Get notes, line-by-line explanation, summary, questions and answers, critical analysis, word meanings, extras, and pdf of the poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka, which is part of ISC Class 12 English (Rhapsody: A Collection of ISC Poems). However, the notes should only be treated as references, and changes should be made according to the needs of the students.
The poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka explores the problematic issue of racial discrimination through a simple phone call between a West African man and a British landlady. The man, looking for a place to live, finds the price and location good, but decides to tell the landlady he is African, knowing it could make her not want to rent to him.
When he says he is African, she is silent, which he first thinks shows she is well-bred. But then she bluntly asks if he is “light or very dark.” Her rude question ruins any idea he had of her being sophisticated or open-minded.
Trying to clarify her intrusive question, he uses the comparison of “plain or milk chocolate,” and she responds in a clinical, impersonal way. He finally describes himself as “West African sepia,” a detail noted in his passport. Not knowing that term, the landlady fails to hide her ignorance and lack of interest in him.
Frustrated and almost amused by how absurd the situation is, the man jokingly says that while his face is dark, his palms and feet are as white as “peroxide blonde.” Sensing the call will end soon, he makes one last try at inviting the landlady to see his skin colour herself. The poem ends without revealing her final response, but it is implied her questions were based more on prejudice than simple curiosity.
The poem strongly criticises the deep-rooted racial prejudice in society. Through the straightforward but loaded dialogue between the two characters, Soyinka captures the dehumanising experience of being judged only by skin colour. The irony and absurdity of the interaction highlight how common racial discrimination still is, even in everyday activities like apartment hunting.
The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
In these opening lines, the speaker provides us with the basic context for the poem. He is considering renting a place, and the price appears to be reasonable while the location doesn’t particularly excite or bother him. The landlady assures him that she doesn’t live on the property, implying that the tenant will have some degree of privacy. At this point, everything seems rather standard and nothing raises a red flag for the prospective tenant.
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey—I am African.”
The speaker feels the need to “confess” that he is African. The use of the word “confession” suggests that revealing his ethnicity may be perceived negatively, an unfortunate reality many people face due to racial prejudices. The speaker is also practical, he doesn’t want to waste time and energy in going to view the place if the landlady is going to discriminate against him for being African.
Silence. Silenced transmission of pressurised good-breeding.
The landlady doesn’t respond immediately. The speaker interprets this silence as her being caught between her own possible prejudices and societal norms that dictate good manners. This “pressurised good-breeding” indicates that her silence might be due to her trying to react appropriately, even though she may feel otherwise.
Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
When the landlady finally speaks, the speaker imagines her voice as being sophisticated, visualising her with lipstick and a stylish cigarette holder. However, he soon feels deceived or “caught foully” when her subsequent words reveal her racial bias.
“HOW DARK?”…I had not misheard….”ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?”
The landlady bluntly asks about the exact shade of the speaker’s skin colour, confirming his earlier apprehension about racial prejudice. She doesn’t mince words and her direct question comes as a shock to the speaker, making him realise that he had not misunderstood her initial silence.
Button B. Button A. Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar.
Here, the speaker describes his surroundings and his feelings. The “Button B. Button A.” might refer to the buttons in a public telephone booth. The “stench of rancid breath” symbolises the disgusting nature of the societal discrimination he is experiencing. The repeated use of the colour “red” could symbolise anger, emergency, or attention, encapsulating his emotional state.
It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.
Realising the landlady’s blunt racism, the speaker feels a mixture of shame and disbelief. His silence is not out of manners but rather from being “dumbfounded,” and he eventually breaks it to ask for clarification, almost as if he can’t believe what he’s hearing.
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT” Revelation came
“You mean- like plain or milk chocolate?”
The landlady repeats her question, but the speaker, now fully aware of her intent, tries to bring some level of absurdity to the conversation by comparing skin tone to chocolate. This line reflects the speaker’s effort to mirror back the ridiculousness of her query.
Her accent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted
I chose. “West African sepia”—and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.”
The landlady’s tone is cold and clinical, devoid of any warmth or humanity. The speaker decides to answer her question by describing his skin colour as “West African sepia,” a formal tone used perhaps in official documents like a passport.
Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness changed her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding
“DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
The landlady goes silent again, possibly confused or unwilling to admit ignorance. When she finally speaks, her tone changes, revealing her true feelings. The speaker simplifies his answer to “Like brunette” to make it easier for her to understand.
“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?”
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 conversation reaches a point of satire. The speaker plays with the idea of his skin color, saying that while his face might be dark, other parts of him are as light as “peroxide blonde.” He even humorously adds that sitting down has turned his bottom “raven black,” making a mockery of the landlady’s fixation on skin colour.
“One moment madam!—sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears— “Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”
Sensing that the landlady is about to end the call, the speaker makes a last effort to invite her to judge him in person rather than base her decision on preconceived notions. The poem leaves us hanging, not revealing what the landlady chooses to do, but the implication is quite clear: the entire conversation exposes the insidious and pervasive nature of racial discrimination.
Indifferent: Not particularly good or bad; mediocre.
Off-premises: Not living at the same location where the rental property is.
Self-confession: The act of admitting or revealing something about oneself, in this context, the speaker’s ethnicity.
Silenced transmission: Here, it refers to the unspoken thoughts or emotions being communicated through silence.
Pressurized good-breeding: A sense of forced politeness or refinement, likely concealing underlying prejudice.
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled Cigarette-holder pipped: Imagery used to describe a woman of a certain class and sophistication, as inferred from her voice.
Foully: In an unfair or treacherous manner.
Button B, Button A: Likely referring to buttons in a public telephone booth.
Stench of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak: The foul atmosphere of public deceit and hypocrisy.
Red booth, Red pillar-box, Red double-tiered Omnibus squelching tar: Specific items in the environment, possibly symbolizing urgency or danger.
Shamed by ill-mannered silence: Feeling humiliated by the landlady’s discourteous quiet.
Dumbfounded: Astonished or amazed to the point of being unable to speak.
Simplification: Request for clarity or a more straightforward explanation.
Clinical: Coldly detached; lacking in emotion.
Impersonality: Lack of personal feelings or character.
Wave-length adjusted: Adjusting to the situation or changing one’s approach.
West African sepia: A specific tone of brown, suggesting the speaker’s skin color.
Spectroscopic Flight of fancy: An imaginative but unrealistic idea, likely referring to the landlady’s thoughts.
Hard on the mouthpiece: Speaking with force or intensity.
Brunette: A person with dark brown hair, used metaphorically here to describe skin color.
Peroxide blonde: Referring to a very light color, often achieved by using chemical bleach.
Friction, caused: The result of rubbing or resistance.
Raven black: A very dark shade of black.
Receiver rearing: The act of pulling back the telephone receiver, perhaps in shock or disbelief.
Thunderclap: A sudden, loud noise, here metaphorically referring to a shocking moment.
Critical analysis of the poem
The poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka explores the problematic issue of racial discrimination through an ordinary phone call between a West African man and a British landlady. The man, seeking a place to rent, finds the price and location appealing, but decides to tell the landlady he is African, aware it could sway her decision to rent to him.
When he discloses he is African, she is silent, which he first interprets as her being well-mannered. However, she then bluntly asks whether he is “light or very dark.” Her rude inquiry destroys any impression he had of her as sophisticated or open-minded.
Attempting to clarify her intrusive question, he compares himself to “plain or milk chocolate,” and she replies in a detached, impersonal way. He finally describes himself as “West African sepia,” a detail noted in his passport. Not recognizing the term, the landlady fails to conceal her ignorance and apathy toward him.
Frustrated and almost amused by the absurdity of the situation, the man jokingly says that while his face is dark, his palms and feet are as white as “peroxide blonde.” Sensing the call is ending soon, he makes one last attempt to invite the landlady to observe his skin colour personally. The poem concludes without divulging her final response, but implies her questions stemmed more from prejudice than simple interest.
The poem strongly criticises the deeply-rooted racial bias in society. Through the frank yet loaded dialogue between the two, Soyinka captures the dehumanising experience of being evaluated solely by one’s skin colour. The irony and absurdity of the exchange highlight the prevalence of racial discrimination, even in everyday tasks like apartment hunting.
Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)
(i) The speaker in the poem finds the or rent:
(a) too high (b) too little (c) beyond his reach (d) reasonable
Answer: d) reasonable
(ii) The womans lives:
(a) away from the place she wants to give on rent (b) in the house (c) near the railway station (d) in the speaker’s neighbourhood
Answer: a) away from the place she wants to give on rent
(iii) The compound words in the first stanza are:
(a) Nothing remained (b) I am African (c) good-breeding, gold-rolled (d) location Indifferent
Answer: c) good-breeding, gold-rolled
(iv) The speaker feels ashamed by:
(a) the woman’s ill-mannered silence (b) his own ill-mannered silence (c) his own colour (d) the questions he is asked
Answer: a) the woman’s ill-mannered silence
(v). In the passport of the speaker his colour is mentioned as:
(a) brown (b) red (c) white (d) West African sepia
Answer: d) West African sepia
(vi) The confession that the speaker makes is:
(a) that he is a white man (b) that he is an illiterate person (c) that he is an African (d) that he actually does not want a house
Answer: c) that he is an African
(vii) What do the expressions lipstick-coated, and gold-rolled cigarette holder reveal about the woman?
(a) that she is well educated (b) that she is a chain smoker (c) that she is fashionable and wealthy (d) that she is a white woman
Answer: c) that she is fashionable and wealthy
(viii) The woman seems to be considerate when she:
(a) rented the house (b) reduced the rent (c) changed the emphasis of her ideas (d) did not bother about this colour
Answer: c) changed the emphasis of her ideas
(ix) The speaker asks the woman to visit him to:
(a) show the house to him (b) discuss the rent (c) see the colour of his skin (d) hand over the keys of the house to him
Answer: c) see the colour of his skin
(x) He asks her to come and see him when:
(a) she expresses her dislike for the colour of his skin (b) he realises that she is going to end the call (c) she demands the rent in advance (d) he is asked not to talk on the phone
Answer: b) he realises that she is going to end the call
(i) The African caller finds the accommodation suitable because
Answer: the price was seen as reasonable, and the location did not seem to be a problem.
(ii) The man makes the confession that he is an African because
Answer: he wants to avoid the potential futility of a trip if the landlady would reject him based on his race.
(iii) The man fears that his journey to get the house on rent will be wasted because
Answer: he might be denied the rental on the grounds of his skin colour.
(iv) The speaker calls the woman considerate because
Answer: she varied her emphasis while inquiring about his skin tone, which he interprets as her giving him a chance to self-identify his darkness.
(v) The man refers to the red colour of the booth and the pillar box because
Answer: these colours become symbolic of his heated shame and anger triggered by the racist encounter.
(vi) The African man feels ashamed because
Answer: of the awkward and tense silence following his admission of being African, reflecting the landlady’s racial prejudices.
(vii) The woman repeatedly says ‘What that’ because
Answer: she does not understand or pretends not to comprehend the term ‘West African Sepia’ that the man used to describe his skin colour.
(viii) The man tells the lady that the colour of his whole body is not black because
Answer: he attempts to use irony and sarcasm to highlight the absurdity of her racist scrutiny.
(ix) The man’s bottom is raven-black because
Answer: he uses satire to mock the situation by suggesting that it has become dark due to the friction from sitting down.
(x) He asks the woman to visit him because
Answer: he is making a desperate and ironic attempt to confront her with the irrationality of her prejudice, though this results in the abrupt end of the call.
Short Answer Questions
(i) What were the things about the house that the speaker find attractive ?
Answer: The things about the house that the speaker found attractive were the reasonable price and the location which was apparently indifferent to him.
(ii) What comes as a shock to the speaker ? Why?
Answer: The shock to the speaker comes from the landlady’s direct and abrupt inquiry about how dark his skin is after he identifies himself as African, a question that exposes her racial bias.
(iii) Why does the man think that he will have a wasted journey?
Answer: The man fears that his journey to get the house on rent will be wasted because he fears that his being an African may create problems later.
(iv) What does the lady want to know about the speaker’s colour?
Answer: The woman repeatedly wants to know whether the speaker’s skin colour is dark black or light black/mild black. She is very particular about knowing the exact shade of his complexion.
