Poem Analysis Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

Theme and Analysis, Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

Higher National Diploma in English – 2nd Year 1st Semester

The theme of Telephone conversation rests upon the conflict between the protagonist and the
absurdity of racism that makes the antagonist take a negative stance towards him. The struggle
begins with the protagonist‘s confession of being an African; a black man which sparks up the
notions of racism inside the landlady who denies renting him the house. The fear of being judged
on the merit of being a black man, projects a heavily corrupt image of the society where
individuality is at stake

Soyinka‘s Telephone Conversation depicts a conversation between a white lady and an African
American man which casts a harsh light on the racism and prejudice which grips society.

The title reveals the fact that two people are talking on the phone, so the beginning of the poem
is on a positive note: The man is searching for a house and the land lady has named a
considerable price, and the area where it is located is an impartial and not racially prejudiced.
Also the man could enjoy his privacy as the land lady does not live under the same roof. The
African man is ready to accept the offer, but maybe there has been a similar incident in his past,
for he stops and admits to her that he is black, saying he prefers not to waste the time travelling
there if she‘s going to refuse him on that bounds.

There is silence at the other end; silence which the black man thinks is the reluctant result of an
inbred sense of politeness. However he is wrong because when she speaks again, she disregards
all formalities and asks him to explain how dark he is. The man first thinks he has misheard but
then realizes that that is not true as she repeats her question with a varying emphasis. Feeling as
if he has just been reduced to the status of a machine, similar to the telephone in front of him,
and asked to choose which button he is, the man is so disgusted that he can literally smell the
stench coming from her deceptive words and see red everywhere around him. Ironically he is the
one who is ashamed by the tense and awkward silence which follows, and asks for clarification
thinking sarcastically that the lady was really helpful by giving him options to choose from. He
suddenly understands what she is trying to ask, and repeats her question to her stating if she
would like him to compare himself with chocolate, dark or light? She dispassionately answers
and his thoughts change as he describes himself as a West African Sepia as it says in his
passport. The lady remains quite for a while, not wanting to admit to her ignorance, but then she
gives in to curiosity and asks what that is. He replies that it is similar to brunette and she
immediately clarifies that that‘s dark.

Now the man has had enough of her insensitiveness. He disregards all constraints of formality
and mocks her outright, saying that he isn‘t all black, the soles of his feet and the palms of his
hands are completely white, but he is foolish enough to sit on his bottom so it has been rubbed
black due to friction. But as he senses that she is about to slam the receiver on him, he struggles
one last time to make her reconsider, pleading her to at least see for herself; only to have the
phone slammed on him.

Wole Soyinka uses two main literary devices to drive home the message of the poem. The first of
the two is imagery. Right at the beginning, the imagery used to describe the mental image the
man has of the woman: ―lipstick coated, gold rolled cigarette holder piped‖, just from listening to
her voice shows one that he thinks that she is, socially speaking above him, from a higher social
class.

Then when he hears her question regarding how dark he is, he is so humiliated and angry that he
sees red everywhere. The imagery of the huge bus squelching the black tar is symbolic of how
the dominant white community treats those belonging to the minor black one.
The next most evident use is that of irony. In the beginning of the poem, the African says that he
has to ―self-confess‖ when he reveals his skin color to the lady. The color of his skin is
something that he has no control over, and even if he did, it is not a sin to be dark skinned, so the
fact that the man feels ashamed and sorry for this is ironical and casts light on how ridiculous
racism is that one should apologize or be differentiated against solely because of the color of
one‘s skin. Also, it seems almost comical that anyone should be so submissive when he has
actually committed no mistakes.

On the other hand, the lady is continuously described in positive terms, suggesting that she is of
a good breeding and upper class. Even when the reader finds out that she is a shallow and racist
person who exhibits extreme insensitivity by asking crude questions, the man seems to think that
she is ‗considerate; and her clinical response to his question shows only ‗light impersonality.‘
The repeated and exaggerated assertions of the woman‘s good manners and sophistication drip
with irony as her speech contradict this strongly.

Also the basis of the woman rejecting to lease her house to the man is because of the prejudiced
notion that African Americans are a savage and wild people. This idea is completely discredited
by the ironical fact that throughout the poem the man retains better manners and vocabulary than
the woman, using words such as ―spectroscopic‖ and ―rancid‖, whereas she does not know what
West African Sepia is and is inconsiderate in her inquiries. Using irony in this manner, Soyinka
proves how absurd it is to judge the intellect or character of a man depending on the color of his
skin only.

