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The Telephone Call Analysis

Analysis of The Telephone Call by Fleur Adcock

The Telephone Call by Fleur Adcock appears in her collection The Incident Book and depicts a telephone conversation between the speaker and someone who claims to be from a lottery company named Universal. Written in free verse, the poem has six stanzas and deals with themes of hope, fraud and disappointment. Encompassing several traits of a postmodern poem, The Telephone Call is written in free verse and follows the flow of simple conversation between the caller and the speaker, raising questions about hope its source and how the shattering of illusions and meaning affect people.
Fleur Adcock is a British poet, originally from New Zealand, well known for her works like The Eye of The Hurricane, The Inner Harbour and Dragon Talk, among others.

The Telephone Call | Summary and Analysis

The poem deals with a phone call that the speaker receives claiming that the speaker has won a lottery of one million, delving into the speaker’s emotions which are laid bare we see their excitement and happiness before it all comes crumbling down in the last stanza when it is revealed that the company deals in emotions and experience were never cash prize, to begin with, and all of this was a clever joke. Both the speaker and the caller have unspecified genders, suggesting perhaps how the caller and the speaker can be any one of us giving false hopes and ideas to each other as we engage in mundane social interactions.

The Telephone Call | Stanza 1

They asked me ‘Are you sitting down?
Right? This is Universal Lotteries’,
They said. ‘You’ve won the top prize,
The Ultra-super Global Special.
What would you do with a million pounds?
Or, actually, with more than a million –
Not that it makes a lot of difference
Once you’re a millionaire.’ And they laughed.

The opening stanza of the poem sets the subject matter clearly for the readers. The speaker is being contacted by Universal Lotteries and is informed that they have won the top prize. They then ask the speaker what the speaker would do if they had a million pounds. Several things strike the reader at once, the person calling the speaker is speaking in a very informal tone and the laugh at the end adds more doubt about the caller. The name of the lottery seems made up exaggerated and even funny. It should also be noted that, in retrospect, the caller does not, at any point in the stanza, tell the speaker that they had won a million pounds, soon after telling that they have won the top prize, the caller shifts to the question about what they would do if they had a million pounds.

The Telephone Call | Stanza 2-3

‘Are you OK?’ they asked – ‘Still there?
Come on, now, tell us, how does it feel?’
I said ‘I just…I can’t believe it!’
They said ‘That’s what they all say.
What else? Go on, tell us about it.’
I said ‘I feel the top of my head
Has floated off, out through the window,
Revolving like a flying saucer.’

‘That’s unusual’ they said. ‘Go on.’
I said ‘I’m finding it hard to talk.
My throat’s gone dry, my nose is tingling.
I think I’m going to sneeze – or cry.’
‘That’s right’ they said, ‘don’t be ashamed
Of giving way to your emotions.
It isn’t every day you hear
You’re going to get a million pounds.

The second stanza shows a shocked speaker with the person on the call trying to get them to open up, the speaker tries to put her feelings into words, telling them that she feels as if her head has floated out of the window and is revolving like a flying saucer. The third stanza starts as the person on the call remarks that what she is feeling is unusual but still urges her to continue. As she puts more and more of her condition into words it’s clear that she is very overwhelmed.

The third stanza ends as the other person comforts her by telling her it’s okay to be overwhelmed as one does not hear of winning a lottery every day. The caller continues the trend of being informal with the speaker this time even going as far as prodding and prying into the speaker’s heart. The speaker is clearly overwhelmed and speechless, and her turbulent mind can’t think or be rational about anything, a condition that the caller is taking advantage of and making her more vulnerable. Again the caller says “It isn’t every day you hear/You’re going to get a million pounds.” which again is in line with what they said in the first stanza, making it seem that the speaker has won money without ever saying so.

Though the caller never said anything about the speaker getting money that is definitely miles away from what the speaker ‘heard’ giving them false hope about the lottery. The simile used at the end of the second stanza where the speaker likens their head to a flying saucer implies that they are feeling dizzy and are experiencing foreign emotions that they can’t exactly place.

The second and third stanza also showcases masterful manipulation of the rhythm of the poem that rises and falls with the turbulence and mood of the speaker. Last few lines of the second stanza where the speaker is the most shocked have very few periods and commas accelerating the pace of the poem but through the second stanza as the speaker’s emotions calm down as they start to verbally express themselves is shown through the use of commas that slow down the pace of the poem.

The Telephone Call | Stanza 4-5

Relax, now, have a little cry;
We’ll give you a moment…’ ‘Hang on!’ I said.
‘I haven’t bought a lottery ticket
For years and years. And what did you say
The company’s called?’ They laughed again.
‘Not to worry about a ticket.
We’re Universal. We operate
A retrospective Chances Module.

Nearly everyone’s bought a ticket
In some lottery or another,
Once at least. We buy up the files,
Feed the names into our computer,
And see who the lucky person is.’
‘Well, that’s incredible’ I said.
‘It’s marvelous. I still can’t quite…
I’ll believe it when I see the cheque.’

The speaker suddenly remembers that it has been a long time since they have taken their lottery, and grows doubtful. The caller tries to get things back in their control by explaining the mechanism by which the speaker won the lottery. The caller claims that they use a “retrospective Chances Module” and buy up information of people who have bought lotteries previously and declare a winner. The speaker is still doubtful about it and resolves to believe it only after seeing the cheque.
The fourth stanza begins with the speaker finally snapping out of their daze and confronting the caller by asking for more details. The retrospective Chances Module is a system whose means of income and profit is dubious at best, and the speaker s understandably confused and rightfully sceptical about this whole business.

The Telephone Call | Stanza 6

‘Oh,’ they said, ‘there’s no cheque.’
‘But the money?’ ‘We don’t deal in money.
Experiences are what we deal in.
You’ve had a great experience, right?
Exciting? Something you’ll remember?
That’s your prize. So congratulations
From all of us at Universal.
Have a nice day!’ And the line went dead.

The twist is finally revealed as the caller tells the speaker that is no money, and that they deal in experiences and they have served their part by giving the speaker an unforgettable experience. The line goes dead after the caller wishes the speaker a nice day. The irony of the poem truly comes to form in the last stanza as we realize what has happened to the speaker. The speaker is interrupted in the middle of their life only to be fed hope, a hope and shock that the speaker is made to put into words stating them and giving them a concrete form within themselves and then it is revealed that there was no money, to begin with.

The lottery can be read as hope and human desire to achieve things, especially with little effort. It is this fascination with reaping what was never sown that the poem looks into. The speaker is not worse off financially by the end of the poem but still would be filled with disappointment at what could have been, bringing into their mind the relative poverty that they are living in reminding them of something that could perhaps have gone unseen. Another theme that runs throughout the poem is that of reality and imagination. Throughout the poem, the caller cleverly hides the fact that there is no prize money through implications letting the speaker’s mind fill in the gaps that the caller was leaving, starting with the one between “You’ve won the top prize” and “ What would you do with a million pounds?”. Now with the idea of money planted within, the speaker has fallen into the trap cleverly placed and got pranked. In the end line perhaps it was her hopes too that goes “dead” with the line.

One can also read this poem as a dialogue within the human mind with the subconscious which is the caller feeding the consciousness with hope and fantasies unfounded in reality, just like how cracks appeared in the caller’s narrative as soon as the speaker realised that they have not taken a lottery for years and still was tempted into believing it again by flimsy rationalisations, people are easily manipulated by hope- no matter how small into believing what they want over the reality.





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