The Consequences of Misunderstanding
In Sorry, Wrong Number, the reader can observe the consequences that come with a misunderstanding of circumstances on two different levels. On one hand, the entire premise of the radio play rests on a series of miscommunicated phone calls that Mrs. Stevenson makes with the phone operators, police department, and local hospital. After her call is accidentally redirected to two men discussing the details of a murder that they plan to commit that night, Mrs. Stevenson desperately tries to get back in touch with the telephone operator in order to prevent the murder from happening. But time and time again, her desperate pleas go nowhere because of the inability of the people on the opposite end of the line to either understand or fully sympathize with her complaint. This is evident, for example, when Mrs. Stevenson orders the telephone operator to reconnect her with the call she had just overheard. The operator does not understand that Mrs. Stevenson wants her to deliberately make a mistake in dialing a number and merely responds to Mrs. Stevenson’s request in a mechanically professional way:
MRS. STEVENSON: You didn't try to get that wrong number at all. I asked you explicitly. And all you did was dial correctly.
OPERATOR: I am sorry. What number are you calling?
Similarly, when Mrs. Stevenson finally phones the municipal police station, the station sergeant, Martin, mistakes her admonitions for the hysterics of an old woman.
On the other hand, Mrs. Stevenson seems to have misunderstood the intentions of her husband, Mr. Elbert. While talking to the police sergeant, Mrs. Stevenson says:
. . . and the only other person is my husband, Elbert. He’s crazy about me. He adores me. He waits on my hand and foot and . . .
Unfortunately for her, Mrs. Stevenson seems to have completely misunderstood her husband’s real feelings toward her, as it is revealed at the end of the story that he is actually the man who orchestrated her murder. Thus, her persistent miscalculation of her husband’s fidelity leads to her untimely death.
One of the more ironic aspects of the story is that Mrs. Stevenson, despite her ability to instantaneously connect with anyone via one call of her phone, is entirely disconnected from the world that she inhabits. A bed-ridden invalid, Mrs. Stevenson can only rely on the good will and initiative of others to get what she needs. She lies alone on her bed all night waiting for her husband to return home, and in her hour of dire need, she is left unattended. Mrs. Stevenson’s frustration over her abject seclusion can be easily discerned from the way she communicates with people over the phone. For example, when the phone operator explains to Mrs. Stevenson why she cannot simply put a call directly through to her home phone, Mrs. Stevenson exclaims:
Well, of all the stupid . . . and meanwhile I've got to sit here, in my bed, suffering every time that phone rings. Imagining everything . . .
This is not the first time Mrs. Stevenson calls the phone operator “stupid.” In a sense, the reader is also given a glimpse into the emotional isolation that Mrs. Stevenson suffers in addition to her physical and communicative isolation. Over the course of her many conversations—with the phone operator, police station sergeant, and hospital staff—Mrs. Stevenson becomes more and more irritated that people do not understand her and are seemingly unwilling to intervene upon her request. She constantly makes reference to her husband, Elbert, and how badly she wants him to return to her. For example,
(pause) Oh, why did I hang up the phone like that. (breaking up) Now he’ll think I am a fool. (crying) — oh, why doesn't Elbert come home? Why doesn't he?
The fact that Mrs. Stevenson spends almost the entire night speaking with people, up to the moment of her murder, is ironically juxtaposed against her real situation, in which she is a lonely, isolated individual with no meaningful human contact.
The Importance of Civility
One of Mrs. Stevenson’s defining characteristics is that she is a very rude woman. Even before she becomes increasingly panicked about the possibility of a murderer on the loose, Mrs. Stevenson is curt with the telephone operator when trying to get in touch with her husband:
Operator, I’ve been trying to call Murray Hill 4-0098 for the last half hour and it’s been busy. I don’t see how it could possibly be busy that long. Can you try that number for me, please.
This kind of behavior characterizes her conversations with every person whom she speaks with over the phone and is ultimately counterproductive to her desire to get help. For example, when Mrs. Stevenson finally makes contact with the police station, she immediately engages with the police sergeant, Martin, in a very hostile way. She says,
I’ve been trying to trace down the call myself but everybody is so stupid and I guess in the end you’re the only people who could do anything.
By immediately referring to everyone she has spoken with as “stupid,” Mrs. Stevenson has already established herself in Martin’s mind as someone who is not to be taken seriously. This is indicated in the parentheses of the radio-play script, in which Martin is supposed to respond to Mrs. Stevenson’s request for help in a “patronizing” way. Eventually, Martin cooly dismisses Mrs. Steveson’s request to increase police squad patrolling of her district and abruptly ends their conversation.
At the end of the radio play, it is suggested that Mr. Stevenson’s husband, Elbert, may have had his wife murdered because she was such an insufferable person to live with. Civility is important, and Sorry, Wrong Number demonstrates this by highlighting both Mrs. Stevenson’s failure to attain help and the fact that she seemingly pushed her husband over the edge.
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