“Evans Tries an O-Level” follows the Governor of Oxford Prison as he deals with a new and particularly unruly prisoner named James Evans, a cheerful kleptomaniac known for his uncanny ability to break out of prison. The prison officers find Evans’s sudden interest in German particularly suspicious—he takes night classes in O-level German for six months (as the only student in the class) and eagerly asks to take the final exam, claiming he’s “dead keen to get some sort of academic qualification.” In the story, the prison officers’ suspicions about Evans are right. However, all of the prison guards repeatedly ignore their own nagging suspicions, telling themselves that they’re just being paranoid. This careful, logical self-talk is almost always a way to avoid looking stupid. As the story unfolds, Dexter emphasizes the power and accuracy of human instinct while also revealing the extremes people will go for the sake of protecting their pride.
Dexter gives his readers insight into the prison officers’ minds to show humans’ unproductive (and sometimes dangerous) impulse to protect their sense of dignity and avoid looking silly. From the outset, the Governor is particularly preoccupied with preserving his pride. Evans has already escaped three times from various prisons, making him a bit of a national celebrity, and the Governor is determined to not let Evans “disgrace them.” As the head of the prison, all mishaps and scandals directly reflect on the Governor. Since Evans is so well known at other prisons, his escape from Oxford Prison could seriously threaten the Governor’s reputation. Even months before the exam date, the Governor instinctively feels that Evans will try to make a break for it during his test. That day, the Governor puts several extra security measures in place. However, the Governor’s pride slowly begins creeping in, and he questions if he’s being overzealous: “But wasn’t it all a bit theatrical? Schoolboyish, almost? How on earth was Evans going to try anything on today?”
The Governor’s repeated internal questions reveal a conflict between his persistent instincts, which are fighting to be noticed, and his desire to look and feel like he’s in control. If the Governor looks too concerned about Evans, he may also appear weak and impotent to the other officers at the prison. Despite the “little nagging doubt” that crops up throughout the two-hour exam, the Governor continues to go back on his careful security measures, like having Stephens simply look through the peephole to Evans’s cell every minute instead of sitting inside the cell and watching the exam. When the Governor receives a call from the Assistant Secretary at the Examinations Board claiming that “some fool” at their office forgot to include a corrections slip in Evans’s testing materials, the Governor’s suspicions are aroused again. After transferring the call to Jackson to take care of the situation, the Governor wonders if the call is a fake, and if it’s a “signal” or “secret message” of some sort. He quickly dials the number for the Examinations Board to confirm that the call did just come from them and not an imposter, but the line is in use. He assures himself that this is to be expected, since Jackson is presumably still speaking with the Assistant Secretary: “But then the line was engaged, wasn’t it? Yes. Not very intelligent, that…” As he does throughout the story, the Governor ignores his reasonable (and accurate) hunch and instead carefully convinces himself that he’s just being paranoid and might appear “silly.”
Stephens, too, ignores his intuition out of pride. New to Oxford Prison and to the profession in general, Stephens is concerned about looking stupid or incapable as a prison officer. At the beginning of Evans’s exam, he “dutifully” follows orders and looks through the peephole at one-minute intervals to ensure Evans isn’t misbehaving. The job seems pointless to him, though, so he takes the liberty to change the interval time to two minutes. However, one of the next times he peers through the peephole, he’s surprised to see that Evans has donned a blanket around his shoulders. Stephens grapples internally with whether or not to “report the slight irregularity.” He tells himself to not be “daft,” and swiftly convinces himself that Evans is just cold: Deep down, however, it seems that Stephens knows his instincts are correct, and that the blanket is suspect: immediately after constructing a logical explanation for Evans’s behavior, “Stephens decided to revert to his early every minute observation” through the peephole rather than looking every two minutes.
Prior to the exam, Jackson had firmly instructed Stephens to report “Anything at all fishy.” The fact that this order came from Jackson, Stephens’s immediate superior, seems to play a role in Stephens’s subsequent decision to disregard the blanket situation. Later, when Stephens receives (fake) orders from the Governor, ordering him to be the one to escort McLeery, Evans’s proctor, out of the prison, Stephens swells with pride, “pleased that the Governor had asked him, and not Jackson, to see McLeery off.” Stephens’s desire to look confident and capable at his new post—and apparently to have the Governor like him more than Jackson—causes him to overlook his instincts out of pride, ultimately opening up room for error to let Evans escape.
By the end of the story, the prison officers’ suspicions prove well-founded—Evans does escape, and the exam was the epicenter of his scheme. Evans has outmaneuvered the prison officers, effortlessly sidestepping their efforts to keep him secure at the prison. “Evans Tries an O-Level” ultimately stresses the necessity of listening to one’s gut feelings and not only following one’s sense of pride and decorum. The critical mistake the prison officers make in the story is talking themselves out of their genuine, persistent feelings in order to seem like they’re still in control of the situation at hand.
Instinct, Paranoia, and Pride ThemeTracker
Instinct, Paranoia, and Pride Quotes in Evans Tries an O-Level
Was this the sort of thing the Governor had feared? Was the phone call a fake? Some signal? Some secret message…? But he could check on that immediately. He dialed the number of the Examinations Board, but heard only the staccato bleeps of a line engaged. But then the line was engaged, wasn’t it? Yes. Not very intelligent, that…
There, sprawled back in Evans’s chair was a man (for a semi second Stephens thought it must be Evans), a grey regulation blanket slipping from his shoulders, the front of his closely cropped, irregularly tufted hair awash with fierce red blood which had dropped already through the small black beard, and was even now spreading horribly over the white clerical collar and down into the black clerical front […] the minister’s hand felt feebly for a handkerchief from his pocket, and held it to his bleeding head, the blood seeping slowly through the white linen.
“And which one of you two morons was it who took Evans for a nice little walk to the main gates and waved him bye-bye?”
“It was me, sir,” stammered Stephens. “Just like you told me, sir. I could have sworn—”
“What? Just like I told you, you say? What the hell—?”
“When you rang, sir, and told me to—”
“When was that?” The Governor’s voice was a whiplash now.
“You know, sir. About twenty past eleven just before—”
“You blithering idiot, man! It wasn’t me who rang you. Don’t you realise—” But what was the use? He had used the telephone at that time, but only to try (unsuccessfully, once more) to get through to the Examinations Board.