Themes

Key themes of The Wireless Set:modernity, war and the cyclical nature of life.

Modernity

Tronvik is a traditional community threatened by new, modern advancements. A symbol of modernity, the wireless set threatens the islanders' established way of life.

For example, when the wireless is switched on, the islanders are often silent like awed schoolchildren then when it is switched off the islanders happily tell stories that had nothing to do with war, till two o’clock in the morning. This tells us that modernity can alter the way that the islanders communicate with each other by silencing joyful, traditional storytelling.

Though the wireless set is thought of as a marvel at first, it tries to control the population, from urging them to buy a particular brand of toothpaste to trying to shape their thoughts towards the war. Ultimately the wireless set complicates the islanders’ way of life.

Hugh destroys this symbol of modernity because he wants to return to their traditional, simpler way of life.

Tronvik is presented as a metaphor for wider society. Brown shows that blind faith in the rise of technology can dampen interaction between people and harm our wider understanding of the world.

War

In this short story, Brown portrays war as futile. Symbolically, the wireless brings the war to Tronvik and, when war breaks out, the islanders are captivated by the coverage of events. However, the war effort has no consistency and seems to be going nowhere:

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Suddenly no more was heard of General Gamelin. First it was General Weygand who was called heir of Napoleon, and then a few days later Marshal Petain.

The changes of General highlight that the war effort is going nowhere - a line of people simply replacing those who are killed.

When news reaches of Howie’s death, the missionary tries to comfort Betsy:

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'He made the great sacrifice. So that we could all live in peace, you understand.' Betsy shook her head. 'That isn’t it at all.'

The fact that Howie died for his country is of no consolation to Betsy. She loved her son deeply and she sees the war as an alien, futile process. Like the words of Lord Haw-Haw, the words of the missionary do not mean much to Betsy. She values the things she can experience for herself, rather than what she is told.

The death of Howie brings the community together. When Betsy looks out of the window she could see people moving towards the croft from all over the valley. This relates to the short story Tartan, where the Viking invasion brings together the community in a sign of strength.

Cyclical nature of life

The natural cycle of life and death is highlighted through the reactions of Betsy and Hugh to Howie’s death. As they absorb the news, they immediately discuss their work, with Hugh announcing that he caught six crabs while Betsy states that she got thirteen eggs. […] One more than yesterday. Betsy and Hugh live a basic lifestyle and must carry out these tasks to maintain their own lives.

The cycle of agricultural work that the characters carry out is a consolation to them and underpins the cycle of life and death. The story ends with Betsy suggesting putting a hen in the pot, signaling not only the end of the hen’s life, but the maintenance of the islanders’ lives.

The farming routine creates a firm resilience within the characters. Though Hugh and Betsy are devastated by Howie’s death, they know that they have work to focus on and that, for them, life goes on.

This idea of resilience is also present in A Time to Keep and The Bright Spade. In both of these stories, there has been a recent death, but the stories end with the characters getting back to work regardless.