Telephone Conversation: Summary: 2022

Written in the first-person narrative form, “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka grapples with the issue of racism, that being a completely obnoxious human attribute that can be seen lurking within the minds of countless individuals. The poet has placed a telephonic conversation between a white landlady and an African man before his audience, with the latter looking for a place to rent. The poem is a mighty comment on racism and related prejudices that still exist like a millstone. The idea behind the writing of “Telephone Conversation” could be the simple truth that human beings are always inclined to focus and sort out issues based on individual differences, which seldom give them the chance to look into their souls and determine how far they have deteriorated within themselves.
This poem is a splendid example of how a simple communication exercise can be adversely affected if the focus shifts from the important matter at hand to recognizable external differences between the participants, leading to the creation of resistance. Consequently, resistance leads to friction between individuals and gives a body blow to any possible chances of bond-formation between human beings. Also, important in this case is to note how Wole Soyinka uses words dipped in racism to create a memorable impact in the minds of the readers and forces everyone to think about the external world out there, which is real and happening.

About the Author:

Akinwande Oluwole ‘Wole’ Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is one of the brightest Nigerian writers of his generation and the first person from Africa and the diaspora to be honored with a Nobel Prize in Literature (1986).
During the reign of General Sani Abacha (r. 1993–98), Soyinka escaped from Nigeria via the ‘Nadeco Route’ on a motorcycle. Abacha had proclaimed a death sentence on him in absentia.

Telephone Conversation: Summary

In the poem “Telephone Conversation,” the poet Wole Soyinka talks principally about two strangers speaking over the telephone and the resulting revelations which come to the fore concerning the attitudes some people have toward others even without knowing them personally but just by having cognizance of the color of their skin. The initial lines make the readers aware of the reason behind the black-African man’s arrival at the phone booth, that is to call a possible would-be landlady. The price of the room and the location, among other essentials, are agreeable to the man. During the course of the dialogue, the man gets to know that his privacy would not be hampered as the landlady does not stay on the premises. Then the moment comes when the man has made up his mind to consider the offer. But right before he declares his interest in renting the place, he mentions to the white lady that he is black. At the other end of the line, the immediate response is nothing but silence. The African man takes it to be an impolite gesture of refusal.
However, the silence is soon broken as the landlady starts to speak again and asks him to explain exactly how dark he is. At first, the man thinks that he might have misheard the question, but when the landlady repeats the same, he understands that it is something very important for her to know before she allows him to rent her house. This came out to be entirely devastating for the man, and for a moment, he felt disgusted with the question and fancies himself to be a machine, like a phone, and that he has been reduced to being a button on that very phone. He could also smell the stench from her words and sees “red” all around him.
The idea behind “Telephone Conversation” depicts how brutal and devastating it can be for a man subjected to racial discrimination. Thoughts of racism and preconceived notions come blended with an element of irony. The black-African man is reduced to shame by the sudden silence from the other side, and he gets into a state of make-belief when he sarcastically thinks that the lady has broken her silence and has given him the option to define “how dark” he is. “Like chocolate, or dark or light?”. Then, he goes on to answer that his skin color can be pictured as “West African sepia.” The lady, not knowing how dark it could be, does not want to embarrass the man further by resorting to silence. So, she asks him to define what he means. The man replies that it is almost similar to being a brunette but a dark brunette.
All this while, the man has been holding on to codes of formality which breaks down at the landlady’s insensitivity. The African man now shouts out loud, saying that he is black, but he is not that black for anyone to be put to shame. He also says that the soles of his feet and the palms of his hand are all white, but he is a fool to sit on his rear as a result of which it has turned black due to friction. He knows that the landlady will never be convinced with his black complexion, and he senses that she might slam down the receiver anytime. At such a crucial juncture, he makes a desperate and silly attempt pleading her to come and take a good look at him but could not prevent the situation from getting any better—finally, the landlady slams down the receiver on his face.

