Last Night at the Telegraph Club

by Malinda Lo

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Last Night at the Telegraph Club Themes

The main themes in Last Night at the Telegraph Club are self-discovery and coming of age, prejudice and discrimination, and social pressure.

  • Self-discovery and coming of age: The novel centers around Lily’s burgeoning understanding of her own sexuality and interests.
  • Prejudice and discrimination: Lily faces prejudice and discrimination as a result of both her sexual and racial identities.
  • Social pressure: The novel depicts the pressures young people face, both from each other and from society.

Themes

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Last Updated on October 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780

Self-Discovery and Coming of Age

Last Night at the Telegraph Club centers on Lily’s process of discovering and accepting that she is a lesbian. It also shows her learning and embracing other things about herself, such as her interest in math and rockets. The bond with Kath that emerges from these shared interests leads her down the path of realizing who she really is.

Like many young people, Lily experiences her self-discovery slowly. However, the time period that she lives in makes it even more difficult. For example, at first she is not even entirely sure that lesbians exist. Over time, though, she discovers not only that lesbians are real and present in her society but that some of them embrace who they are—and that she can do that too. Through her relationship with Kath, as well as her experience getting to know the women of the Telegraph, she learns that just because her immediate environment will not accept who she is, that does not mean she cannot be herself elsewhere. Inevitably, though, her worlds collide, and Lily’s self-discovery leads others to discover her identity as well. This problem leads to the book’s arguably unhappy, if also hopeful, ending.

On a fundamental level, this book is also the tale of Lily’s coming of age. Not only does she realize and embrace her sexuality, but she also discovers what she wants to do with her life. In her family context, too, she begins the process of defining herself within and against what her family is and what they want her to be. This defining of a relationship with one’s parents’ identity and expectations is an aspect of every coming-of-age novel, but it becomes particularly poignant in the context of Lily’s struggle to find a community where she can truly be accepted and at home. Because of the world she lives in, Lily is not able to find this community during the book, but her search for it is fundamentally entangled with the process of growing up.

Prejudice and Discrimination

Perhaps the most powerful social force in Lily’s world—1950s America—is prejudice. The American government’s prejudice against Asian Americans leads them to be suspicious even of people like Lily’s father, who served the United States honorably during World War II. Racism against Asians, combined with a paranoia about communism, leads to a public suspicion that haunts Lily’s family and Chinese American friends throughout the novel. This is the political undercurrent that runs beneath the tale of Lily’s personal self-discovery.

On a social level, too, prejudice deeply shapes the book. So strong is the prejudice against queer people during the 1950s that Lily does not even know, at first, that other lesbians exist. As she realizes who she is, she experiences reluctance because she is aware that the social consequences of being a known lesbian would be dire. And, as she learns when the club is raided, there could be legal repercussions as well.

So, Lily experiences two forms of discrimination in the book. What makes it especially hard for her is that within each community that accepts part of her, she experiences prejudice in the other. She knows from the beginning that the Chinese American community would not accept her as a lesbian. However, she is frustrated to find that she experiences racism in the lesbian community, with white lesbians continually asking her whether she speaks English and calling her things like “China doll.”

These two forms of discrimination intersect in a politically dangerous way because queer people are, in this era, associated with communists. So Lily’s association with homosexuals puts further suspicion on her family, who are already under suspicion because of racism against Chinese Americans. The book explores Lily’s struggle in the context of these intersecting spheres of discrimination.

Social Pressure

The book explores the social pressures that young people experience growing up. It looks at social pressure not only within the society around Lily, with the prejudice it imposes on her, but also in her individual friendships. In some ways, her friend Shirley personifies this issue. Shirley insists that Lily participate in the normative teenage social environment in ways that Shirley sanctions: date Will, be on the dance committee, don’t spend time with Kath, help Shirley win the Miss Chinatown pageant. Of course, Shirley has her own form of defiance in dating Calvin, but her ultimate allegiance is to social expectations above all. As a result, Lily’s fluctuating friendship with Shirley represents her own conflict between fitting into the community in which she was raised and seeking her own path and truth.

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