Sarcasm and Preternatural Politeness

Cover of "The Long Winter"
Cover of The Long Winter

The other day, we were all together in the car listening to the audiobook for The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We’d just heard the part where Ma wigs out and Pa says, “You’re right, Caroline. You’re always right.”

I turned to my husband in the driver’s seat.

“Honey, if you said something like that to me, I know it would be sarcastic, but when Pa says it, I think it’s sincere. Do you think the Little House books happened in a time that pre-dates sarcasm?”

“When was sarcasm invented?” he asked. Neither of us knew.

“Or maybe it was a matter of poverty. Laura Ingalls Wilder is basically saying, ‘When I was a child, we were so poor, we couldn’t afford sarcasm.'”

I’m writing this not (just) so you all can see how witty and clever I am, but to admit that I’m often jealous of the Ingalls family. I like electricity and indoor plumbing and I don’t think I could react with such delight at discovering my house had been buried in snow as Laura does, but I envy them how well they get along. Yes, they’re fictionalizations, and yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder likely paints those relationships through a rather rosy filter, but still I envy them.

Not only were my husband and I raised after the invention of sarcasm, as part of the tail-end of Generation X we came of age during a time steeped in sarcasm. I think about the Simpsons scene where the GenXers are at the Hullabalooza music festival and the one guy says, “Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.”

“Are you being sarcastic, dude?” his friend asks.

“I don’t even know anymore,” the first guy responds.

We were fluent in sarcasm. It was our element. I’ve been trying to move past it over the intervening years, but it’s difficult. Learning to live without sarcasm is like learning to breathe underwater. Well, that may be an exaggeration. But when I abandon sarcasm, I need to replace it with something, and hyperbolic simile works as well as the next thing.

While the Ingallses may have missed out on some jokes by not having sarcasm, they also missed out on that biting criticism of the people they love. They missed out on that self-centered inclination that puts wittiness and coolness ahead of relationship and authentic connection.

Or maybe Pa was being sarcastic and Ma was just too preternaturally polite to call him on it. In which case, maybe it’s preternatural politeness I should envy.

7 Replies to “Sarcasm and Preternatural Politeness”

  1. I’m catching up on my blog reading tonight – diving in and out quickly, usually w/o comments but I had to say this is a great little post. Funny, well-written, concise. Just all around good. And now I’m thinking about a world devoid of sarcasm. I think I’d give up quite a bit of witty in exchange for a kinder, gentler style of interaction.


  2. I would too. I prefer to read the books and think of life as it should be… People might argue that I’d be better off accepting reality, but it’s not like I’m trying to be Gandalf or something. There’s not really a reason we shouldn’t aspire to be polite or industrious or any of those other things the LIW books inspire me to do.

    On a different note, I’m trying to be inspired to not be as cynical… I’ve come to realize that some of my life events in the past six years or so have really changed the lenses I see life through. I want my old glasses back ;). OR maybe I’m just getting old?


  3. There are a couple points in that series when Laura can be pretty snarky and sarcastic, though, (maybe the next book, it’s a comment about Ma’s waist size), so maybe it doesn’t predate at all, but only shows how Laura might have remembered her parents… I’ve read a lot about the historical Ingalls family, and what I read about Pa wasn’t always nice (he was pretty domineering and most definitely the head of the family, if you know what I mean. At least that’s according to the books I read and a documentary I saw on TV). I sort of chose to ignore it though and went back to reading the books. I think they are a nice example of how I wish WE could be, so why taint it? Though yes, I can’t imagine freezing to use the bathroom…


    1. Yes, I don’t think Laura’s snarkiness has really come out yet. I will look forward to that! I’ll have to read some nonfiction about the family. I did get a music CD from the library with a recording of a contemporary of Pa’s playing the fiddle. In the liner notes, they talked about how good a fiddle player Pa was said to be. And about how he was once in an amateur minstrel show. Yikes. So, clearly, not perfect.

      And based on what you said about the historical Pa, maybe he really was being sarcastic. I’d rather stick with the idealized version, though.


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