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Analysis: Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka.

14 Jan

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.

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74 Comments

Posted by on January 14, 2012 in Analysis of Poems.

 

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74 responses to “Analysis: Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka.

  1. Aditi Dev

    February 12, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Hey har33m ..your analysis of the telephone conversation is very nice ….and your story magical .k.eep up the good work..!!

     
  2. tresa

    June 8, 2012 at 5:46 am

    yeh i ttly agree !!..u r really gud:)

     
  3. rose

    June 8, 2012 at 6:00 am

    long way to go har33…its gud to noe tat u hv taken eng lit..!!!!

     
  4. tresa

    June 8, 2012 at 6:12 am

    u r reallly gud!!…:)

     
    • tulika

      June 25, 2012 at 7:23 pm

      gud 1……….awsme………….!!!!

       
  5. Ak

    June 29, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Hey harr3mm you rock…. Coz of you i just understood the poem more clearly

     
  6. shadow_lord

    June 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    you rock harr3m you will make an awesome career in english litreture i owe you one

     
  7. Shreya Ganguly

    July 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Remarkable task done ! Admiration from my side . . . :) Keep up !

     
  8. hassan masqati

    July 31, 2012 at 4:47 am

    hmm… gud work

     
  9. Manav Patel

    August 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    excellent poem analysis

     
  10. Jaya bagh

    October 1, 2012 at 5:12 am

    It’s very helpful for me

     
  11. Jaya bagh

    October 1, 2012 at 5:18 am

    Hi i’m jay and i’m a literature student. You know your analysis of telephone conversation is very nice and it’s very helpful for me

     
  12. m.sri

    October 10, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    gr8..

     
    • ravi teja

      February 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm

      Helpful

       
  13. hellen

    October 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    good work lunch is on me

     
  14. Jim KABLE

    November 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Not African American – a West African man in Britain!

     
  15. Madhuka

    November 20, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Really good analysis!

     
  16. Lavanya

    November 27, 2012 at 10:49 am

    great work! Helped me a lot thanks :D

     
  17. jack

    November 28, 2012 at 9:39 am

    very nice analysis my friend you helped me out greatly!

     
  18. Ranil

    December 7, 2012 at 5:50 am

    thank s it is very helpful to me

     
  19. Antara

    January 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    very helpful- thanks.
    but the speaker cannot be an afro-am. red omnibuses, and red booths are characteristic of britain- right?

     
  20. Antara

    January 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    very helpful- thanks.
    but the speaker cannot be an afro-am. red omnibuses, and red booths are characteristic of britain- right?

     
  21. Beyumakananki

    January 7, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Gud work bro

     
  22. junior

    January 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    thank you for your analysis.. it was really helpful for a student like me….
    I want to add something to your analysis…
    Silence here proves as a very powerful weapon and a kinda medium to convey the racial discrimination… isn’t it ??

     
  23. Leila

    January 16, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Not to nitpick, but you got it wrong on the first line. The conversation was with an African man, not an African-American – there is a difference. He does say so specifically when he says, I AM AFRICAN.

     
  24. Ruth Anyanwu

    February 4, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    This is a wndrful analysis indeed,i wish i could do same. Tnks a lot cos it hs realy helped me.

     
  25. poonam gupta

    February 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    helped me in my exam thanks a lot…………………

     
  26. Nayonika

    February 23, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    This is a LIFE-SAVER!

     
  27. vimal

    February 24, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    this was awesome and completely helpful.. thank you buddy :D !!

     
  28. james

    February 25, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    saved my ass in english class, i owe you one

     
  29. haneef a m

    March 3, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    clearly analysed..very good

     
  30. yoyoy

    March 4, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    im bad at litereture
    but understtod the poem

     
  31. KenD

    March 11, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    The inter[retation was an eye opener..#serious note good work..soyinka has said so much in just 100 words..it touched the inside

     
  32. Shivani Modi

    March 14, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    this was very very helpful!

     
  33. Spencer Hastings

    March 14, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    I must say, thank you very much! I truly feel like I have comprehended the poem more clearly. Well done xo

     
  34. Josèphine

    March 16, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    have never been satisfied as after reading this analysis,, now i understand the poem and its moral lessons. thank-you

     
  35. padmanabha upadhyaya

    March 23, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Perhaps the last line was misinterpreted by you-Soyinka was maybe being cheeky and full of mischief when he says would youlike to see ( my raven black bottom ) for yourselves ? !!!!!!

     
    • har33m

      December 2, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      Sure he was. The last line isn’t meant to be serious. He is being condescending of the lady’s mental capacity and shallow prejudice and feeling bitter about it, resorts to humor to convey his point.

