The telephone and characters’ major decisions, in early 20th century literature

The narrator receives a telephone call from his grandmother

In the course of Part One of Marcel Proust’s Le Coté de Guermantes (The Guermantes Way), first published in 1920, the narrator goes to stay with his aristocratic soldier friend, Robert de Saint-Loup, in the garrison town of Doncières.  Saint-Loup arranges for his grandmother (in Paris) to speak to him on the telephone at the local post office.  The telephone is still a novelty in the France of the 1890s, and there are few subscribers, and the narrator is not familiar with the instrument.  (Proust himself took an interest in new inventions, such as the telephone and the aeroplane.)


When the narrator first picks up the receiver, all he can hear is ‘bavardage’ (“chatter”).  Eventually, he identifies the voice of his grandmother – a voice he thought he knew so well.  In their interactions at home he relied on her face, and her large eyes, to follow what she was saying.  Now he is hearing it (he says) for the first time: ‘sa voix elle-même, je l’écoutais pour la première fois.’

He notes the character of this voice: “gentle” (‘douce’), “sad” (‘triste’), and “fragile because of its delicacy” (‘fragile à force de délicatesse’).  Independent of the face that projects it, her voice reveals to him for the first time “the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of her life”: ‘les chagrins qui l’avaient fêlée au cours de la vie’).


The narrator reflects on his grandmother care for him (which has bored him) and her control (which he has resisted); but he recognises their “mutual affection” (‘mutuelle tendresse’); and he notes that she is now permitting, even encouraging him, to stay on at Doncières.  Her telling him to stay arouses anxiety in him and causes him to feel the need to return to her: ‘Ma grand-mère, en me disant de rester, me donna un besoin anxieux et fou de revenir.’


Indeed, the narrator rushes back to Paris.

In the event, seeing his grandmother in the flesh again, he is faced with a great disappointment: she has changed and is a shadow of her former self.  But he has made the right decision; and he remains with her and supports her, in her gradual decline (which climaxes in her death, vividly recounted in Part Two, Chapter 1).

Valentine Wannop takes a call about the welfare of a returned soldier

Ford Madox Ford’s novel, A Man Could Stand Up, first published in 1926, is about war and about love. It was later incorporated in the tetralogy, Parade’s End, as the third volume.

It is in the nature of the tetralogy that a few critical days are picked out, where turning points occur and where the characters make major decisions. (Earlier events are conjured up in memory.)  Parts One and Three of A Man Could Stand Up are set in London on 11 November 1918 – Armistice Day.  The London crowds are celebrating the end of the war.  This turns out to be a decisive day in the personal lives of the principal characters too.  One of them, Valentine Wannop, is not in the crowd: she is at her workplace, a girls’ school.  Her work is interrupted by an unexpected telephone call.  For some minutes she does not know who the caller is; she is confused by the content of the call and the poor quality of the reception (the “hissing, bitter voice from the telephone”); and she is distracted by the noises of the crowds outside and by her own thoughts and memories.

The caller turns out to be her estranged friend, Edith Ethel Macmaster, telling her that Christopher Tietjens, her long-lost would-be lover, has returned home to London from the war.  He is mentally disturbed by his war experiences and has come to an empty flat (stripped by his estranged wife).

Valentine mistrusts Edith Ethel.  She snaps the telephone cord, to end the call, and she seeks out the headmistress, Miss Wanostrocht (who had transferred the call to her in the first place) for more information and for advice.

Miss Wanostrocht tells Valentine that nobody appears to be available to look after Christopher, as his wife is supposedly ill and his brother is very ill.  Rather embarrassed by the situation, the headmistress asks Valentine, “Who in your opinion should take the responsibility of looking after his interests?”  In the spontaneous reply, the making of a decision is revealed: ‘Valentine heard herself say: “Me!”’  [I.iii]

Miss Wanostrocht refers to the damage to her reputation of Valentine living awith a man, not her husband, already married, albeit to a wife who appears to be neglectful.  Valentine sticks to her decision.

Next, Valentine’s mother telephones her to discuss the situation: she asks her, “Have you got to do this thing?”  Valentine replies, “Yes, I’ve got to do it!  I believe that I shall die if I cannot live with him.  I have waited too long.”  [III.i]

And this effectively ends the matter.  Prompted by love, Valentine has made a life-changing decision.


The telephone is an instrument that aids communication while excluding body language.  Writers tend to favour conversations between their characters in person.  But in these passages, both authors confidently use telephone calls as dramatic devices that move the action on, by helping principal characters to gain, not only new information, but, more importantly, insight into where their true interests (those of the heart) lie.

David Harries

June 2015





Martín de Riquer, ‘Cervantes and Don Quixote’

For the Spanish Language Academies’ 2004 edition of the classic Don Quixote, the scholar Martín de Riquer contributed an introductory article (pages lx-lxiii), which is perceptive.  I have the temerity to offer a summary, below.

Don Quixote lacks a novel-like plot; and its subject matter can be explained in very few words: a ‘hidalgo’ (minor noble), devoted to reading books about chivalry, goes mad, sets himself up as a knight errant and ventures out from his village three times in search of adventures, until, obliged to return home, he falls sick, recovers his wits and dies a Christian death.  For the reader there is no mystery or suspense; it is all clear; and when the hidalgo regains his reason, the story comes to an end.

Don Quixote’s madness leads him to three false conclusions:

  1. He is only a member of the minor nobility but believes that he is a knight
  2. He believes that everything he has read in books of chivalry is true
  3. He believes that it is possible to revive the chivalry of yesteryear in early 17th century Spain.

Let us look at these errors of judgement.

