Sarcasm in Johnson's Parable of the Stagecoach (Adventurer No. 84)

Anna Sussman '04, English 171, Brown University, 2003

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Samuel Johnson, in his essay on stagecoach travel, takes a stab at the pretences that travelers, assured that their acquaintance with their fellow travelers is extremely ephemeral, put on in order to impress those around them, for whatever short period of time they are together. For the majority of the essay, he describes the scenes unfolding in a straightforward manner, quoting dialogue, and making small observations on the travelers' actions. However, at one point near the end of the essay, his tone goes from that of an objective observer to that of a sarcastic commentator and back all within the span of one paragraph. He says, with regards to the first few revelations the travelers make about themselves around the table:

It might be expected, that upon these glimpses of latent dignity, we should all have begun to look round us with veneration; and have behaved like the princes of romance, when the enchantment that disguises them is dissolved, and they discover the dignity of each other; yet it happened, that none of thee hints made much impression on the company; every one was apparently suspected of endeavouring to impose false appearances upon the rest; all continued their haughtiness in hopes to enforce their claims; and all grew every hour more sullen, because they found their representations of themselves without effect.

1. It seems as though Johnson is taking a step back for a moment to comment, in an extremely sarcastic manner, on the scene he is witnessing. What is the effect of this abrupt change in tone?

2. Why does he take this act of a little play-acting with strangers so seriously? Yes, he says that “Every man deceives himself while he thinks he is deceiving others,” but do you think this is true? Or is this game harmless?

3. According to Johnson, this folly of false pretences to importance is not only confined to the stage-coach. Why does he pick this particular example? Is it believable that he was actually there? Does he rely too much on the fact that the reader has perhaps participated in a scene such as the one he describes?

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