How does R.Gerallt Jones make us feel sorry for Johnny in “The Letter”?
“The Letter” is a short Anglo/Welsh prose written by R. Gerallt Jones, era 1950’s. The story is set on a train travelling to the protagonist’s, Johnny, first experience of boarding school, and the emotions and changes he has to deal with whilst growing up and leaving home. Johnny is a young, naive Welsh boy, bought up in a small Welsh town, Pwllheli. He is sent by his mother to an English boarding school, where his older brother has already boarded. On the train journey, he is mocked and excluded by English, more experienced schoolboys.
The atmosphere is one of child like pathos and harsh ‘growing up’. The reader establishes, whilst reading “The Letter”, an image of Johnny being young and vulnerable. This is created by, in pages 14, 15 and 16, Johnny reading the young boys’ comic, “Hotspur”. The comic shows that its readers are inexperienced as they prefer to read passages and cartoons centered on football, not learning about new things that surround them. Which is why Johnny asks, ‘Do boys read newspapers in Shwsbri ?
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Dear God, what sort of place am I going to ? ‘, as he is shocked to see a boy like him reading something other than a comic or boys’ football magazine. This is also backed by Johnny referring to Chinese children as ‘little yellow children’ in his imaginary games and relating ‘Shrewsbury’ to ‘strawberries’ and calling it ‘Shwsbri’. Concerning his relationships to people, the reader can see his childishness and lack of sophistication by Johnny not being very involved in the family.
He calls his older brother, Math, ‘a stranger’ and can’t relate to him as he ‘had been away at school for a long time ‘ and therefore, for Johnny, ‘he didn’t really belong in our house’. This proves Johnny might not have affection or interest in people that he’s not used to, which shows very quickly that Johnny is still very young. Regarding Johnny’s relationship to his mother, it is also proved that he’s just a dependant, youthful child.
As when he is on the train, travelling to his new school, Johnny is picked on by some older and more sophisticated English school boys, who make him feel insecure as he’s Welsh and new. To comfort himself, Johnny speaks to his ‘Mam’ inside his head in Welsh, showing that he’s scared and relies on his mother for help. The readers are aware of Johnny’s age as Johnny is the narrator throughout the story, thus, letting the reader know exactly how Johnny feels and how he deals with his feelings in certain situations, which indicates his age.
In “The Letter”, the main subject is Johnny and the changes he deals with on his first experience of school. Johnny’s older brother Math, is the person who tells Johnny that he’s going away to school. The writer produces a sense of anxiousness of Math telling Johnny by writing the adjectives: ‘important’ and ‘big’, the adverb: ‘terribly’ and the verbs: ‘have to’, ‘rushed’ and ‘shouted’ to describe the way Math tells Johnny. The quotes all create an urgent, even exiting atmosphere of something new for Johnny to experience and therefore, inviting the reader to continue with the story.
Johnny’s reaction to ‘the news’ is an anticlimax for the reader. Being ‘away at school’ meant for Johnny being ‘a stranger’ and not really ‘belonging’ in his ‘house’, which is a downfall to the previous new and exiting mood. The change of going to school is shown as alien and extraordinary for Johnny by his reaction to it; ‘… school. I didn’t understand what that meant to begin with’ and ‘school, where they talk funny and no damn anybody speaking Welsh. ‘ These responses show that, along with ‘what did “away” mean ? Was it farther than Pwllheli ? , Johnny is inexperienced and obviously going to school, for him, will be a very new and daunting experience. The reader can fell sympathy or even pity for Johnny and his lack of maturity, also he can have compassion for Johnny, sometimes relating to his situation, and realises that the change for him is a great shock and a dramatic change to his previous education. The main events and their effect on the protagonist in “The Letter” take place when Johnny is on a train, on his way to his new school. The journey is one of leaving home and becoming independent.
The writer stresses that Johnny is in a train by using onomatopoeia; ‘clic-di-clac’ is repeated throughout the story to show the sound of the wheels. The wheels of the train are an important factor of the story as they symbolize Johnny’s ‘Mam’s’ words: ‘remember to write’, the ‘clic-di-clac’ is used to drum into Johnny’s head the importance of writing the letter. The train and its station is described as ‘dirty’ and ‘drizzly’. A comparison is used in relation to the swans Johnny remembers at ‘The bridge’ and the train he’s on. ‘Swans… lack feet pumping like trains’ wheels underneath them’, this similie is used to comfort Johnny, taking something he knows and putting it into context with something that he’s unfamiliar with. Previously, Johnny refers to swans as ‘Old snobs’, which, in my opinion, as he has already related swans to the train, describes maybe the future arrivals that Johnny will meet in a train; the snobby, English preps. The letters that Johnny considers writing back home to his ‘Mam’ are a way the writer uses to emphasise Johnny’s feelings at that particular moment.