Look at Chapter 3 of the First Part, where the innkeeper supposedly dubs Don Quixote a knight.  As the great commentator, Clemencín, has pointed out: the innkeeper dubbed the hidalgo a knight only as a joke; and the law stipulated that such an act disqualified the recipient from being accepted as a knight; other factors working against him are his madness and his poverty.

A commentator, Sebastian de Covarrubias, in his book, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o español, published in 1611, described books about chivalry as “fictitious”.  Martín de Riquer notes that historically true accounts should be called “chronicles”.  Till recently, however, Castilian Spanish did not have the term “novel”, whereas French and Italian did.  He suspects that this lack may have contributed to Don Quixote’s confusion.  Whereas French writers could call their fictional stories “romans,” Spanish writers of the 16th and 17th centuries could not: they felt obliged to turn to the terms “history” and “chronicle”, which were applied to genuine histories too.

But Don Quixote, of course, believes that the fictitious stories are true.  This is shown, for example, in his long speech in Part One, Chapter 49, where he gives long lists, first of fictional characters and events, and secondly of real people and events, without being able to distinguish between them.  The names come from the Crónica de Juan II, Cervantes’s only source on the knights errant of the 15th century.  [lxiv] There were numerous knights, indeed, at this time, wandering across Europe, from court to court, seeking adventure – a century before Cervantes put pen to paper to write Don Quixote.

Connected with this world, there were two sorts of book: (a) biographies of knights and (b) fictitious books of chivalry.  The latter were modelled on the former.  They include the Catalan Tirant lo Blanch (Tirante el Blanco), praised by the village priest, in Part One, Chapter 6.

These fictions can be viewed in a long line of succession that goes back to the works of Chrétien de Troyes (who wrote in verse) and Lancelot and Tristan (in prose).  They are characterised by magical elements, and the action is located in exotic and faraway countries and in a remote past.

To really understand Don Quixote, we must recognise that it is not a satire on chivalry or chivalric ideals but a parody of a literary genre in vogue during the 16th century.  Because of their gross exaggerations and lack of restraint, the books of this genre make what is heroic and ideal look ridiculous.  Don Quixote, indeed, is constructed as a parody, what with its style (archaic and bombastic in places), its crises, its episodes and the very structure of the story.

Cervantes thought that fictional accounts of chivalry were harmful; and in the event, with the publication of Don Quixote, he succeeded in killing them off.

Another success is the fact that Don Quixote has gone beyond Spain and has lasted till the present day, and has been read by people who are not familiar with 17th century Spain.

The overworked idea that Don Quixote represents idealism, and Sancho Panza materialism, contains a grain of truth but is not always valid, for the simple reason that ideals amount to more than the follies of a madman, and because Sancho is attached, not only to the basic things of life, but also to his idea of governing an island and giving orders.

The figure of Don Quixote gains the sympathy of every reader: they feel the bitterness rather than the comedy of his successive fiascos, because he is a good man, loyal and intelligent.  But let us not forget that Cervantes gradually takes his hero towards real adventure, in the last days of his third expedition, and then undermines him, and reveals him to be a foolish man, incapable of bravery when circumstances demand it.  The only answer is to restore his wits, so that he becomes Quijano the Good, who renounces his dreams of heroism on his deathbed.

The two parts of Don Quixote are different in structure.  In the First Part, published in 1605, there are various digressions, which interrupt the flow of the main story.  Some of these have nothing to do with the main thread, ie Don Quixote’s own adventures.  (Examples are: the Novela del curioso impertinente [The Ill-Advised Curiosity] and the life-story of the captive.)  The love story of Cardenio-Luscinda and Don Fernando-Dorotea appears more closely connected to the main story, as these characters take an active part in it and interact with Don Quixote himself.  Something similar occurs in the love story of Grisóstomo and Marcela.

If we exclude the digressions from the First Part, it turns out to be much shorter than the Second.  The latter concentrates on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and its action is a unity.

Don Quixote’s first expedition has a character distinct from the rest of the book, because Sancho Panza is absent, and with him the dialogues between the knight and his squire.  Their conversations are one of the greatest charms of Don Quixote; and they fill many chapters in which nothing at all happens.

All the characters are sharply defined and distinguished.  Some are based on real people, others on literary models.  Cervantes is able to manage the relationships between them all.

In the Second Part, the First Part is mentioned and discussed by the characters; so too is the unauthorised continuation by Avellanada.

The style of Don Quixote varies, in line with the events: it is “pastoral”, in the chapters devoted to Gristómo and Marcela; it seems to be taken from a Moorish tale, when the adventures of the captive are related; taken from a picaresque novel, in the episode of the galley slaves; and taken from an “exemplary novel” in the Italian style, in El curioso impertinente.  There are displays of oratory, with Don Quixote’s long speeches on various themes.  There are letters too – some serious, some comic.  In the mouth of Sancho Panza, in particular, Cervantes shows his skill in reproducing the colloquial speech of the common people.

Don Quixote has passages with slow, detailed descriptions, but also pages where the action passes speedily and vigorously, full of arguments and fights, giving an impression of disorder and whirl, and the appearance of events taking place in real time.  See for example the “events at the inn” in Chapter 16 of the First Part.

Basically, Don Quixote is a funny book.  It fulfils the author’s aim (declared in the Prologue to the First Part) to entertain his readers: “to make the melancholy person who reads [the] story laugh, and the mirthful to laugh even more.”  It is full of humour, charm, jokes, wordplay and elegant expressions – and irony in the style, eg in the titles of the chapters, in the detailed expositions, and in the unexpected outcomes.

David Harries

June 2015