Discuss the irony in "Dusk" by Saki.  

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is no irony in “Dusk” until the end. Gortsby is observing the men and women he thinks of as “the defeated,” but he is not feeling sorry for them.

The scene pleased Gortsby and harmonized with his present mood.

Gortsby is not one of the defeated himself, but he is not a wealthy gentleman of leisure, either. He probably has a good job at some bank or brokerage firm. He has gotten off work and is resting on a park bench before going home to a modest apartment. It is important that he is characterized as a man who has a little extra spending money but is not wealthy, because the loss of a sovereign (five pounds) will be painful when it happens.

He notices the unhappy expression of the elderly gentleman sitting beside him but does not feel sorry for him either. Then when the old man leaves and the young con artists plops down, Gortsby is on the defensive. He listens to the hard-luck story like a connoisseur of such stories, but his response shows he had no intention of parting with any money.

“Of course,” said Gortsby slowly, “the weak point of your story is that you can’t produce the soap.”

Then after the young stranger leaves in a huff, Gortsby finds a package of soap on the ground and suddenly feels ashamed of himself for the cynical, skeptical, calloused attitude that living in the big city has caused him to develop toward his fellow man. He hurries to catch up with the young man and gives him a sovereign and the cake of soap.

This is where the irony comes in. Gortsby feels guilty and ashamed. He tells himself:

“It’s a lesson to me not to be too clever in judging by circumstances.”

He is going to be a changed man. He is going to try to feel sympathy and Christian charity towards the “defeated” people he observes all around him. But then when he passes the bench where he had been sitting

. . . he saw an elderly gentleman poking and peering beneath it and on all sides of it, and recognize his earlier fellow occupant.

“Have you lost anything, sir?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, a cake of soap.”

Gortsby realizes he has been swindled. What makes it ironic is his understanding that he was right in being cynical and skeptical and mistrustful in the first place. Not only that, but he now sees that this elderly gentleman might be another swindler. The old man might have been planning to tell Gortsby the same story about losing his hotel, but, being older and more experienced in his profession, he may have procured a cake of soap to substantiate his story and left it near the bench deliberately, intending to come back and use it as a gambit to start up a conversation. The irony of the story points the moral that you can’t trust anybody and you shouldn’t feel sorry for people.

Saki, whose real name was H. H. Munro, has been described as a Tory and a reactionary. Such a man would have been opposed to government handouts for the indigent and a strong believer that people should learn to take care of themselves. Munro may have been a Social Darwinist, one who believes in survival of the fittest and that the weeding out of inferior humans only contributes to the improvement of the species.

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