Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
A young man named Flegg, responding to a dare by a girl he wants to impress and the taunting of a group of young acquaintances, attempts to climb a vertical ladder on an old gasometer, a storage tower in a deserted gasworks. The reader experiences the event through the consciousness of the climber, living through the various perceptions and changing emotions of the performer as he undergoes a wide gamut of feelings from foolish bravado to sheer terror and dreadful isolation.
The group of three boys and two girls are probably teenagers because they are apparently old enough to be given considerable freedom, yet young enough to have little sense of responsibility. They have walked out the back gate of a public park into a run-down, almost deserted section of town, wandered on to the abandoned gasworks, and started throwing bricks at the rusty iron gasometer, towering above all the other structures. The protagonist is showing off, casting his bricks higher than the others, claiming that he knows something about throwing grenades. Then comes the shout from one of the girls: “Bet you can’t climb as high as you can throw!”
The boys immediately take up the derisive, taunting tone. The playful psychological game quickly pushes Flegg into a position of bravado from which he cannot gracefully retreat without losing face.
There are two ways of ascent, one known as a Jacob’s ladder, bolted flat against the side of the tower, the other a zigzag staircase with a safety railing. Flegg saunters toward the safer stair, but the boys call him a sissy and insist that he climb the vertical ladder.
The ladder looks solid enough except that some twenty feet of the lower rungs are missing. A wooden painter’s ladder is propped up against the vertical ladder, however, making it perfectly accessible. One of the girls, no longer vicious but actually encouraging and admiring, gives him her handkerchief to plant at the top of the tower like a banner.
He starts off jauntily enough, practically running up the wooden ladder but slowing significantly when he reaches the vertical ascent. Flakes of rust drop in his face, and he finds that he cannot remove a hand long enough to brush them off. He shakes his head to dislodge them, but this action makes him feel giddy and brings on the first twinge of fear. By the time he has climbed about fifty feet, he is close to panic and still far from the top.
Not only is he in constant dread of falling, but also everything around him seems unusually large, while he, and certainly his companions on the ground, seems very small. Now there is a new horror: There is a confusion of voices from below and a scream from the one girl who said nothing when the others taunted him. She seems to be shrieking, “Put it back, put it back, put it back!” The terrorized climber glances down for a second—just long enough to realize that someone has removed the wooden ladder. He can see it lying flat on the ground. The girl’s hysterics are distracting the others. They are wandering away, abandoning him on the ladder with no way to get down.
He struggles to control his panic, focusing his attention compulsively on one rung at a time and creeping upward, looking neither up nor down. Only when he reaches the last rung does he dare to look up once more. The story ends with his realization that the rungs of the ladder do indeed end, but there are five more feet of impassable space before the top of the tower.
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