Narrated from a third-person limited omniscient perspective, Roald Dahl’s short story “The Sound Machine” opens on a warm summer evening. Klausner, the protagonist, leaves his house and enters his wooden garden shed. Among a mess of wires, batteries, and tools, Klausner lifts the lid off a black box, which is three feet long and shaped like a child’s coffin.
Klausner alternates between consulting a diagram on a piece of paper beside the box and tugging at wires to test each connection. He twiddles dials and speaks softly to himself. He works with intense concentration and an air of breathless urgency that indicates suppressed excitement.
Klausner hears footsteps on the gravel path and turns swiftly to the door to see a tall man enter the shed. But it is only Scott, the doctor. The doctor says he happened to be passing and dropped in to see how Klausner is doing; he asks how Klausner’s throat is. Klausner says there’s no use looking at his throat because he is quite cured.
The doctor feels tension in the room. He looks at the workbench and then Klausner and points out to Klausner that he has his hat on. Klausner, apparently unaware he was wearing his hat indoors, removes it. The doctor moves closer and asks if Klausner is making a radio. Klausner says he is just fooling around. The doctor suggests it is a rather frightening-looking thing. Klausner says it’s just an idea that has to do with sound. The doctor is surprised; he asks if doesn’t Klausner get enough of that sort of thing all day in his work. Klausner says he likes sound.
The doctor says he ought to go, and is sorry to bother him, but then looks again at the complexity of the wiring in the box and grows curious to know what this strange patient of his is up to. He asks Klausner what the box is for. Klausner pauses, tugging his ear lobe and shifting his feet. Finally he admits that he has a theory. The human ear can’t hear everything, he says, and there are sounds so low- or high-pitched that the ear can’t hear them. Humans can’t hear any note with over fifteen thousand vibrations a second, but dogs have better hearing, which is why one can buy a dog whistle so high-pitched that a human can’t hear it.
The doctor says he follows Klausner’s theory so far. Klausner continues by explaining that he likes to think there is an infinity of notes that go ever higher until there comes a note that has one million vibrations a second, and then another note that is a million times as high as that. Klausner grows more animated the deeper into his theory he goes. The narrator comments that he is small and frail and always moving his hands. His head is large and inclines to one side, as if his neck can’t quite support the weight. His face is pale and his grey eyes blink in a bewildered, remote way behind steel spectacles. The doctor looks into this face and feels there is an immense immeasurable distance between Klausner’s mind and Klausner’s body.
Klausner clasps his hands together and says he believes there is a world of sound around them all the time that they cannot hear. He speculates that in the high-pitched inaudible regions there is exciting new music being made from subtle harmonies and grinding discords—a music so powerful that it would drive them mad if they could hear it.
The doctor cuts Klausner off to agree, though he adds that it isn’t very probable. Klausner asks why not. He points to a fly, asking what noise it is making now, and says while they can’t hear anything the fly could be whistling like mad. The doctor smiles and asks if Klausner is going to check on that with his machine. Klausner says he once made a simple instrument that proved to him the existence of many odd inaudible sounds. He has seen the instrument recording sound vibrations in the air when he could hear nothing. Now Klausner wants to listen to those sounds and know from where they come and who or what makes them.
The doctor asks if the machine will enable him to hear such sounds. Klausner says it may; so far he has had no luck, but he is ready for another trial that night. He says the machine is designed to pick up and convert high-pitched notes to a scale of audible tones. He tunes the machine in, almost like a radio. As an example, Klausner says if he wanted to listen to the squeak of a bat, he would tune the machine to about thirty thousand vibrations a second and hear the squeak clearly. He would hear the correct note, but at a much lower pitch.
After confirming that Klausner is going to try the box out tonight, the doctor wishes Klausner good luck. He leaves, saying he will call again to find out what happens with the machine trial. Alone again, Klausner continues tinkering until he lifts the box, talking to himself about the need to be careful with the heavy device. With some difficulty, he maneuvers the box out the door to the garden and sets it on a wooden table that stands on the lawn.
Roald Dahl begins “The Sound Machine” by introducing Klausner, the protagonist, and the inaudible sound-translation device at the heart of the story. To create a contrast with Klausner’s later eccentricity, Dahl initially depicts Klausner as calmly tinkering with the wires and connections in the black box. However, Klausner’s “breathless urgency” and “suppressed excitement” foreshadow his spiral into obsessive madness.
Dahl also hints at Klausner’s potential mental instability with his introduction of the doctor character: The doctor purports to be stopping by casually to see if Klausner’s throat is still bothering him, but Klausner’s familiarity with the doctor and the doctor’s reading of tension in the room suggests that the doctor routinely checks up on Klausner because he is actually worried about the man’s mental health and not his throat.
By using the third-person limited omniscient narrator to shift into the doctor’s point of view, Dahl introduces the theme of genius vs. madness and invites the reader to question whether Klausner’s sound machine and his theories about inaudible sounds are plausible, or simply the projections of a disturbed mind. The doctor assesses Klausner’s behavior and evaluates the logic of his rambling explanation about inaudible sounds.
When the doctor feels that there is “an immeasurable distance” between Klausner’s mind and body, his skepticism and bias become clear. However, the logic of his belief in noises that are higher or lower than a human’s audible spectrum is scientifically sound. Although he cannot prove there is an infinity of sounds that go higher and higher, there is no reason to believe it impossible. The doctor likely pushes back against Klausner’s ideas because he grows uncomfortable watching Klausner grow animated and excited as he speaks.
Whatever doubts the doctor’s perspective sows in the minds of the reader, the narration stays in Klausner’s perspective after the Doctor leaves the scene. Staying in Klausner’s point of view, the reader is poised to evaluate whether Klausner’s interpretation of reality is reliable or compromised by madness. In this way, Dahl subtly introduces the theme of subjective vs. objective reality.