The poem deals with a foul subject, that of racism and prejudice, in a lighthearted, almost
comical manner. A most important device which Soyinka has used to highlight this sense of
racism, which was previously widespread in western society, is that of the telephone. Had the
person been speaking face to face with the lady, this whole conversation would never have taken
place. She would have either refused outright, or would have found a more subtle way of doing
so. The whole back and forth about ‗how dark‘ the man is wouldn‘t have occurred. Thus the
telephone is used to make the issue of racism clear and prove how nonsensical it really is.
Written in an independent style and delivered in a passively sarcastic tone, this poem is a potent
comment on society.

Soyinka might be speaking through personal experience, judging by the raw emotions that this poem subtly convey: those of anger, rage, shame, humility and an acute sense of disgust at the apathy and inhumanity of humans who won‘t judge a book by its cover but would turn down a man for the color of his skin. In today‘s world, racism might be a dying
concern; but that does not mean that discrimination against other minorities has been completely eradicated. Despite the progressing times, people continue to harbor prejudices and illogical suspicions about things they do not understand: may it be others ideals, religions or traditions and customs. Thus this poem remains a universal message for all of us, as Soyinka manages to convey just how absurd all prejudices are by highlighting the woman‘s poor choice of rejecting the man just because he does not share the same skin color. Telephone Conversation‘ is a favorite, both for its excellent use of rich language and the timeless message it conveys.

Telephone Conversation,” by Wole Soyinka is about racism; more specifically, it is about the
way people — both white and black — fail to communicate clearly about matters of race.

The narrator of the poem describes a telephone conversation in which he reaches a deal with a
landlady to rent an apartment. He feels that he must let her know that he is black:

Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey—I am African.”
This is where the lapses in communication begin. The landlady’s first response is, “Silence.
Silenced transmission of / Pressurized good breeding.” She next asks the ridiculous question,
“‘HOW DARK?…ARE YOU LIGHT/OR VERY DARK?'”

The narrator is “dumbfounded.” Instead of telling her, “It’s none of your business,” or simply,
“Let’s forget about the apartment,” he offers a cryptic response: “‘West Affrican sepia.'”
When the landlady asks for clarification, the narrator only confuses matters further:
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond.
He makes matters even worse by saying that “friction” has somehow turned his buttocks “raven
black.”

Telephone Conversation” is actually a biting satire against the racist attitudes of whites in the
20th century. Overtly, the poem deals with a black, educated man who is ringing up a white
landlady about renting an apartment and, we assume, is not allowed to rent the apartment
because of the colour of his skin. However, if we look a little deeper, we can view this poem as a
biting satire that attacks and ridicules the social evil and human weakness of racial prejudice.
Consider how Soyinka places an educated, clever black person against an ignorant and
prejudiced white person. The poem, through this contrast, shows the ridiculous nature of any
racist claims of white supremacy. The horrendous nature of the question of the landlady, “HOW
DARK?… ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?”, makes a mockery of “civilised values,” as
does the absurd way in which the speaker responds:
Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused–
Foolishly, madam–by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black…
The insistence on the skin colour indicates that the landlady might accept a light-skinned tenant
who could “pass” at being white. However, this only serves to increase her ignorance and
insensitivity. The double meaning in the final, innocent question, “wouldn’t you rather / See for
yourself?”, is hilarious because of the way that the speaker is actually asking the landlady if she
wants to see his bottom to check the colour.

In ‘Telephone Conversation’, the poet conveys his disappointment and anger about being
discriminated by the Caucasian unfairly just because he is an African by portraying the telephone
conversation between himself and the British landlady.

The poem is in the form of free verse. It is because ‘conversation’ isn’t something well-planned;
instead, the speakers speak what they want during the conversation. Also, with the aid of endstop lines and run-on lines, the outlook of the poem gives readers a sense of randomly formation,
which fully suits the way of ‘telephone conversation’ flows.

Instead of talking something about the price and things concerning the house renting, the two
speakers talk about their skin color. This issue was bought up by the landlady at first. There was
a pun, ‘indifferent’, to shows the intention of the landlady. From the word ‘indifferent’, the
landlady seems not too aware who her house is rented to, however, she does aware
From what she asks the caller, ‘are you light of very dark’, she determines not to rent her house to
an Africa, she’s obviously discriminating the dark people, which cause the speaker angry.
It is then the man decides not to rent the house, instead of telling the woman how dark he is
directly, he play word tricks on the woman.