(v) How does the speaker explain the colour of the skin to the woman?
Answer: The speaker explains his skin colour to the woman by referring to it as ‘West African sepia’ which is the colour mentioned in his passport. When she still does not understand, he compares it to ‘brunette’ or brown colour.
(vi) Why does the speaker say that his colour is not altogether black?
Answer: The speaker sarcastically tells the woman that his colour is not completely black. He says the palms of his hands and feet are blonde (brown after chemical treatment) and even his bottom is not totally black but raven black due to friction from sitting.
(vii) Comment on the ending of the poem.
Answer: The ending of the poem is full of irony and sarcasm. The black, prospective tenant’s comments about his own colour and his request to the woman to come and see him are an ironical and powerful criticism of the woman’s racist and discriminatory attitude. The woman puts the receiver down without giving any clear response about renting out the accommodation, suggesting her prejudiced mindset against the man based on his race.
Long Answer Questions
(i) The poem is an indictment of racial and colour prejudice and discrimination in some societies. Discuss with close reference to the poem.
Answer: The poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka serves as a powerful critique of the deeply entrenched racial and colour prejudices present in some societies. Soyinka presents a simple interaction—a phone call regarding a housing inquiry—that turns into an exposition of racist attitudes. The speaker, a West African man, finds a house with a reasonable price and an acceptable location. However, upon revealing his racial identity, he is met with an awkward silence and then questioned about the exact shade of his skin colour. This interrogation by the landlady symbolises the absurdity and offensiveness of racial discrimination. The man’s sardonic responses, like comparing his skin colour to “West African sepia” and his satirical remarks about the colour of his palms and soles, highlight the irrationality of judging individuals by skin colour. Through this interaction, Soyinka illustrates the hurtful and dehumanising impact of racism and discrimination.
(ii) How does the poet make use of the story in this poem and express the anger of the Blacks?
Answer: In “Telephone Conversation,” Wole Soyinka employs irony and satire to convey the anger of Blacks towards racial prejudice. The African man, intelligent and composed, is juxtaposed against the ignorance and bigotry of the landlady. His witty and sarcastic remarks serve as a defence mechanism against her rudeness and a form of protest against the larger societal racism. The story of a seemingly mundane phone call thus becomes a canvas for expressing the frustration and indignation felt by the African man, representing the broader experiences of Black people facing discrimination.
(iii) The poem is an indictment of racial and colour prejudice and discrimination in some societies. Discuss with close reference to the poem.
Answer: The poem is a direct confrontation with the practices of racial and colour prejudice, using a simple telephone conversation as the medium to discuss the wider societal issue. Soyinka highlights the absurdity of discrimination based on skin colour by having the landlady inquisitively and insensitively probe the speaker about his skin tone. The speaker’s internal reaction to this, which ranges from disbelief to mockery, demonstrates the personal impact of such prejudices. Through the poem, Soyinka condemns the irrationality of racial discrimination and invites readers to reflect on the arbitrary and harmful nature of judging someone based on their skin colour.
(iv) How does the poet make use of the story in this poem and expresses the anger of the Blacks?
Answer: Soyinka, through his narrative in the poem, conveys the collective anger of Blacks by illustrating the humiliation and dehumanisation they experience. He captures the subtle and overt forms of racism through the conversation between the African speaker and the British landlady. The speaker’s responses, loaded with sarcasm and unexpected analogies, expose the ridiculousness of racism and serve as a vehicle for expressing the deep-seated resentment felt by those who are routinely subjected to such prejudice.
(v) Write a note on the character and behaviour of the speaker?
Answer: The speaker in “Telephone Conversation” is portrayed as an articulate, self-aware individual who approaches the situation with a mixture of foresight and dread. His decision to disclose his African identity suggests a desire for transparency and a refusal to be complicit in the discriminatory practices of the time. Throughout the encounter, his language shifts from straightforward to ironic and sardonic, revealing his intellect and his attitude towards the absurdity of racism. He handles the landlady’s offensive questions with a blend of poise and cutting humour, showing his resilience in the face of prejudice.
