, Research Paper
Ironic Sketches of a Little Town
It takes a certain type of character to see the humour in everyday life. It takes an even greater character to express the humour in ways that other people can appreciate and subsequently find gaiety therein. Stephen Leacock is such a character, and his compilation of short stories Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town recognizes, and assists the reader to recognize, one’s need to laugh at their surroundings, their culture, and the people that interact in their lives.
Leacock is known for his profound ironic and satirical wit but, in the case of Sunshine Sketches, he offers aspects of tragic irony and sagacious insight with regards to everyday, small-town life as well, which serves to further enhance the value of his humour.
Just as Leacock was interested in the techniques of humor, he was interested in the language of humor. Besides the careful selection of language, said Leacock, humor demanded a “great naturalness” of language, the use of phrases and forms so simple that writers straining after effect would never get them. [Critics] felt that one of the main reasons for Leacock’s success was that his style was that of “a talker rather than a writer”. Another said…”He talked to the world. And the talk was good.” (Curry. p.242-243)
Satire is defined as a genre in which the author attacks some object, using his means of wit or humour that is either fantastic or absurd. In the case of Sunshine Sketches, Leacock’s target is a fictitious small town in southern Ontario, which could be, and often is, compared to all other small towns across the country. Leacock immerses the reader amidst a collection of ordinary characters who become extraordinary due to Leacock’s grasp of the comedy within human nature and the scope of small-town culture and tradition.
By utilizing elements of both comic and tragic irony, which by definition suggest varying divisions between words or events and their contexts, Leacock not only creates a humorous environment for his characters, but also one in which the reader may laugh at situations and idiosyncrasies which are strikingly similar to their own. Events such as the sinking of the Mariposa Belle in six feet of water and the subsequent rescue attempts by Mariposans, the comedic courting rituals of the extremely shy Peter Pupkin, and the inane attempts to raise money on behalf of the church are all examples of these sharp, ironic situations.
To understand the irony in any work, one must first appreciate the context of such a work. With regards to Sunshine Sketches, the town of Mariposa resembles any other town of its day; a place where everybody knows everybody, and the distinctness of character is very apparent among the citizens. The events are simplistic and possess an unstated air of politeness and manners that couldn’t be found in larger cities. What the reader is exposed to is a good-natured, well-intentioned group of people who simply live Murphy’s Law; that what can go wrong, surely will, and definitely does. Leacock adds the satirical and ironic twists to each storyline which enlightens the otherwise mundane happenings in the community. The ideas that those on the sinking ship eventually save the rescuers, or that all fund raising contributions are conditional on non-existent actual donations, or that the community’s illiterate hotel owner is elected into political office by way of trickery and manipulation, are all representations of these twists.
The context of all irony lies in the knowledge of comparison. Leacock himself said:
Comparison is the very soul of humor…It is the discovery of resemblance and the lack of it that builds up the contrasts, discrepancies, and incongruities on which…humor depends.
If something that is well understood to suggest one thing, is suddenly used to suggest something completely different, the result can often be hilarious; such is the case with Sunshine Sketches. The first story introduces the reader to Josh Smith, but more important, this story creates the framework within which the ridiculous happenings of Mariposa will take place. The context and the nature of the town and those who run it is established very early as the notion of population is discussed:
…the Canadian census puts the numbers every time at something round five thousand. But it is generally understood in Mariposa that the census is largely the outcome of malicious jealousy. It is usual that after the census the editor of the Mariposa Newspacket makes a careful re-estimate (based on the data of relative non-payment of subscriptions), and brings the population up to 6,000. After that…Mr. Gingham, the undertaker,…makes an estimate from the number of what he calls the “demised” as compared with the less interesting persons who are still alive, and brings the population to 7,000. After that somebody else works it out that it’s 7,500; then the man behind the bar…offers to bet the whole room that there are 9,000…and the population is well on the way to 10,000, when down swoops the federal census taker…and the town has to begin all over again.
This is just one example of the way the town of Mariposa operates. Of course, one would expect the compilation of statistics such as population to be handled professionally, however, it is apparent that such is not the case. Rather, the citizens of Mariposa take the liberty to embellish such information in a snowball effect that continues to grow close to absurdity before it is averted by the proper authorities.
