Created By: PuckMarch 5, 2011 Last Edited By: WestrimJune 1, 2014

Lost In The Mail

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Trope
Redirect title: Lost Letter, for Added Alliterative Appeal

Alice writes Bob a letter containing important information, but the letter goes astray in the mail. Alice may assume that Bob has received her letter and is a) acting on the information in it, or b) ignoring or rejecting her by not responding or acting on it. Meanwhile, Bob has no idea that the letter even exists.

Bonus points if the letter turns up much later, especially if it provides the story's Big Reveal and/or the realization that We Could Have Avoided All This. This trope also covers situations in which a long-lost letter resolves a major plot point (even if Alice's reactions or assumptions were never an issue).

Also, the answer to "Why Didnt You Just Say So?" ("It was all there in the letter!" "What letter?")

The most common variant involves a love letter (or, for extra drama, a marriage proposal): Alice takes the lack of response as rejection, and Bob is left wondering why he doesn't seem to have a chance with her anymore. When he asks, she is likely to respond with, "You Know What You Did." Especially poignant if the letter contains sentiments Alice is too shy to tell Bob in person.

This is closely related to Lost In Transmission, but in that trope Bob is usually aware that there was a message but unsure of its contents. (He may be missing crucial details at the critical moment, but at least he knows to ask Alice about them the next time he sees her to avoid any long term misunderstandings.)

Note that neither character ever correctly assumes that a letter was lost in the mail. In fact, the phrase, "It must have been lost in the mail," is usually a good sign that the speaker is a) making a lame excuse for not sending something (often an invitation or a check) which he never actually intended to send, or b) irrationally holding out hope that something (often an award or a valentine) was sent to him.

Subtrope of Poor Communication Kills. Often overlaps with Love Letter Lunacy. See also, Impeded Messenger. The polar opposite of Unstoppable Mailman (who never lets this happen on his watch).

Examples:

Film:
  • The tragedy in the French film Jean de Florette and its sequel Manon des Sources could have been averted if Cesar Soubeyran had only received a certain letter from Florette telling him she was pregnant with his child.
  • Played with in Amelie: Amelie forges a lost letter from her neighbor's late, estranged husband to make it appear that he had always loved his wife and had intended to return to her. It is, of course, a total fabrication, but it seems to help the woman get on with her life.

Literature:
  • In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry believes that Keiko has forgotten him. Really, Henry's father was stopping their letters from ever reaching each other.
  • In the Discworld novel Going Postal by Terry Pratchett, the hero delivers a love letter that had been in the post office's dead letter room for half a century. He is a little worried about how the recipient will react, since he knows that dredging up an old love affair could easily turn awkward. It turns out both the elderly recipient and his erstwhile sweetheart are long since widowed, and the letter inspires them to finally reunite and get married.
    • In Carpe Jugulum, Granny Weatherwax is sent into a tailspin of self-doubt after her shiny invitation to a ball is stolen by a magpie.
  • The novel Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese centers on the mysterious death in childbirth of an apparently virginal young woman. At the very end of the novel, the woman's son finds an unopened letter that his mother intended to leave for his father in the event of her death, which finally reveals the circumstances of his conception.

Live Action TV:
  • The backstory of the Brit Com As Time Goes By is this trope- a soldier and a nurse meet and fall in love before he's sent to Korea. A letter he writes her never arrives, and they both assume the other are treating their romance as a fling. Thirty-eight years later, they meet, and, after some mutual animosity, everything gets explained, and, slowly, the old feelings come back. (It's funnier with Judi Dench and Geoffery Palmer.)

Theater:
  • In Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet, Romeo never receives Friar Lawrence's letter explaining the plan to reunite him with Juliet. Unfortunately, Friar Lawrence doesn't realize his message has gone astray until the plan is already in motion, with (obviously) tragic results.

Western Animation:
  • The Simpsons: an ice melt reveals a mailman who had been frozen while on his route. Letters include one to Mona Simpson (Homer's mom) from her lover, saying that if she replied to his letter he'd take it that she chose him, but if she doesn't reply that means she's decided to stay with her husband.

Real Life:
  • During the "I Love You" virus outbreak, which propagated through emails with the subject "I Love You," some servers started blocking all emails with that subject. This may have had tragic consequences at least once.
Community Feedback Replies: 28
  • March 5, 2011
    Catharsis
    In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry believes that Keiko has forgotten him. Really, Henry's father was stopping their letters from ever reaching each other.
  • March 5, 2011
    HonoreDB
    Real Life:
    • During the "I Love You" virus outbreak, which propagated through emails with the subject "I Love You," some servers started blocking all emails with that subject. This may have had tragic consequences at least once.

