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.

Conclusion

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

 

 

 

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