       
  36. http://photoalbum.connectix.be

    March 25, 2013 at 4:35 am

    Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article!
    It’s the little changes that produce the most significant changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

     
  37. Soorya

    April 1, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Hai…u have done an excellent job…it’s very helpful 4 me

     
  38. bright nnaeto

    April 2, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    Very comprehensive. It’s aided my proper understanding of d poem. A job weldone. Tanx!

     
  39. Cbsajicb

    April 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    It very nice conversation

     
  40. NoobQueen

    May 25, 2013 at 8:16 am

    cheers bro

     
  41. Oishani Kido Ray

    May 31, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    very nice and helpful indeed………..thank you!

     
  42. Ukonta

    July 30, 2013 at 1:58 am

    Thou art wise

     
  43. Jake

    August 1, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Much appreciated. Had to skip class today; your analysis makes the poem pretty clear to me. :)

     
  44. Michael

    August 1, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    wow, this is fantastic! you analysis of this poem is out of this world. Never heard or read such and interesting analysis. keep it up!

     
  45. kr gaurav

    August 12, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    awesome

     
  46. Janii

    August 18, 2013 at 8:00 am

    excellent! would you mind if I use/rewrite parts of your analyses in a speech?
    I will reference you…
    could you please come back to me asap… thanx

     
    • har33m

      August 18, 2013 at 11:09 am

      I don’t mind. Go ahead. :)

       
  47. rushali

    August 24, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    This was wonderful. Thank you. Looking forward for more :)

     
  48. J D

    September 3, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    nice work ..helped me in my Exam …tanq so much

     
  49. tumaveyah

    September 26, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    hey i love your analyses of the poem but i was told by my teacher it was about a taxi driver who the woman refused due to his colour and i have to write an essay about colour what am i supposed to do please tell her that she is wrong but hey thats totally rude

     
    • har33m

      April 23, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      Write your answer the way you see is right. Literature is about different interpretations. But I must admit I’m surprised and confused at how she managed to interpret a telephone conversation as a taxi ride.

       
  50. Teacher

    November 3, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    The action in the poem takes place in London. The speaker is African (as he states in the poem).

     
  51. AMMAR9922

    November 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    GR8 THIS HELPS TO UNDERSTAND THE POEM VERY WELL THNX

     
  52. arun

    December 17, 2013 at 10:41 am

    good its very helpful

     
  53. Georgia Lee-Finnie

    January 2, 2014 at 1:10 am

    Thank you very much. Isn’t it funny the people who are reading an English Literature essay cant speak bloody English. It’s not GR8 it’s great, it’s not THNX it’s thanks, it’s not tanq it’s thank you. WOW people….

    But thanks a lot, this really helped me.

     
    • har33m

      April 23, 2014 at 10:40 pm

      You’re very welcome. The irony does not fail to amuse me. But I understand it is literally impossible for some people to understand that no matter where you’re sitting, in an exam hall or in front of the monitor, the rules of English Grammar still apply. So I’ve learned to make my peace with it.
      And besides, the enjoyment of life is in the little things, you know?

       
  54. amasco

    January 7, 2014 at 1:01 am

    oyinka’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 writer of the poem is not an African American he is an African from Nigeria.

     
  55. Rishi Einstein

    January 11, 2014 at 11:56 am

    vry good analysis.

     
  56. Rose Ann Cunanan

    February 9, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    the african is a woman.. the word “brunette” is use when referring to a woman having dark complexion… brunet refers to man.

     
  57. najwa

    February 15, 2014 at 12:37 am

    thats great , it helps me a lot to understand the poem more clearly thanks , wish you good luck

     
  58. kirti

    February 20, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    i liked it very much

     
  59. Pankaj raj

    March 1, 2014 at 10:21 am

    It was very helpfull 4 me, very thank u 4 helping me

     
  60. mahlape

    March 4, 2014 at 9:49 am

    life saver ENG324 almost chawed me

     
  61. CH

    March 14, 2014 at 4:18 am

    While I like your overall commentary, I have to disagree. He was not African American when he wrote this poem. He wrote the poem in 1962 while he lived in Nigeria. He emigrated to the US in 1994. The assumption would then be that he wrote about the conditions in the land he was living in rather than the US.

     
  62. saru

    May 22, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    It’s very helpful for my Susan Elkins series

     
  63. Meriem

    May 26, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    thanks a lot for your analysis! it is life-saving,the speaker here knows exactly what kind of thoughts the lady carried about Africa..that’s why he could mock her!

     
  64. wilfred istifanus

    July 4, 2014 at 3:44 am

    it’s been helpful

     
  65. rafa desucatan

    July 11, 2014 at 11:35 am

    where can i find the whole content of the poem? i cant find it! please help me . thanks!

     
  66. Isaac

    July 18, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    It is such a nice book to read-on!

     
  67. Okeke chidimma

    July 31, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Gud work

     

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