What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either.It's a book about a lot of things, but the narrative that gives it structure follows a father and son's cross-country motorcycle trip in 1968. The story is semi-autobiographical and presented strictly from the father's point of view as they travel. It is the nature of traveling by motorcycle for there to be long periods of time in which conversation is impossible and so the reader is privy to the musings, observations, and memories of the father between stops in conveniently chapter-length essays he calls "Chautauquas."It was later followed by a lesser known novel called Lila, in which Pirsig systematizes his musing into a coherent metaphysical framework - the Metaphysics of Quality.
- All Bikers Are Hells Angels: Completely averted. The Narrator is a writer for industrial manuals who's traveling with his young son and family friends the Sutherlands, who are Minneapolis artists.
- Dramatic Irony: The narrator uses a professor's own words against them to win an argument. Feels very smugly superior. Is kicked out of school the next day.
- Everything's Better With Motorcycles: The Narrator is convinced of this.You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through a car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: The massive intelligence that the narrator assures us he possesses often seems to be the thing that makes him insufferable and rejected by others.
- Horrible Camping Trip: The Narrator's son Chris declares.
- Intelligence Equals Isolation: The Narrator is very intelligent, but has difficulty relating to people including his wife.
- The Joy of X: The book's title is a play on Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (much like Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing), but its popularity has led to Zen and the Art of X being an even more common formula.
- Meaningful Name: The Narrator refers to the person he used to be as "Phaedrus" — that is to say, Socrates' opponent in Plato's dialogue of the same name.
- Old Friend: The Narrator staying with old friends in Bozeman, Montana.
- Nonindicative Name: The author's note claims that the title is such.
- Painting the Medium: The twenty-fifth anniversary edition switches from a serif to a sans-serif font to indicate the revival of Phaedrus at the end of the story.
- Rant-Inducing Slight: Pirsig was kicked out of a philosophy program, possibly for mocking the professors. Many parts of the book are him ranting about their inability to appreciate his genius.
- Road Trip Plot: Lost in Development Hell, so we'll probably never see it filmed, but the spirit is there.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment
- Science Is Bad: The Sutherlands' worldview.
- Split Personality Takeover: The Narrator vs Phaedrus and vice-versa
- The Philosopher: The Narrator
- Unreliable Narrator
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Pirsig claims in his Author's Note that it is based on true events, and many of the details (e.g. Pirsig having been submitted to electro-convulsive therapy) are genuine.