(vi) How and when does the language and tone of the speaker change in the poem? What does it suggest?
Answer: The language and tone of the speaker change after the landlady’s intrusive question about his skin colour. From a straightforward and hopeful tone discussing the housing details, it shifts to one of irony and sarcasm. He uses satirical humour to cope with the uncomfortable situation and to mock the landlady’s prejudice. This change in tone reflects the speaker’s emotional transition from willingness to engage to a defensive stance, and it suggests his awareness of and anger towards the societal racism he encounters.
Additional/extra questions and answers
1. Explain the significance of the title “Telephone Conversation.”
Answer: The title “Telephone Conversation” significantly captures the essence of the poem, as it not only reflects the mundane activity around which the central event unfolds but also metaphorically signifies the distance and impersonality that can be present in human interactions. This medium of communication, which should ideally bridge gaps, ironically becomes the very site where racial prejudices are articulated and exposed. The telephone allows for a candid revelation of societal attitudes that might be more subtly veiled in face-to-face interactions, serving as a stark reminder of the enduring nature of racial biases even in the commonplace aspects of modern life.
2. Describe the initial impression the African man had about the landlady before revealing his race.
Answer: Initially, the African man’s impression of the landlady is one of impartial professionalism. She comes across as a straightforward person concerned with the transactional nature of renting her space. The man perceives the situation as non-personal and business-like, where the criteria for renting appear to be based on price, location, and living arrangements rather than personal attributes or identity. This impression is foundational for the poem as it sets up the contrast with the later part of their interaction, where personal prejudices come to the fore, shattering the initial expectation of an equitable business exchange.
19. In what ways does the poem “Telephone Conversation” critique society’s views on race?
Answer: The poem critiques society’s views on race by exposing the arbitrary and dehumanising nature of racial discrimination, even in mundane activities such as renting an apartment.
20. Compare and contrast the communication styles of the African man and the British landlady.
Answer: The African man’s communication is initially reserved and formal, becoming ironically satirical, whereas the British landlady’s style is initially cordial, quickly devolving into blunt and discriminatory questioning.
1. What is the central theme of “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka?
A. The challenge of modern communication B. The economic disparities in society C. The absurdity of racial discrimination D. The complexity of international politics
Answer: C. The absurdity of racial discrimination
2. Which item did Wole Soyinka use to signify the landlady’s higher social status?
A. A silver spoon B. A pearl necklace C. A long gold-rolled cigarette-holder D. A diamond ring
Answer: C. A long gold-rolled cigarette-holder
18. What can be inferred about the landlady’s character from her conversation with the African man?
A. She is well-traveled B. She holds prejudiced views C. She is financially savvy D. She values cleanliness
Answer: B. She holds prejudiced views
19. How does the man initially feel about the potential rental before the conversation about race?
A. Suspicious B. Enthusiastic C. Indifferent D. Pleased
Answer: D. Pleased
About the author
Wole Soyinka is one of the greatest contemporary writers in Africa. He is also a creative supporter of native culture and the kind society it represents. Born in 1934 in western Nigeria, Soyinka grew up in an Anglican mission compound in Aké. Although he was raised in an English-speaking colonial environment, Soyinka’s ethnic background was Yoruba.
His parents balanced his Christian upbringing with regular visits to his father’s ancestral home in Isarà, a small Yoruba community deeply rooted in tradition. Soyinka describes his father’s world in Isarà in his book A Voyage Around Essay (1989). He also recounts his early life in Aké in his book Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981). These are two of Soyinka’s several autobiographical works.
Aké ended in 1945 when Soyinka was eleven, marking his initiation into the protest movement that would win Nigeria’s independence from British rule over the next decade. The political unrest of these years shaped Soyinka’s adolescence and early adulthood, which he documents in his most recent autobiographical book, Ibadan, The Penkelemes Years, A Memoir: 1946-1965 (1994).
As a playwright, Soyinka was influenced by J.M. Synge and many of his writings incorporate mythologies popular among his Yoruba tribe. Some of his notable plays include The Trial of Brother Jero, Jero’s Metamorphosis, The Strong Bread and A Play of Giants. In 1986, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His literary essays are collected in the book Myth, Literature and the African World.
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