Ladders in literature are symbolic of ascending or descending. The ladder in “The Vertical Ladder” by William Sansom is referred to numerous times as a Jacob’s ladder, which is a reference to the biblical story of Jacob’s dream about angels ascending and descending a vertical ladder in and out of heaven.
In the story, Flegg agrees to climb the vertical ladder on the outside of the gasometer to meet a dare from a young woman he wants to impress. There is a stairway but the group of teenagers eggs him on to climb the Jacob’s ladder. In this case, the ladder has no beginning; the rungs rotted away and were replaced by the wooden ladder that the others remove. In addition, when Flegg reaches the topmost rung, he is short of the platform; he is in no man’s land, and the ladder has no end. The author describes in detail the physical and emotional state that Flegg experiences as he goes from rung to rung. He seems to have an out of body experience until he realizes that he cannot reach the top or the bottom safely. The others left him; therefore, he is a man alone neither in heaven nor on earth. The author leaves him clinging to life on the ladder so that the reader does not know what his next step is.