The Vertical Ladder

by William Sansom

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711

Any story depending heavily on suspense, rather than on more leisurely sources of reader interest, requires a fast opening to engage the reader’s attention and a swift closing after suspense has attained its peak. The climber’s abandonment on the tower where he can neither ascend nor reach the ground again certainly provides the latter. William Sansom achieves the first requirement by jumping into the middle of the climb, then backtracking to explain the situation.As he felt the first watery eggs of sweat moistening the palms of his hands, as with every rung higher his body seemed to weigh more heavily, this young man Flegg regretted in sudden desperation but still in vain, the irresponsible events that had thrust him up into his present precarious climb.

This promise of excitement-to-come sustains the reader for the several paragraphs of preliminary events. These lend credibility to the situation, showing how it arises from the natural self-absorption, sexual rivalries, jealousies, and insecurities of young people everywhere. The brief reference to the protagonist’s aspiring to “the glamour of a uniform” when he pretends to throw bricks with the special lobbing action of throwing hand grenades suggests a wartime milieu in which heroic action is even more a part of young male psychology.

Sansom is adept at describing how the appearance of an object changes radically from different perspectives. When Flegg first looks up from his position on the vertical ladder, the effect is quite alien to the impression it gives even a few yards away from the tower. The precision of this passage is remarkable for both its visual accuracy and its psychological effect.From this angle flat against the iron sheeting, the gasometer appeared higher than before. The blue sky seemed to descend and almost touch it. The redness of the rust dissolved into a deepening grey shadow, the distant curved summit loomed over black and high. Although it was immensely stable, as seen in rounded perspective from a few yards away, there against the side it appeared top heavy, so that this huge segment of sheet iron seemed to have lost the support of its invisible complement behind, the support that was now unseen and therefore unfelt, and Flegg imagined despite himself that the entire erection had become unsteady, that quite possibly the gasometer might suddenly blow over like a gigantic top-heavy sail.

The downward view is also distorted: “His friends appeared shockingly small. Their bodies had disappeared and he saw only their upturned faces.” Such surrealistic appearances contribute to his impression of utter isolation. What is close at hand seems unnaturally large: “Even now the iron sheeting that stretched to either side and above and below seemed to have grown, he was lost among such huge smooth dimensions, grown smaller himself and clinging now like a child on some monstrous desert of rust.”

The psychological realism of the story, rooted both in the special effects of an unfamiliar perspective and the tricks of an active imagination, eventually approaches archetypal imagery. Flegg’s view of the top, still inaccessible at the end, seems more frightful even than the abyss below him. He sees it as “something removed and unhuman—a sense of appalling isolation.”It echoes its elemental iron aloofness, a wind blew around it that had never known the warmth of flesh nor the softness of green fibres. Its blind eyes were raised above the world. It was like the eyeless iron visor of an ancient god, it touched against the sky having risen in awful perpendicular to this isolation, solitary as the grey gannet cliffs that mark the end of the northern world.

At this moment, if at no other, the frivolous escapade undertaken on a dare seems to suggest the mythic quest of the epic hero to the end of the world. Sansom does not allow this impression to remain, however, for poor Flegg is not cutting a very heroic figure: “Flegg, clutching his body close to the rust, made small weeping sounds through his mouth.” At the end, when he realizes he cannot attain the top, he is staring and circling his head like a lost animal. Whatever impression one might have had about the romantic connotations of such an adventure, they dissolve in grim reality.

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