Telephone Conversation: Theme

The theme of “Telephone Conversation” rests upon the conflict between the protagonist, i.e., the black man, and the absurdity of racism that makes the antagonist, i.e., the white landlady, take a negative stance towards the former. The problem begins with the protagonist’s confession of being a black African man, which reveals the racist inclinations of the white lady. The fear of being judged on the merit of being a black man puts forth a highly corrupt image of the society where individuality is at stake.

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  1. Plz convert this conversation in Hindi also bcaz those student english we’re week & still they have hounrs theycn easily understand

    1. It’s really nice to me to learn the theme of poem.thank you for this summary.

  2. This analysis on Wole Soyinka’s poem is not only inaccurate but extremely misleading. Much of what has been written is total gibberish. It is plain wrong and should not be used as a guide to the true meaning of the poem. If this article in read in preparation for an exam you will FAIL. I will end this with a word of caution; just because long impressive words are used does not mean that the writer has truly understood the subject he or she is addressing. This should be taken as a constructive criticism. Thank you.

  3. It is really helpful to me, the words are simple and easy to learn. Thank you so much for the summary.?

  4. Soyinka’s technique in Telephone Conversation is to allow the bantering surface tone to lightly spread over the graver implications underneath.
    Without a physical interface, through something as impersonal as the telephone, the speaker is able to strip a faceless landlady of all hypocrisy inculcated by “good breeding”. At the same time, his own feelings of shame, even humiliation are exposed although he covers them up with his wit, his tremendous command over language and imagery and even manages to strike a blow at the lady’s imagined sense of propriety by talking of his “raven black” bottom.
    He begins in a seemingly objective, levelheaded way, judging the location and price of the property. The advantage was that the landlady said she stayed off the premises. In other words, she would not be there to interfere with or comment upon the author’s use of the property. So the speaker being a self-respecting man, thought he would let her know he was African. He knows he is living in a racially conscious society where colour prejudice is rampant. As is mentioned earlier in the material black-white confrontation in the west has proved to be the bitterest, most tortuous and most prolonged racial confrontation. And the most visible physical marker of this difference is colour. And colour is what almost all black writing is about. The speaker here is a victim because of his colour. Colour is the man, so to say for the white landlady. His humiliation has its origin in his being a black (no matter light or dark). When he says, “I hate a wasted journey”, he means that he doesn’t wish to wait till the last moment for her to see that he is African and then find excuses for sending him away. His announcement is met with silence, and silence, they say, can speak louder than words. That her genteel status had caused her silence is powerfully conveyed by the speaker’s observation that silence can be a substitute for an unpleasant or unpremeditated response -“silenced transmission of pressurized good breeding”. When she does speak, she wishes to know how dark he is or rather, how light complexioned or how dark.
    The idea of the colour of one’s skin being put into a slot A or B or whatever robs one of the feeling of the richness of human personality. In these days of power dressing and make-up, we are all aware of the variety of inputs that make one’s skin colour and tone what it is. In fact, it might be difficult to find two equally, identically, fair or dark persons. The effacement of personality is emphasized further by the phrase, “hide and speak”, which is exactly what a telephone user does. He or she is not visible to the listener. And in the case of a public telephone booth, it is literally a cabin out of which one talks. The repeated use of “red” is significant. It could refer to anger or embarrassment.
    But don’t forget that the lady is upper class. After the initial silence, she speaks; her query is clinical and insensitive. And the speaker’s response, describing his skin colour as West Africa Sepia, silences her for the second time. This time he imagines that she is mentally scanning the entire range of possible human complexions. Spectroscopic is derived from spectrum meaning range. We know that even among fair people and among the blacks there are varied shades of complexion. The lighter the complexion, the better a coloured person feels. And when the white woman can’t seem to locate “West Africa Sepia” she has to ask.
    Of course, the poet’s outburst is stunning and has a sardonic humour to it. Talking of his face, his palms the soles of his feet, he goes on to say that his bottom is “raven black”. Of course she slams the receiver. The poet can almost feel it about his ears and concludes with a befittingly insulting “wouldn’t you rather/ See for yourself.”

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