The short story Mellow Yellow by Barry Callaghan can be well referred to as the account of the deteriorating relationship between the characters of Marie-Claire and Conrad Zingg. In this respect, the metaphor of traffic lights, plays an important role, within the context of how it emphasizes the plot’s plausibility.
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This simply could not be otherwise, as the earlier mentioned metaphor does point out to the fact that both of the mentioned characters were psychologically incompatible. In its turn, this justifies Marie-Claire’s decision to break up with Conrad at the end. Let us explore the validity of this suggestion at length.
At the story’s beginning, we learn that Conrad worked as a traffic consultant – that is, he used to design computer software that controls traffic lights. The software’s actual functioning was concerned with allowing drivers to know when to stop and when to go, “Marie-Claire’s father: ‘You’re in charge of the stop and go?’ Conrad: ‘Right’” (Callaghan, p. 37).
However, as the story’s plot develops, readers get to realize that being in the control of the ‘stop and go’ did not solely allow Conrad to make a living. This particular job was reflecting the concerned character’s inner predisposition to remain in the full control of his feelings while imposing his dominance upon others – including Marie-Claire. As Conrad pointed out, “Red and green, in themselves they don’t mean anything… It’s like right and wrong.
Red and green. Life’s that simple, and that hard” (p. 39). It is understood, of course, that in the eyes of Marie-Claire, this made Conrad ill-suited for the role of a lover/husband. After all, it is a well-known fact that, while pursuing a romantic relationship with men, women never cease striving to seek confirmation to the fact that they are indeed being loved.
In this respect, Conrad’s emotional coldness, reflected by his pride of possessing the knowledge of when to stop/to go, did not serve him very well. The reason for this is apparent – as she continued to date Conrad, Marie-Claire was becoming increasingly aware of what accounted for Conrad’s actual motivation to spend time with her.
This motivation, on the concerned person’s part, had to do with his understanding that, for him to be able to attain a social prominence; he needed to establish himself as a respectable married man.
This is exactly the reason why Conrad did not only make it clear to Marie-Claire that he intended to marry her, but he also set a fixed date for her to let to come up with either positive or negative decision, in this respect, “He had told her that she had to make up her mind about their future and he had given her until his birthday to decide” (p. 42).
While understanding perfectly well that it would be foolish, on her part, to marry a man who tended to perceive the surrounding reality solely through the lenses of red or green, Marie-Claire came with a hint, “I like yellow” (p. 39). This, however, did not have any effect on Conrad.
Moreover, as time went on, Marie-Claire started to realize that, contrary to how she used to think of this initially, Conrad’s preoccupation with trying to contribute to the society’s well-being, by the mean of ensuring the traffic’s orderliness, was rather pretentious.
The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the incident when Conrad helped his friend Jackson to get away with having committed a traffic violation, “He (Conrad) had that judge all turned around inside his head, with the time of this and the time of that, and how this and that were impossible” (p. 43).
After having been exposed to Jackson’s story, Marie-Claire realized that, contrary to how Conrad wanted to be viewed by others, he was just as susceptible to corruption, like everyone else. Also, it also became rather clear to her that Conrad was more than capable of relying upon his knowledge of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ as the mean of manipulating with people – something that stood in the striking contradiction to his opinion of himself.
We can speculate that Marie-Claire’s realization, in this respect, caused her to begin doubting the integrity of Conrad’s posture, as a responsible man.
Consequently, this resulted in Marie-Claire beginning to suspect that Conrad’s strongly defined affiliation with the masculine virtues of rationalization and control was misleading.
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This is exactly the reason why, instead of walking away, after having had the break-up with Marie-Claire, Conrad continued to wait around for her to come out of the house – hence, ridiculing himself even more and causing his ‘lady of the heart’ to begin thinking of him as a weakling. As Marie-Claire pointed out, “He’d (Conrad) be scared stiff if I ever took him off into the graveyard at night” (p. 47).
Thus, as it was implied earlier, for readers to be able to grasp the actual significance of the story Yellow Mellow, they must be capable of understanding the significance of the metaphor of traffic lights, contained in it. I hope that the provided line of argumentation, as to what this metaphor means, should come in particularly handy, in this respect.
Callaghan, B. Mellow yellow.