The Vertical Ladder by William Sansom
Grouped together with Long-Distance by Mal Zin Hu, and The Essence of a Man by Alan Sullivan: Where all three stories focus on one activity and largely on Setting
Page 156 of A Sense of Belonging: A Short Story Anthology
Precarious – Characterised by a lack of security or stability; esp by the danger of falling
Vertiginous – Inclined to change quickly; unstable
V.I. = One of the themes that The Vertical Ladder comes under
Q: “It had been a strong Spring day, abruptly as warm as midsummer. The sun flooded the parks and the streets with sudden heat”
E: This prepares the reader for what is to come. The author has used “sudden heat” to evoke awkwardness from the reader. It also sets the mark of the starting of a tense environment to grow, allowing the reader to slowly feel tension and pressure in the story’s setting. Strong words like “abrupt” are also used.
Q: “The green glare of the new leaves everywhere struck the eye too fiercely, the air seemed almost sticky from the exhalations of buds and swelling resins.”
E: The setting is hostile, words like “glare”, “struck” and “too fiercely” shows hostility, causing the reader to feel enclosed, like an effect of pressure, also, irritated.
Q: “The houses there were small and old, some of them already falling into disrepair”
E: The setting here is depressing and abandoned. This suggests something ominous was to come.
Vicariously – felt or enjoyed through imagined participation in the experience of others; performed, exercised, received or suffered in place of another
Scoffing – To show or express scorn
Insistently – earnest or emphatic in dwelling upon, maintaining, or demanding something; persistent
Q: “Among the ruined sheds this was the only erection still whole, it still predominated over the yards”
E: The structure is portrayed as intimidating, and hence is a sign of danger. Again an omen to allow the readers to foretell that something ominous was about to happen.
V.I. = one of the themes that classify The Vertical Ladder
Q: “Flegg, who wished to excel in the eyes of the darkhaired girl, began throwing his bricks higher than the others”
E: Start of man versus man isolation. Flegg sets himself apart from the rest.
Q:”Then there began one of those uneasy jokes, innocent at first, that taken seriously can accumulate into an hysterical accumulation of spite.”
E: Man versus man isolation: Man being hostile to his own kind, trying to eliminate another being through a dare.
Q: “this confused Flegg. He began stuttering after the right words. But the words refused to come.”
E: Inner conflict in Flegg. He’s confused and does not know how to get himself out of it, and in a dilemma – whether to prove that he’s tough by climbing the gasometer or to laugh it off. Shows a weakness in Flegg: He cannot find the right words – he cannot find a solution/way to get himself out of this situation that he is in. Struggles within himself to find the appropriate reply, but goes with the flow to prove that he is tough, but actually he’s afraid.
Stringent – rigorously binding or exacting
Ascent – the way or means of ascending
Q: “The brown rusted iron sheeting smeared here and there with red lead”
E: The setting is again portrayed as intimidating. The idea of rust is repeated over again. This suggests the importance of the role of rust in the development and conclusion of the story.
Q: “The two boys and his own girl kept up a chorus of encouraging abuse.”
E: Man versus man isolation. This represented the hostility between man and man. Also, how intimidation from men to their own kind can cause feelings of being isolated, unaccepted and out of place. They were supposed to be his friends, yet the taunts were cruel and pressurising.
Q: “So that Flegg realised finally that there was no alternative.”
E: He was pushed to his limit, resigned to his fate. He could find no other solution to get himself out of the danger, yet he did not put in enough effort to fight it off. Man’s pride isolated himself from the others, and Flegg was thus willingly ‘forced’ – he allowed his friends’ teasing to affect his decisions – to climb the gasometer via the vertical ladder.
Perturbations – A small change in a physical system, most often in a physical system at equilibrium that is disturbed from the outside.
Q: “Hundreds of men climb such ladders each day, no one falls, the ladders are clamped as safe as houses?”
E: Flegg tries to calm himself – he tries to ignore his inner fear of climbing the vertical ladder. This is also presented as an inner conflict because he tries to reassure himself despite his fear.
Q: “But this came too late.”
E: Flegg already knew there was no turning back. He is trying to portray his confidence on the outside, an image that is very different from what he is feeling inside, thus he rejected the ‘invitation to refuse to climb’.
Q: “Somehow he sensed distinctly that he was already unnaturally high, with nothing but air and a precarious skeleton of wooden bars between him and the receding ground.”
E: Isolation from the environment. Here, the pace of the story also slows down, parallel with the uncertainty present in the story. He is letting his feelings overcome him, and not fact. He “senses” his height and starts to feel fear. Tension builds.
Q: “The blue sky seemed to descend and almost touch it. The redness of the rust dissolved into a deepening grey shadow, the distant curved summit loomed over black and high.”
E: Dull colours and distance are used to describe the setting, causing the feeling of isolation. Setting is once again intimidating, suggesting a sense of challenge or warning of something ominous. Uncertainty continues to build as Flegg is getting paranoid about the stability of the structure and the distance he has to climb.
Q: “He could cover in no longer, he admitted it all over his body.”; “as though the nerves inside them had been forced taut for so long that now they had burst beyond their strained tegument.”
E: Isolation gradually increases as he moves further away from his friends on the ground, and he let out his inner fears. A sense of intensity is given in the readers of the character’s feelings.
Q: “A memory crossed his mind.”
E: The mention and occurrence of flashbacks suggests regret in Flegg. Inner conflict as he is blaming himself for accepting the challenge that now, seemed almost “impossible”. His body had wanted to stop but “Yet… he trod heavily up.”.
Q: “Outside there was space, nothing else, a limitless area of space”
E: Sense of isolation and emptiness in the story. The author emphasises on the vast amount of space in the setting which was empty and lifeless, yet wide and spacious. This highlights the emptiness and isolation in the story. Isolation between man; loss of sense of belonging.
Q: “The wind blew faster. It dragged now at his coat, it blew its space about him, it echoed silently a lonely spaciousness.”
E: Setting intensifies the situation. The ‘wind’ is blowing faster, somehow increasing the dangers of the climb. Also, the wind makes the character aware of the emptiness around it, thus evoking the sense of fear in him due to loneliness.
Q: “The ground had receded horribly, the drop now appeared terrifying, out of all proportion to this height had reached.”
E: There was increased fear as Flegg became conscious of his increasing height – increasing distance from the ground – and Flegg was worried and insecure. Once again he was getting paranoid about the setting around him.
Q: “grown smaller himself and clinging now like a child lost on some monstrous desert of red rust.”
E: The intimidating setting has gotten to Flegg, making him feel small like a child, and scared. Extreme fear takes over him, and he is conscious of nothing but his fear and desperation to get to the ground. Every other consideration left him.
Q: “The sense of isolation was overpowering. All things were suddenly alien.”
E: Isolation extremely strong, it causes Flegg to lose his presence of mind a little, and out of place. He felt extremely detached to the ground and increasing danger.
Page 163 and 164
Q: “from fun or from spite they had removed his only means of retreat.”
E: Isolation between man and man.
Q: “They were abandoning him, casually unconcerned that he was alone and helpless up in his wide prison of rust.”
E: Isolation between man and man. Hostility towards one another and as a result,isolating someone in the end.
Q: “But of something removed and unhuman – a sense of appalling isolation.”
E: Physical isolation increases further up the vertical ladder and the gasometer. But beneath, mental isolation between man and man increases as the friends abandon and forget about his dangers.
Q: “circling his head like a lost animal … then he jammed his legs in the lower rungs”
E: Use of simile to bring a more vivid impression on the reader on Flegg’s emotions and feelings, as if isolation has driven him to the point of insanity.