The letters in his mind are all negative, ‘I don’t like school,’ ‘please can I come home’ etc… These echo his emotions and feelings, which are miserable and depressive, and are a way of undermining his courage. Also shown by speaking to his ‘Mam’ and speaking Welsh, ‘Diawl’, to console himself and feel protected, again, making the reader take pity on Johnny as a little lost boy needing his mother. The writer also uses a similie involving the people Johnny meets on his train journey.
As a boy ‘stares into’ Johnny’s face (an image of Johnny being threatened), the writer writes that Johnny could ‘see the black spots in the end of his nose’. This can make the reader assume, as the image of the spots on his nose is disgusting and horrible, that the boy is too, later proved by the boy hounding Johnny as he’s Welsh. In page 17, Johnny is shown to be the opposite of the other schoolboys. To Johnny, their English is an ‘incomprehensible language’, whilst to the English boys it’s a surprise, and reason to be mean, because he ‘can’t understand a word of English. When Johnny replies to a question ‘sadly’, the schoolboys ‘hoot… with laughter. ‘ To prove even more that Johnny is alone, uninvolved and excluded, the writer compares him or puts him in a situation with other children. The importance of the train journey is to show Johnny before going to school. Yet it also allows the reader, further along the story, to see how Johnny has altered. Perhaps, sometimes, making the reader remember that they might have the same miserable memories. Once Johnny leaves the train, his new home is known as ‘Priestly School’.
Johnny describes the school and its contents as ‘worse than any nightmare’, ‘old’, ‘very experienced’, ‘quiet’, ‘tough’, ‘black’ and ‘hard’, which gives the reader the notion of a frightening and at the same time very boring place for Johnny. This is also backed by the teachers being unfamiliar to Johnny. Portrayed by their ‘come-and-gone’ smiles, their ‘mouthfuls of English’ and that they had ‘never heard of Wales’ makes Johnny insecure as he’s on his own, leading the reader to feel sorry for him.
In the last two to three paragraphs, the writer uses punctuation to create short, quick sentences, which makes the reader visualise Johnny being frightened and tense. The most powerful method used by the writer to describe the school is the passage on the headmaster’s Latin classroom. Being the headmaster’s classroom, it gives the room significance, by someone of authority and extreme unfamiliarity controlling it. ‘Iron bars across the windows’ immediately makes the reader imagine a prison; which is where Johnny feels he is, trapped and depressed.
At the end of the story, on a Sunday (the day of “family”), Johnny and all his classmates are ‘gathered together’ in the ‘Latin room’. The ‘Latin room’, again, reminds us of the prison. Once in the room, Johnny is told, not asked, to write a letter to his family at ‘home’. The letter must say, ‘tells… the head’ that ‘we are all right’, ‘have arrived safe’ and ‘have enough to eat. ‘ This end paragraph builds up to the final letter and the reader seeing whether Johnny has grown up and matured whilst being away. Johnny’s reaction to his new environment is unsettled.
He’s on his own and at a disadvantage because he’s Welsh, he therefore cannot like the school as he’s not accepted in it. Thus relating the school as ‘worse than any nightmare’ and hinting to it being like a prison. Once at his new school, Johnny concludes the narrative with ‘The Letter’. Before writing the letter, Johnny uses ‘well’ at the beginning of the sentence. Like a sigh, he knows what is expected of him and takes the task upon himself of writing the letter home. He then says: ‘I grab my brand new fountain pen’; the verb ‘grab’ shows he’s eager to write, and to some extremes, maybe to prove the reader’s expectations of him wrong. Brand new fountain pen’ conjures the image of a more modern Johnny. ‘Brand new’ is like a different person and writing with a ‘fountain pen’, instead of a pencil, also shows a more responsible, adult Johnny. The final letter Johnny writes differs greatly to those he and the reader imagined him writing.
‘Dear Mam. I’ve got a pain my belly. I have jumped off the train. I am going to India because I don’t want to go to Shwsbri away to school. Please can I come home,’ is replaced by ‘hope you are O. K. , like me. The food is quite good and the school is quite nice. His attitude has changed as, firstly, he has been told to write the letter by the ‘head’ but, secondly, that Johnny has changed. The final letter might not express his true feelings but, grown up during his voyage, he knows what is the right thing to write as not to worry his parents and to be respected by himself, the first step of “growing up”. The writer makes us feel sorry for Johnny by, at first, making him an accessible stereotype; village bred and naive, Johnny still being very dependant on his ‘Mam’.
Once at school, he’s in the minority because he’s Welsh, the writer makes him the victim by letting Johnny be easily manipulated by impressionable, snobby and sophisticated English school boys, consequently leading the reader to feel more sympathy towards Johnny. I think that the reader feels sympathy rather than pity for Johnny as the reader can relate to similar situations. The final letter warms the reader to Johnny as he has realised that to grow up and experience new things, he is going to have to do things alone and respect himself as a person, not just a ‘Welshie’.