Each individual misadventure that Mariposans encounter bear significant similarities to one another, for example, the “Whirlwind Campaign” immediately comes to mind in terms of statistical blunders. The idea was to raise money for the local church which was struggling with debt because Rev. Drone knew nothing of keeping the books, and after a bout of remodelling, was in financial trouble. To raise this money the citizens of Mariposa campaigned other citizens, (which is ironic in itself because everybody was in on the campaign so there were only tourists and passers-by to solicit). Everyone offered donations conditional on the fund reaching a particular milestone. Of course, with no real contributions, none of the conditional donations were honoured either, leaving Mariposa and the church in worse shape than it started out due to the expense of the campaign itself. “The real trouble about the Whirlwind Campaign was that [Mariposans] never clearly understood which of them were the whirlwind and who were to be the campaign.” (Leacock. p.96)
The irony of this event is obvious. The excitement that it generated within the community was positive, but the campaign was a complete failure, and not at all what one would expect when a town pulls itself together for a specific cause.
With regards to the aforementioned church, the campaign wasn’t its only significance in the book. The Rev. Drone couldn’t manage the money necessary to keep the church going and was soon at his wits end in terms of what to do about the debt. It eventually came down to Josh Smith burning it down one night in order to collect its outrageously high insurance policy, which consequently was a large enough sum to erase everyone’s financial troubles.
The insurance people might protest as they liked. The straight, plain fact was that the church was insured for about twice the whole amount of the cost and the debt and the rector’s salary and the boarding school fees of the littlest of the Drones all put together. (Leacock. p.106)
This is perhaps the most ironic of all the twists in Sunshine Sketches, as it marks such a reversal of fortune. It is almost impossible to believe that a fire of such magnitude would be a blessing but, that is exactly the way things turned out.
A small note of irony that also involves the above episode concerns the insurance claim and subsequent legal proceedings.
Protest from the insurance people? Legal proceedings to prevent payment? My dear sir! I see you know nothing about the Mariposa court…Judge Pepperleigh disposed of the case and dismissed the protest of the company in less than fifteen minutes!…Pepperleigh even threatened the plaintiffs with the penitentiary, or worse. (Leacock. p.107)
The humour here is based simply on one’s perception of justice. This ruling could very well be considered a conspiracy, but taken in the humorous context of the book, it seems that, although Mariposans were unable to support the church legitimately, they used the means necessary to eventually, albeit illegally, back their fellow citizens in time of need.
Another area of the book that receives satirical and ironic attention is the courtship of Zena Pepperleigh by Mr. Pupkin. It is established that Pupkin is extraordinarily shy, and in the presence of the attractive Zena that shyness is compounded to the point where Pupkin “rode fifteen miles to pass [her] house twice, and even then it took all the nerve that he had.” (Leacock. p.124)
The entire romance of Pupkin and Pepperleigh is humorous because it doesn’t go beyond physical attraction. The relations between Pupkin and the whole Pepperleigh family are embellished over the course of three short stories, yet the attraction and interaction is never explored beyond the physical element. It seems to be a long-winded superficial relationship, that ironically results in a wedding of the two parties. (Leacock. p.150)
There are many more examples of Leacock’s irony, both comic and tragic, depending on one’s perspective within Sunshine Sketches, but the significant ones have been examined and the rest is up to the individual. There still remains the story of Jefferson Thorpe, the barber who went from rags to riches, back to rags in a matter of moments, and the further misadventures of Josh Smith who, in a cleverly run, yet shamelessly rigged political campaign, gets elected into office on behalf of the Conservative Party.
The final story of Sunshine Sketches titled L’Envoi. The Train to Mariposa is a departure from the preceding satire. It effectively ties the book together by offering a retrospective approach to the small-town. It fondly recalls the idiosyncrasies that make every small town across the country something that can be remembered with admiration. It suggests the feelings that everyone experiences when they leave the small-town atmosphere in search of bigger and better things, only to recall a childhood when the times and the people were less complicated. The ironic quirks that are often the root of fond memories exist, and are emphasized by Leacock as he finalizes his compilation. He still jabs at small-town life from a distance, but it is no less effective than were he to stand in the middle of main street in downtown Mariposa.
Perhaps the greatest irony in each story is that they are based around events which seem serious, yet evolve into something quite ridiculous. Without the wit and style that Stephen Leacock presents in Sunshine Sketches, the book would simply be a collection of mundane, out-of-date, cultural snippets of rural Canadian life. The humour helps the compilation to transcend the mundane and become a piece of literature that is as profound and applicable to society today as it was almost a century ago. Humour adds interest to anything, and in this case, what would otherwise amount to a history lesson, becomes a hysterical trip down memory lane, a look at the past, and perhaps even a look at the present condition of small-town Canada.