Ironic shades in Out Stealing Horses


I taught English for seventeen years. That is not a confession.  One thing we worked on when I taught seniors was irony.  I suppose seniors in high school are ripe for it since they are all focused on leaving the place that they most do not want to leave.

We rehearsed the normal definitions of the concept, dividing them into verbal, situational and dramatic irony.  All seniors love Oedipus the King. The ironies of all kinds are rife (let me paraphrase here): Oedipus – “I am going to hunt down the king’s murderer and seek vengeance;”  Oedipus, again – “I left my father and mother to avoid killing one and marrying the other;” the Audience, Greek or modern – “OMG, don’t you see? You are the culprit.” And on and on and on.

The ironic would have gone the way of metonymy if life itself were not so full of it.  And if a book is as full of ironies, chances are that it is a fair picture of life.  Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is both full of irony and truth about living and observing life.  It is widely agreed that it meets the test. The truth that it would NOT make a good read for seniors anxious to live life rather than examine it is all to its credit. Besides, the tripartite definition of the concept is far too clumsy to describe what goes on in Petterson’s book.

Start with the title, Out Stealing Horses. It is a password of sorts, used during the resistance to Nazi occupation in the war. As such, it is both symbolic and ironic. It symbolizes the danger involved – the consequence is well-known, even to Jon and Trond – and the verbal irony is clear.  No, in neither instance, the war or the episode with Barkald’s horses, was stealing involved. It is further ironic in the way Jon uses it.  He uses the phrase literally, but at the same time we know – at least later on – that he used it to cover a far more serious happening of his life, one so serious that only a password with a history could convey enough significance.

An irony that is more pronounced at the time it is read is Trond’s assertion, “I trusted my father.” At the time, I flushed with gratitude that there were fathers who could be trusted.  Mine could not. But within a second, the thought came, “If he has to say it so flatly, it will turn out not to be true.” More succinctly, “Fat chance.”  No father can be trusted, at least no more fully than any man. A boy must say it if we are to know he believes it. If a grown man were to say it, we would be immediately convinced he was eulogizing or outright lying. Of course, one beauty of the narrative is that the reader gets to know as does the boy, little by little, what the grown-old narrator has already found out. Trust carries its own risks.

[more in progress] tj

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