Choose a short story which has a well chosen title. Show how the title helps the reader to appreciate the central idea in the text



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The Telegram

By Iain Crichton Smith


Model Essay for Revision
Choose a short story which has a well chosen title. Show how the title helps the reader to appreciate the central idea in the text.

A short story which has a particularly well chosen title is “The Telegram” by Iain Crichton Smith. The writer successfully uses characterisation, setting and imagery to draw attention to the theme of sacrifice which is the central idea in the text.


The story is set in a kitchen in an unnamed village during World War 2. The writer’s decision not to name the village means that is represents all homes and towns in Scotland during this time. The writer places two women in this kitchen (again they are unnamed thus representing all mothers in the same situation) who both watch the village elder walking towards their home carrying a telegram. The definite article in the title ‘The Telegram’ draws our attention to the crucial importance of the message. Their concern is that the telegram may inform them of the death of their sons and so the story hinges on the tension created by the two women as they watch the telegram getting closer. The story ends with a twist and dramatic resolution when they women discover that the dreaded telegram was for neither of them but was instead for the elder himself.
The reader is helped to appreciate the central idea in the text both through the obvious device of the title and his use of imagery. The village is described as “bare … with little colour” which represents the depressed atmosphere in Scotland during the War. On the other hand the telegram is colourful, it was “a piece of yellow paper.” The writer’s choice of colour is deliberately ironic, you would expect yellow paper to carry a cheerful message, instead it carries something dreadful. This irony is developed by the writer when he describes the telegram “as a strange missile pointed to them from abroad.” This comparison successfully brings the macrocosm of World War 2 into the microcosm of the village through the word choice “missile” which has obvious connotations of weaponry and something with a destructive impact.
The imagery of the telegram is further developed when it is described as bringing a “plague”. This metaphor successfully links the telegram to the war as World War 2 is earlier described as “a strange plague, taking their sons away and killing them meaninglessly.” The word choice “plague” not only develops the central idea of death, but also the meaninglessness of so many people sacrificing their lives in wartime, sometimes randomly.
Another way in which the reader is helped to appreciate the central idea of the sacrifice of so many men is by making us consider the manageable story of just three people, the two women and the elder. The story is especially interesting as Crichton Smith successfully creates suspense for the reader by developing tension between the two women as they wait together in the kitchen.
Crichton Smith’s characterisation of the two women is to present them as opposites. The contrast between the two women is introduced at the start of the story when he describes one woman as “a fat domestic bird” suggesting something ready to be eaten, and the other woman as “a buzzard” which is a bird of prey. These two women are not natural allies and so tension is created between them.
The thin woman is an ‘outsider’ although she has lived in the village for thirty years she is to the fat woman ‘a foreigner’. The word choice ‘foreigner’ heightens the tension between the two women as during wartime there was a suspicion and a dislike of foreigners. The thin woman has a son, Iain, who is a sub lieutenant in the navy. He has gained that status as he has had a university education paid for out of his mother’s meagre widow’s pension of ten shillings a week. To achieve this she had to starve herself and this sacrifice foreshadows the possibility of a greater sacrifice in the future thus helping the reader to appreciate even more the central idea of the text.
Crichton Smith successfully uses suspense to bring the story to a climax. The elder, carrying his dreaded ‘plague’ has passed by all the other houses in the village. All that is left is the fat woman’s then the thin woman’s. Tension is successfully created when the fat woman bursts into an internal panic, she “prattles” off a prayer, the word choice “prattling” suggesting a prayer which is rushed and pointless. The writer uses repetition and removes punctuation to dramatise the prayer: “O God save my son O God save my son O God save my son…” The sentence structure shows the rushing of the prayer by having no pauses. The thin woman comforts the fat woman but the elder passes her home.
All that is left is the thin woman’s home. The thin woman acts very differently. She exercises great control: “Where had she learned that self control?” “… she wasn’t going to cry or surrender or give herself away to anyone.” The word choice “surrender” again links into the ideas of war, defeat and sacrifice.
It is at this point that tension is at the highest and it becomes the turning point of the story as the fat woman suddenly realises for the first time the sacrifices and struggle of the thin woman: “she saw what it must have been like to be a widow bringing up a son in a village not her own.” This successfully creates great sympathy for the thin woman as the reader sees her through the fat woman’s eyes. As hers is the last house in the village the reader expects the elder to come, finally, to her house. Instead the story plunges into anti-climax as the elder walks straight on.
The women don’t know what to make of this and so the final paragraph contains both the twist and the resolution. We discover that the elder is in shock – the telegram he was asked to deliver contained the death of his own son. The reader’s attention once again is drawn to the central issue – war, death, sacrifice and loss. The writer describes to the reader the intensity of such a loss: “the telegram was crushed in his fingers and so sweaty that they could hardly make out the writing” the word choice of “crushed” describing not just the physical state of the telegram but the emotional state of the elder.
In conclusion Crichton Smith has very successfully drawn the reader’s attention to the central idea of sacrifice through a well chosen title: “The telegram”. The centrality of the telegram is increased through the use of imagery to describe it, the use of suspense as the delivery of it comes ever closer to the women and the use of a twist when we discover the dreadful shock it has brought to the elder.
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