John and Sylvia Sutherland: Travelers in Pirsig’s Book

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirsig. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who are John and Sylvia Sutherland? What is their role in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig and his son Chris travel partly with a couple named John and Sylvia Sutherland. They have several philosophical differences that they discuss throughout their travels.

Read more about John and Sylvia Sutherland in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

John and Sylvia Sutherland in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The book opens in the height of summer with Pirsig on his motorcycle, his son, Chris, seated behind him. They’re riding from Minneapolis to Montana alongside Pirsig’s friends, John and Sylvia Sutherland; when we join the travelers, they’re on a two-lane road somewhere in western Minnesota. Pirsig catches sight of a red-winged blackbird taking flight and points it out enthusiastically to Chris, but Chris, who’s 11, isn’t very impressed. Pirsig theorizes that the reason he’s so taken with the surroundings is because they’re bound up with his memories, memories Chris doesn’t have.

 Chautauqua: The Sutherlands and Technology

On the road again, Pirsig reveals that John and Sylvia Sutherland are having some issues in their marriage, and that this “disharmony” is the impetus for Pirsig’s Chautauquas. Though Pirsig doesn’t know exactly what’s eating them, his theory is that their troubles have something to do with their difficult relationship to technology. Pirsig uses several examples to illustrate this troubled relationship:

Whereas Pirsig believes that a motorcyclist should be prepared to fix his or her motorcycle on the fly, John believes that repairs should be left to a professional mechanic. This position has gotten John into some messes on past rides: Pirsig relates an anecdote wherein John’s motorcycle refuses to start twice (for reasons relatively obvious to Pirsig), leading John to fits of frustration. This is one of the big differences between Pirsig and John and Sylvia Sutherland.

When a faucet begins dripping at John and Sylvia Sutherlands’ house, John makes a cursory stab at fixing it, then just lets it drip. On a day when Pirsig is over, Sylvia, who speaks softly, is trying to make herself heard over the dripping when her kids enter noisily. She blows up at the kids for interrupting her but doesn’t acknowledge that her anger was primed by the dripping.* The Sutherlands often talk about how there’s no escape from “it,” “it all,” “the whole organized bit,” and “the system.” Pirsig realizes that the Sutherlands are referring to a kind of dark force that gives rise to, and is epitomized by, technology. To the Sutherlands, this force is monstrous and unintelligible—inhuman.

Of course, John and Sylvia Sutherland aren’t alone in resisting technology—at the time Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was being written, an anti-technological movement, embodied by so-called “beatniks” and “hippies,” was well established. (Shortform note: Though Pirsig dubs the Sutherlands’ nemesis “technology,” it overlaps with counterculture enemies like “mass culture,” “materialism,” and “conformism.”)

Pirsig, however, though he feels sympathy with the Sutherlands’ position, is neither intimidated by nor fearful of technology. This is because the spiritual entities that hippies praise—the Buddha, for example—when understood correctly, are as present in a complex machine as they are in the natural world.

As the travelers continue on their journey, crossing from the tree-populated Central Plains to the grasslands of the Great Plains, Pirsig begins to feel a sense of apprehension about the road they’re on, though he’s unsure why. Remarking its flatness, Pirsig recalls a discussion he and the Sutherlands had before setting off on the trip. John was worried that Sylvia wouldn’t be able to handle the monotony of Great Plains travel and suggested Sylvia fly to Billings and meet them, but Sylvia and Pirsig convinced John she would be fine. 

John and Sylvia Sutherland: Travelers in Pirsig’s Book

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Here's what you'll find in our full Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance summary :

  • How an unnamed narrator and his son are on a cross-country motorcycle journey
  • Why technology can be creative
  • How to focus on what's in front of you in order to get exactly what you need

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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