The poet describes the woman ‘lipstick coated, long gold-rolled cigarette-holder piped’, it seems
that the woman is wealthy and well-educated, it’s a bit ironic, from the outlook of the woman, it
seems that the poet want to convey the idea that the woman is good and ‘considerate’, however,
the poet actually want to point out the outlook of a person doesn’t mean anything, the woman is
actually arrogant and impolite in the view of the poet.

The most sarcastic point is the woman doesn’t understand what the man means when he says
‘sepia’ and ‘brunette’, which both mean very dark in color. From the words the man uses, he
wants to convey that racism is not fair in the society because the Caucasian judge the African
low class and uneducated only by looking at their appearance, however, he simply plays the
word tricks on the woman, although it’s a bit rude, and it show African can be more educated
than the one who is white, this reinforces the point that African deserves high status in the
society, it is not only the white people can take charge over the African.

In the last part of the poem, the poem make use of humor because the woman doesn’t seem to
understand what he is talking about, so he asks the woman if she wants to look at his whole body
to see if it is whole black in color, he especially states ‘his bottom is raven black’. Although the
woman wants to suppress her anger and be polite, instead, she can’t stand any longer and she offs
the conversation first at last.

The poet thinks there shouldn’t have any racism existed, people can’t judge other by only looking
from their appearance, instead, they should see and know others fully so as to judge what kind of
people he is.

Analyzing the Author’s Argument

In “Telephone Conversation”, we see the message that racism, or seeing people according to a
limiting perspective of their color, degrades individuals and breaks down relationship between
people.

The fragmented and awkward syntax gives an impression of the interaction. We as readers work
to decode the meaning of the lines reflecting their conversation.

Just as the sentences are stilted, we get the impression of stilted-ness and lack of connection
between the narrator and the woman. The conversation has been made awkward by the
introduction of the race question. The narrator and the woman are not relating to each other.
They are reduced to trying to figure each other out, or decode each other’s meaning.
The author’s special emphasis of the woman’s statements about color bring into stark relief
(literally with the type script) the most important words in the conversation. Soyinka shows us
that the essence of the conversation is her concern about the narrator being either “LIGHT” or
“DARK”. This is what the conversation boils down to, and by extension their relationship boils
down to in the end.

The final question, we assume is rhetorical given the tone of the conversation. However, it poses
the essential question of the poem, which is why the woman is interested in race. The truth is, as
Soyinka shows with the last line, that she is not interested in seeing the narrator as a whole
person, but instead has reduced or degraded him/he to having no identity out of a single
descriptor. This shows the true evil of racism in reducing a person to nothing but a single word
descriptor that places him/her either in or out of acceptance.

Written in the first person narrative point of view, the poem ―Telephone Conversation‖ by Wole
Soyinka is a poetic satire against the widely-spread racism in the modern Western society. The
poem is about a telephone conversation in England between the poetic persona seeking to rent a
house and an English landlady who completely changes her attitude towards him after he reveals
his identity as a black African. The motif of a microcosmic telephone conversation, therefore, is
employed by the poet to apply to a much broader, macrocosmic level where racial bigotry is
ridiculed in a contest of human intelligence, showcasing the poet‘s witticism as well as his
ingenious sense of humour.

The poem starts with a somewhat peaceful atmosphere befitting the poetic persona‘s satisfaction
for having found the correct house – ―The price seemed reasonable, location indifferent.‖ He
was also happy about the privacy that he believed that he would enjoy, for ―The landlady swore
she lived / Off premises.‖ At this stage, we get to know that the two were engaged in a telephone
conversation, which, however, was to come quickly to an unpleasant end as the man decided to
reveal his nationality – ―Madam,‖ I warned. / ―I hate a wasted journey – I am African.‖ A
sudden, unexpected hush of silence is strengthened by a caesura in line 6 of the poem to
emphasize the impact of the African‘s race being revealed to the landlady. Furthermore, the
poet‘s use of the word ―confession‖ to describe an announcement of the persona‘s ethnic identity
is very sarcastic in that being an African seems to be a sin which the persona committed, and
which he needed to atone for.

