In the Penny Arcade: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

If you are reading ''In the Penny Arcade'' by Steven Millhauser, you may be curious what sort of suggestions are lurking below the surface of this seemingly straight-forward story. Check out this lesson for an analysis and a summary.

Changes of Life

If you remember what life was like when you were transitioning from a kid to a teenager, you will most likely recognize some of the narrator's experiences in In the Penny Arcade. This story follows along as a 12-year old boy makes some important discoveries and realizations.

The Arcade

In the Penny Arcade is one of seven short stories from Steven Milhauser's book with the same title. This particular story opens with the 12-year-old narrator/main character entering an arcade. We know that he has been to the arcade before because he says, ''I had not been to the amusement park for two years.'' He visits various games that he remembers, including a fortune teller and a cowboy fast-draw game. Throughout the story we get the feeling that our character is looking for something specific. At one point, he notices some small prizes that players can win and thinks to himself: ''It was not prizes I had come out of the sun for. It was something else I had come for, something mysterious and elusive that I could scarcely name.''

The Woman

Finally, he seems to find something important. He ends up looking through a sort of movie viewer. He expects to see a movie of a woman who reveals some seductive clothing and some extra skin. Our narrator is sorely disappointed by the woman he sees instead. He leaves the viewer behind and continues searching for something that he can't quite put his finger on.


The boy moves on and comes across a room that is cordoned off with a velvet rope. When he enters the room, he discovers that all of the games from his past are in this room. Some of them are covered with cloth and some of them are dusty. He finds the cowboy game and has a showdown with him, just the way he remembers. Next, he finds the viewer that shows the woman just as he remembers. She strips off layer after layer of clothing as our narrator watches. He eventually leaves and joins his parents who are waiting outside.



At first glance this is simply a story of a boy visiting an arcade. When we dig a bit deeper, there are some interesting suggestions. One of the first hints we get that there is more going on than just a visit to some video games, is that the narrator believes and comments that he is more grown up in the present day than he was when he last visited the arcade. This suggests that the arcade represents his younger self or simply his childhood.


The main conflict of this story is that the boy is searching for a specific feeling and is seeking to reconnect with the games from his past. This search for comfort and familiarity can be seen as a commentary on how humans romanticize the past. The narrator is sorely disappointed by what he finds when he revisits the arcade. Just as a kindergarten classroom may seem small and unimportant to a 12th grader, the games in the arcade seem silly and even pathetic to the narrator.

The fact that our narrator is unimpressed suggests that even if humans could time travel and revisit the nostalgic moments of their lives, they may be unimpressed. Furthermore, our narrator is able to reconnect with the actual video games he once played. While he is satisfied with his discovery and interaction, he leaves the arcade realizing that by staying much longer, he ''was in danger of becoming ordinary.'' In other words, throwing himself into these past memories is not the answer to his longing.

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