A Summary and Analysis of Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Commuter’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘The Commuter’ is an early short story by Philip K. Dick (1928-82), which appeared in the science-fiction magazine Amazing in 1953. The short story is perhaps best categorised and analysed as an alternative history story, so it qualifies as ‘fantasy’ in the broad sense of the definition.


‘The Commuter’ is about a mysterious place called Macon Heights. One day, a little man tries to buy a train ticket to Macon Heights, but Jacobson, the ticket-officer, doesn’t recognise the place and knows there is no station matching that name. When he points this out to the man, the man gets defensive before vanishing into thin air.

Jacobson is naturally shocked by the man’s sudden disappearance, and tells Bob Paine, his manager at the station, about the incident. Paine tells him that if this mysterious commuter returns and tries to buy a ticket to Macon Heights, Jacobson should send him into the office to see him.

Sure enough, the little man returns and tries to buy a ticket to the elusive Macon Heights, so Jacobson sends him in to see his boss. The little man introduces himself as Ernest Critchet. When Paine points out on the map that Critchet’s desired destination doesn’t exist, Critchet promptly vanishes again.

Paine is intrigued by this, so he asks his girlfriend, Laura, to go to the library tomorrow and look up the county records to see if she can find out anything about Macon Heights.

Meanwhile, Paine, using the information gleaned from Critchet about his train journey, undertakes the same journey. Although the train driver swears he’s never heard of Macon Heights, when the train stops at the station that matches Critchet’s description, a commuter gets off before disappearing into the haze outside.

Paine asks the conductor about the station, and the young man tells him it’s Macon Heights, and the train always stops there. When Paine gets home, Laura tells him that she researched Macon Heights at the library, and discovered that it was one of three new towns voted on by the county board. However, although the other two developments were approved, Macon Heights was not – losing out by one vote, seven years ago.

Paine realises that because the place so very nearly came into being, something has happened, meaning that the place simultaneously does and does not exist. Indeed, even before, there was something familiar about the name of Macon Heights, but he couldn’t place it.

He goes back to Macon Heights to explore the place, and it definitely appears to exist. He sees a large supermarket and then goes into a drugstore and orders a coffee, chatting to the waitress.

On his journey home, the city where he loves seems different, and new shops appear to have sprung up: ones he doesn’t remember, although he cannot swear to it. It’s as if the past is being altered and that crucial vote seven years ago went in favour of building Macon Heights after all, and so the suburb comes into being.

When he gets home, he discovers that Laura and he have had a baby, Jimmy: something else, like Macon Heights, that didn’t exist before.


Much of Dick’s oeuvre involves alternate realities or histories, of course, so ‘The Commuter’ is an early and short piece which prefigures more famous works, whether it’s a novel like The Man in the High Castle or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, in which a celebrity finds himself suddenly in a strange alternative world in which nobody knows who he is.

Without wishing to read too much into the story, it’s possible to see ‘The Commuter’ as about the strange experience of commuting, moving from the new suburbs to the large city for work every day, before travelling back to one’s suburban home in the evening. A sense of dislocation, of straddling two very different realities, may be experienced by the commuter.

Indeed, it’s interesting that the city, too, appears to have been subtly altered with Macon Heights’ gradual coming-into-being: his experience in the cab as he travels through the city streets towards home at night (not unlike a commuter himself) reveals new shop names he doesn’t remember. He also sees the insurance company that Critchet mentioned he works for, never having noticed this name before.

Of course, it might be read as symbolic that Critchet (his name possibly summoning Bob Cratchit, Dickens’s put-upon worker from A Christmas Carol) works for an insurance company: a place built on contingency, on things that may or may not happen.

The name of the company, Bradshaw Insurance, also recalls the name of the iconic British railway guides which few train commuters were without in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is also symbolic that the train which Critchet takes out of the city to Macon Heights is train B, hinting at the alternative, ‘Plan B’ reality which is opened up in the story.


‘The Commuter’ ends with Paine readily accepting the new reality of his baby that he has had with Laura, who began as his girlfriend and becomes his wife in the alternate reality which emerges over the course of the story.

Of course, many of us similarly ‘accept’ the shift from casual relationships to the firmer commitment of marriage and having children, just as we are daily carried away from one world (home) to a very different one (work) and then back again.

And it is telling that Paine cannot be sure whether the unfamiliar signs he sees on his way home at the end of the story really are new, or whether he simply hadn’t noticed them before. Our minds play tricks on us. Reality is a material fact, and yet our subjective experience of the world is more unstable and protean. Perhaps, in the last analysis, this is what ‘The Commuter’ is trying to capture.

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