The Sound Machine

Dahl, Roald

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Nov-12-2004


I like sound. This declaration by the peculiar protagonist, Klausner, speaks volumes about his character. He builds a device intended to transform inaudible high frequency tones into sounds that can be discerned by the human ear. His invention is a three-foot long black box resembling a small coffin that contains a complex electronic mechanism.

Klausner takes his machine outdoors to test it. At first, all he hears through the earphones connected to the contraption is a humming noise, but soon he perceives a shriek each time his neighbor cuts the stem of a rose in her garden. He decides to experiment further. Klausner strikes a large beech tree with an axe and immediately hears an unsettling noise similar to a scream. He apologizes to the tree.

Klausner telephones his personal physician and implores him to come immediately. When Dr. Scott arrives, Klausner asks him to don the earphones. The inventor smacks the tree once more with the axe. Only this time, a large branch comes crashing down smashing the sound machine to pieces and barely missing Klausner. He asks Dr. Scott what he heard, but the physician is not sure. Klausner insists that the gash in the tree trunk be sutured, but the doctor explains he cannot suture through wood. Still holding his axe, Klausner commands the physician to paint the cut with iodine and check on the tree tomorrow.


Although the amateur scientist in this story may or may not be crazy, he seems at the very least to be flirting with madness. His fascination with acoustics and yearning to test a theory become an obsession. Klausner believes there is a sphere of sound inaudible to humans that is so powerful it would drive people mad to hear it.

Despite the risk, Klausner embraces the opportunity to test his invention. Ponder this description of the experiment: "As he listened, he became conscious of a curious sensation, a feeling that his ears were stretching out away from his head" and "that the ears were going up and up towards a secret and forbidden territory, a dangerous ultrasonic region where ears had never been before and had no right to be." (p. 565)

The sound machine is a catalyst but readers need to decide for themselves just what it does for (or to) Klausner. Has the apparatus actually provided access to the realm of the ultrasonic and allowed him to listen in on Nature? Or has the device triggered (or perhaps uncovered) lunacy? With its emphasis on a strange scientist preoccupied with Nature, the tale is reminiscent of the "mad scientist" stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. With an obsessive main character and his heightened sense of hearing, the tale also echoes Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart "The Sound Machine" slyly admonishes readers that we hear what we want to.


The story was originally published in 1949.

Primary Source

The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl


Penguin Books India

Place Published

New Delhi



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