Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725

“Sense of Humour” is based on V. S. Pritchett’s experiences as a young author. In 1923, he was commissioned to write a series of articles on Ireland for the Christian Science Monitor. He spent the next year traveling around the island. In one town, Pritchett met a traveling sales representative who gave his girlfriend rides in his father’s hearse. During this year in Ireland, Pritchett also met his first wife, Evelyn Maude Vigors, an actress. Pritchett has been reticent about his first marriage, which ended in divorce in September, 1936, three months after this short story was accepted for publication. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the character Muriel MacFarlane hints at his first wife.

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The story’s title refers to the stereotypical ethnic theme of the good-humored Irish. When they first chat, Muriel finds it hilarious that Arthur Humphrey’s father is an undertaker. Seeing that her laughter offends Arthur, she says, “Don’t mind me. . . . I’m Irish.” “Oh, I see,” the narrator replies. “That’s it, is it? Got a sense of humour.” Later, when he introduces her to his parents, his father remarks, “Oh, Irish! Got a sense of humour, eh?”

Although Muriel’s sense of humor allows her to see some of the absurdities of the human experience, it does not affect her treatment of Colin Mitchell. Muriel really does not like him because she thinks he does not have a sense of humor, but he is the best that the small town she is in can offer. She goes out with him because her only alternative is to stay in the hotel on Sundays. However, she treats him offhandedly, and drops him as soon as Arthur turns up and shows an interest in her. She is a user of people. Muriel is also a chiseler in a small way: She accepts samples from the other traveling sales representatives; when they go to the movies, she tells Arthur to buy tickets for cheap seats, because they can sneak into the more expensive seats when the lights go down.

Pritchett’s unflattering, candid, yet nonjudgmental portrait of Muriel is matched by that of Arthur. Arthur spots Muriel’s tastes and caters to them, offering her better stockings than the ones she has on, and bringing her a present every time he visits her town. He tells her the gifts are mostly samples, which cost him nothing. Arthur also is concerned about calculations and mundane matters. While comforting Muriel on the first evening at his parents’ house, he was planning how to introduce his firm’s autumn line; not until they begin making love does he stop thinking about business. Several days later, on the way back in the hearse, Arthur worries that their lovemaking may have ruined his calculations. He had planned on waiting eighteen months to get married, by which time he would have saved eight hundred pounds—the equivalent of about two years’ wages—but if Muriel becomes pregnant, they will have to get married at once.

The relationship of the two is ambiguous. Muriel rejects Colin because he has no sense of humor, yet she realizes after his death that Colin truly loved her. She wants Arthur because he offers her a way out of the town and the hotel, a move up to a more secure future. However, Arthur admits to himself that he had “never thought of her in that way, in what you might call the ’Colin’ way.” If that is the way of love, why does Arthur want to marry Muriel? The story takes an unexpected turn when Arthur tells his parents that he plans to marry Muriel; Pritchett never hints at Arthur’s motives for the marriage.

Muriel’s and Arthur’s sexual values also are ambiguous. On their first date at the movies, Muriel makes clear that she is not sexually available, but she is receptive to Arthur’s flirting and sexual innuendo. When the two do make love, they do so with no apparent guilt, unusual for their time, place, and class.

Pritchett uses the story to depict the values of the lower middle class in England between the world wars. His characters want the outward appearance of respectability—the appearance of churchgoing, the appearance of good taste in funeral appointments—but they count pennies and reckon up cost savings.

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