The Telegram By Iain Crichton Smith Essay

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‘The Telegram’ is a short story by writer Iain Crichton Smith. The story follows two women’s experiences as the fate of their sons. The writer uses character and setting to increase the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Through the use of setting in terms of time and place the writer increases the reader’s enjoyment of the story. The story is set in a Scottish costal island during the Second World War. The two women live in a one road village and war is alien to them. Not just the women but the whole village does not understand the purpose of the war:

“It came as a strange plague.”

The village of the women was a very close knit community and this meant that everybody knew everybody else. To the village people the war was an attack on them rather than the country because the war was killing their young men and they felt that it was not their war to be part of. The Telegram itself had an impact on the village as it felt like ‘a strange missile’ because it would only cause havoc and destruction amongst the village people and most importantly ruin their lives. The setting of the story is effectively used by the writer to influence or have an impact on the characters, this use of setting increases the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Crichton Smith description is mainly focused on the thin women, the writer uses the imagery of a bird:

“ The other more aquiline, more gaunt, or to be more precise, more like a buzzard.”

The thin women is perceived to be a person who is not very pleasant. The thin women has had a very hard life to cope with and because of this she is very independent. Through the imagery of a buzzard, a bird of prey, the thin women gives the impression that she is better than everybody else and like a buzzard she is stronger too. The use of the buzzard is also significant because the story is set in Scotland and the buzzard is Scotland’s most common bird of prey. However, even though the thin women is portrayed in a bad way, the thin women has been forced to make a lot of sacrifices. The thin women only received ten shillings in pension was forced into not buying new clothes. The realisation of the harsh circumstances that the thin women has faced make the reader enjoy the story more because the reader has sympathy for the thin women and knowing that her son is not dead gives the thin women hope.

Despite all the sacrifices , the thin women saved and saved until she could send her son to university. This is a reason why the thin women thought she was better than everybody because others could afford to send their children to university but chose not because they thought of it as snobbish . The fact that the villagers thought education is snobby gives the reader insight into society the women lived in, the society that would not send their children to university in case that someone spoke ill of them. To deal with the hardships, the thin women has had to develop a lot of discipline and self-control to survive.

The hardships the women has faced have left her to show no emotions and sympathy towards anybody but herself. However, for a moment the thin women tries to comfort the fat women in her time of need, this change in character is unusual because the thin women does not expect sympathy from others but now she is sympathetic towards someone else. Iain Crichton Smith uses the setting to show how it influences or has an impact on the characters, this use of setting increases the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Like the thin women, the author uses the imagery of a bird to describe the women:

“…a fat domestic bird…”

The fat women is described like ‘a fat domestic’ this suggests that the fat women is very dependant on others unlike the thin women. The word fat’ gives the reader the idea that the fat women has had it all in her life. Through the writers use of domestic bird’ it is suggested that the fat women. Due to the different lives both women lived they have differing views on things, this causes arguments between them:

“ Well, I just thought they’re better off.’ said the fat women in a confused tone, ‘ they get better food and they get better conditions.’ “

The fat women is jealous how the thin women’s son is better off than her son even though the thin women is poorer e.g. the thin women’s son is of higher rank and gets better pay than the fat women’s son. The writer gives insight into the fat women when she explains why she did not risk sending her son to university in case others thought she was snobbish. Despite not sending her son to university it is evident that the fat women loves her son unconditionally, unlike the thin women, the fat women does not expect compensation from her son for bringing him up, this make the fat women a likeable character thus increasing the reader’s enjoyment of the story.

When the fat women knows that the elder is not coming to her house she is all excited but then she realizes that it could be the thin women’s son who has died and only then does the fat women realise what the thin has gone through and tries to sympathy but she cannot. The reasons for the fat women showing no sympathy are that firstly, she does not like the thin women and because the thought of losing her own son has emotionally drained the thin women. The setting adds to suspense and tension throughout the story and especially the climax. From the thin women’s window they can see the entire village:

“ As the watched they could see at the far end of the street the tall man in black clothes carrying in his hand a piece of yellow paper. This was a bare village with little colour therefore the yellow was both strange and unnatural.”

The fact that the women could see the man at the end of the village from the thin women’s window emphasise to the reader how small the village is, the village being small suggests that it is a very close knit community. The village consists of one road and as the elder walks along the road the suspense and tension builds and the reader expects the elder to visit the homes of the women however this does not happen. In the end the reader is shocked how it is actually the elder’s son who has died and the suspense and tension that leads to this increases the impact. In conclusion, Iain Crichton Smith successfully uses setting, character, imagery as well suspense and tension to increase the readers enjoyment of the story.

The story is set in a small Scottish rural community during World War Two. It opens with the two main characters, a fat woman, Sarah and a thin woman drinking tea and gazing out of the window.

The village appears sleepy and quiet but it becomes clear the impact of war is felt just as keenly here as in any other community in the British Isles. The villagers dread the arrival of the telegram of the title, which brings the news of a son killed in the conflict.

These telegrams are delivered by a local church elder. Residents of the village have come to fear the sight of this black clad figure stopping at their door.

The women notice the elder as he walk through the village. He clutches one of the telegrams, which is immediately recognisable for its distinctive yellow colour. The women become increasingly fearful as he makes his way closer to their houses, the last two in the village. Their mounting tension and sense of dread provokes an interesting conversation.

Although they are neighbours, these women are not friends. There are many underlying tensions in their relationship. The fat women considers her neighbour an outsider and a snob, even though she has lived in the village for more than thirty years and survives on a tiny widow’s income.

She is jealous that the thin woman’s son has been to university and is an officer in the navy. Her own son is merely an ordinary seaman.

The thin woman is contemptuous of most of the other mothers in the village. She believes they could have worked harder to provide a better education for their own children.

As the elder approaches the final two houses in the village it seems certain that the telegram is meant for one of them.

He passes the fat woman’s house and the letter seems destined for the thin woman. At this moment, that fat woman suddenly understands the years of sacrifice endured by her neighbour for her son.

However, in an ironic twist, instead of turning in at the thin woman’s house, the elder keeps walking. It later emerges that the telegram was addressed to the elder himself. So shocked by the news and unable to face telling his wife their son had drowned, he walks six miles to the next village before he is finally stopped, still clutching the crumpled, yellow piece of paper.


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