An uneasy atmosphere ensues thereby. Following the caesura, the
symbolically chromatic images points out the setting of this poem, for the first and only time, to
be London. Thereby arises the sense of irony as the place where the persona was facing such
ostentatious racism is in London, a city seen as a symbol of the developed western world, where
equality and justice are supposedly valued above all. ―This is real!‖ the persona‘s exclamation
only serves to delineate his bewilderment at the situation.

Instead of describing the justifiable indignation that the poetic persona was supposed to have felt
at the moment, the poet chooses to characterize him an a pacifist, or a humble and meek man
who would rather not stand up to face the situation. The telephone conversation between the two
conversationists continues as the African man hoped to get on with their previous topic instead
of starting a new, awkward one on a politically sensitive issue – ―Shamed / By ill-mannered
silence, surrender / Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.‖ However, regardless of his
thoughts, the landlady, who was unequivocal in seeking the clarification, continues to question
him, ―Considerate she was, varying the emphasis – ―ARE YOU DAARK? OR VERY DARK?‖
The African man, now probably fuming with anger inside, remained silent, while the ruthless
landlady continued with her racist inquiry: ―You mean – like plain or milk chocolate?‖ The
limited choice of words as well as the simple object of comparison that the poet uses to describe
the landlady suggests her to be a linguistically impoverished character despite her affluent
economic status. Furthermore, her tone was cold and bordering on aggressiveness, as is
established by the persona‘s interpretation accurately brought forth with clarity and specificity –
―Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light / Impersonality.‖
Deciding not to stay silent for any longer, and as if answering a passport control officer, he
replied ―West African Sepia… Down in my passport‖, which was then responded with the
landlady‘s ―silence for spectroscopic/Flight of fancy.‖ Here, the character of the poetic persona
is seen to undergo a rapid development as he started to react against the landlady‘s racist
comments, by first forcing her into submission with his superior vocabulary. The double
alliteration of ―s‖ and ―f‖ produce a special sound effect, making the atmosphere almost fearfully
spooky, illustrating the mental status of the landlady whose turn it was now to feel
dumbfounded. Also worth noting is the metaphor of spectroscope, hilariously befitting not only
the skin colour of the persona, but also the specific locale of England, where modern science and
technology still inexplicably intermingle with superstition. Either the case, the instant victory he
had over the landlady in this part of the conversation demonstrates the obvious difference in their
education and knowledge, also illustrating the fact that beyond the landlady‘s lavish exterior, she
was simply a shallow judgmental racist.

The contrastive images that the poet has so far established of the persona of the African origin
and the landlady of the western European society serve to increase the tension in the atmosphere,
precipitating the conflict to its climactic moment. Although the African man had already
provided an answer, the landlady did not understand as she was not only bigoted, but also
definitely under-educated, as compared to the poetic persona. She continued asking rudely,
―…till truthfulness changed her accent / Hard on the mouthpiece ―WHAT‘S THAT?‖ conceding
/ ―DON‘T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.‖ Paying no attention to the landlady‘s disrespect for him,
the persona started to turn the table completely against her, as he took a firm control over the
conversation, defending the dignity and integrity of his ethnic identity from the ruthless
onslaught of the racist landlady. To effectively show this, the poet juxtaposes various major
European hair colours together in a deliberately confusing manner, suggesting that although
being an African, the persona is nonetheless a person no different from any Europeans –
―Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see / The rest of me. Palm on my hand, soles
of my feet / Are a peroxide blond. Priction, caused – / Foolishly, madam – by sitting down, has
turned / My bottom raven black – One moment, Madam!‖ Sensing the landlady‘s ―receiver
rearing on the thunderclap‖, which indicates the landlady‘s slow but finally furious realization
that she had been outwitted, he rushed to ask sarcastically, ―Madam, ……wouldn‘t you rather /
See for yourself?‖ The quasi politeness of the tone the poet uses here can hardly conceal the
ultimate insult, which shows how indignant the man was as he outwitted her by inviting her to
see his bottom, thus ending the poem with a tremendous sense of humour, apart from the obvious
sarcasm.

To conclude, through his poem ―Telephone Conversation‖, Soyinka is able to satirize the racist
society in the west. By showing that a dark African persona is eventually capable of confronting
the racial discrimination aimed towards him, and retaliates against it by outwitting the landlady,
the poet sends out a clear message – dark skinned people are no less intelligent than people that
are lighter in skin colour.

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