    Another Discworld example: In Carpe Jugulum, Granny Weatherwax is sent into a tailspin of self-doubt after her shiny invitation to a ball is stolen by a magpie.
  • March 5, 2011
    randomsurfer
    The Simpsons: an ice melt revealed a mailman who had been frozen while on his route. Letters included one to Mona Simpson (Homer's mom) from her lover, saying that if she replied to his letter he'd take it that she chose him, but if she doesn't reply that means she's decided to stay with her husband.
  • March 5, 2011
    bbofun
    Television- The backstory of the Brit Com As Time Goes By is this trope- a soldier and a nurse meet and fall in love before he's sent to Korea. A letter he writes her never arrives, and they both assume the other are treating their romance as a fling. Thirty-eight years later, they meet, and, after some mutual animosity, everything gets explained, and, slowly, the old feelings come back. (It's funnier with Judi Dench and Geoffery Palmer.)
  • March 6, 2011
    Puck
    Which is the better title: Lost In The Mail or Lost Letter?
  • March 6, 2011
    bbofun
    I actually like Lost Inthe Mail- not sure why, possibly the invocation of Lost In America and Lostin Translation, although they have nothing to do with the trope. I think it just scans well. Lost Letter, despite the alliteration, is a little bare, somehow.
  • March 7, 2011
    Puck
    I ask because the stock phrase "It Must Have Been Lost In The Mail" (translation: it was never sent) might be tropable, and calling this trope Lost Letter would avoid confusion. Any thoughts?
  • March 7, 2011
    bbofun
    That's a good point, but that trope could (should?) be called The Check Is In The Mail, or I Sent It Last Week.
  • March 7, 2011
    Puck
    What about the irrationally hopeful variety, such as Snoopy insisting that his invitation to play at Wimbleton must have been lost in the mail?
  • March 7, 2011
    bluepenguin
    This is partially covered by I Never Got Any Letters.
  • March 8, 2011
    Puck
    Hmm... that seems like a subtrope of this one, covering examples like the Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet one, in which a third party (call him Charlie?) has been deliberately stopping letters, but not the majority of the examples above.
  • March 8, 2011
    bluepenguin
    Hence why I said "partially covered" -- I wasn't suggesting that this was unnecessary, just that some of these examples would go better there.
  • February 20, 2012
    Catbert
    Bump. So do we have this already or not?
  • February 21, 2012
    Antigone3
    Literature: Early in the Malloreon, Polgara complains that Garion hasn't written any letters. Errand announces that Garion did, but the ship carrying the letter sank. Then he recites the letter despite never having seen it. If you're guessing that Errand has some unusual abilities by this point, you're right.
  • February 22, 2012
    MorganWick
    Hey, Puck and bbofun, we don't do stock phrases anymore.
  • February 22, 2012
    Westrim
    ^ You noticed they said their comments nearly a year ago, right?

    I poked around a little bit and didn't see that something like this has been created yet, so I'll keep an eye on it. It looks mostly ready to go anyway.
  • February 23, 2012
    captainpat
    The description is kinda one overly long Example As A Thesis.
  • March 7, 2012
    Westrim
    Any ideas on how to chop it down?
  • March 17, 2012
    Westrim
    I'm worried about demolishing the point by pruning the explanation, so I'd appreciate it if someone gave it a shot.
  • March 21, 2012
    Westrim
    bump
  • February 3, 2013
    Westrim
    This was started nearly two years ago. Bumping, I'll take a detailed look later.
  • May 19, 2014
    Westrim
    I am apparently really bad at monitoring this trope.
  • May 19, 2014
    Zmapper
    Jay Lenno once made a joke claiming that the USPS accounting problems/losing money were caused by the check being "lost in the mail". I don't recall any more specific information about when it occurred, unfortunately.
  • May 19, 2014
    DAN004
    Would SMS, email or any kind of social media (Facebook for one) count here?
  • May 19, 2014
    Westrim
    If there's a situation like the message getting locked up in a buffer before delivery hours after sending, I'd think so. I remember a commercial to that effect.
  • May 19, 2014
    randomsurfer
    A Parody Commercial on Saturday Night Live is for "Jiffy Express" which you use when you're late sending something. They beat up the package and then deliver it, taking the blame for it getting there late.
    When it has to be there overnight, call the other guys. When it had to be there three weeks ago, call Jiffy. First, we'll backdate the receipt. Then our technicians will age the package, according to your specifications. We can stain it, soil it, recreate delivery mishap and trauma.. even simulate international misrouting.
  • June 1, 2014
    needsanewhobby
    ^^^Don't think so, because there is already a supertrope for that.
  • June 1, 2014
    DAN004
    ^ and that is...?

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