struggles of agricultural societies with water (both as a source of life and a source of catastrophe).

        Gilgamesh and Noah having such similar stories is easily explained as coming from a common root folklore.

      • I don’t know.I’m reminded of the unfortunate Tsunami.Terrible though it was,I think the power of the catastrophe could be described as bibilical.It was unprecedented I think.I can well understand your theory that the origin of these tales of floods is rooted in folklore though.It is the stuff of myth.It also makes sense that like both the Biblical and Greek tales,some divine nemesis is probably being exacted as the reason for the cataclysms.I’ve already said as much about Dick’s short story,and I think he had in mind,some sort of retribution for their sins.

      • tashqueedagg says:

        Sure. It is like the Axial Age. Either there was something hitting the world at the same time, or it was several societies coming to terms with similar challenges (economics, trade, state-making)

      • Yes I agree.I like to think Dick had something similar to this in mind when he wrote “The Builder”.A pity such a poignant idea wasn’t more powerfully structured.

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