Irony as a Strategy of Resistance and Subversion in Sillitoe's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner". Juvenile Class Consciousness

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2005

24 Pages



1. Introductory

2. The story line of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”

3. Structure of the story

4. Different kinds of Irony
4.1. Irony based on special linguistic uses
4.2. Irony based on reversal

5. Ironical reversal of power relations

6. Subversive irony and intertextuality

7. Conclusion

Works cited

1. Introductory

Literature and irony are intimately associated with man’s predicament. Myth, epic, classical tragedy, The Canterbury Tales , Arabian Nights , King Lear, Swift’s “Modest Proposal”, modern and post-modern literature such as Joyce’s A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, all of these devote a substantial part to irony. Whether it is Socratic, dramatic, tragic, “cosmic”, Romantic, structural, or rhetorical, irony signifies a gap that needs filling. The importance of an ironical relation lies in the absence of harmony between the parties and the misunderstanding caused by it. Irony proceeds from “Dissymmetry”, “Negation”, “Denial”, “Cancellation”, “Concealment”, “Parody”, “Reversal”, “Inter-changeability”, “Playfulness”, “Witticism”, “Understatement”, etc.

Commenting upon the superiority of “Metaphor”, Aristotle says that it takes a genius to “perceive similarity” between two distinct objects. Irony stems precisely from the reverse, i.e. the perception of dissimilarity, or from the deliberately perverting and obliterating denial of what is perceived as distinct. If the purpose of Metaphor is to assemble, that of Irony is to dissemble (in Greek comedy the eiron is a “dissembler”). In a sense, while Metaphor relates to metonymy, Irony is germane to oxymoron and paradox. Yet, the Aristotelian concept of “Peripeteia” (Irony of events or Reversal of Fortune), which determines the real fabric of a “complex” fable, seems to allow for circularity instead of dislocation: “It is the coming full circle of a wheel, which first carries a man up and then down...”[1] (81).

2. The story line of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”

Alan Sillitoe’s novella “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” reads like an unsettling, yet extremely ironical narrative about a 17-year-old Borstal youth called Smith who – just to spite the institution’s governor, who wants him to win the first prize at a race staged by the prison authorities – pretends to fulfil the governor’s wish, knowing very well that he will slyly lose, partly because, ironically enough, he thinks he is treated as even less than a “prize race horse.”

They give us a bit of blue ribbon and a cup for a prize after we’ve shagged ourselves out running or jumping, like race horses, only we don’t get so well looked-after as race horses, that’s the only thing. (8)

The purpose of this paper is to study the different functions of irony as they appear in the story of this relapsed young offender. Minor examples of irony stem from special uses of language. For instance, figures of speech, word-games and imagery will be dealt with in the first place. Then, I shall tackle structural cases of irony such as the central event in the story, i.e. the major reversal of situation which takes place at the close of the narrative, when the lonely runner Smith frustrates the expectations of the governor and his friends by letting another Borstal inmate cross the line before him. Thirdly, I will point out the use of irony as a constituent part of a strategic post-modern game aiming at some textual self-criticism and self-referentiality, where the text becomes the very locus for subverting itself, underscoring its own literariness and foregrounding inter-textuality. Irony here is achieved through a strident, formulaic, parodical and piecemeal narrative strategy. Finally, I shall demonstrate that irony stands out as the central figure of speech that embodies the ultimate weaponry of the disempowered anti-hero Smith.

Like his own father who has preferred a bloody “Out-law” death at home to a neat and cold hospitalisation demanded by the doctors, Smith is caught up in a perverse tug-of-war the rules of which are dictated by the “In-laws” whose authority he tries to resist and pervert in a lonely “Out-law” effort.

“As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner” (7): this is how the story begins. The narrative opens up with an overt statement about the hidden/open war going on between the “haves” and the “have- nots”, or as the narrator puts it, between “them” and “us.” From its very inception, the tale adopts a subjective, double-edged narrative voice, mixing ridicule and heroism, mock-heroism and irony; a voice deriving its narrative force from the violent opposition between the narrator “I” and his oppressors “they.” The ironic/heroic experience related in this short story is basically that of a 17 year old delinquent who, after much thinking while training to become a long-distance runner during his detention, inexorably arrives at two vital resolutions: to lose the coming race and to undertake the “job” of breaking into houses alone when he goes out of Borstal.

His resolve about losing the race arises from two considerations: irony (reversing the situation) and revenge (taking his “own back”). It must be indeed an exciting and satisfying self-indulgence for Smith to try to impose on his persecutors his own rules of the “game”, for a change, on the one hand, and to endeavour to defeat the governor’s will to make him win a trophy for Borstal, on the other. Here, while Smith confides in the reader his secret schemes, he reserves a nasty surprise for the organisers of the race. Let us not anticipate. As for his decision about doing the “job” single-handedly when he leaves Borstal, it derives, consequently, from his growing sense of mistrust, a pervasive suspiciousness verging on some troubling existentialist angst[2]. “Cunning is what counts in this life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way” (7) he says in the opening part of the story. The phrase “in the slyest way” adds to Smith’s statement an emphatic sense of tautology. His words may easily ironically read: “cunning cunningly.” With much irony, Smith elaborates on his sophisticated strategy, being convinced that his cunning is superior to that of the governor and his likes, who happen to use, according to Smith, a common, adulterated and “stupid” kind of “cunning”, which makes him laugh in his sleeve, anticipating thus his ultimate so-called triumphant trick on them:

I suppose you’ll laugh at this, me saying the governor’s a stupid bastard when I know hardly how to write and he can read and write and add-up like a professor. But what I say is true right enough. He’s stupid, and I’m not, because I can see further into the likes of him than he can see into the likes of me. Admitted, we’re both cunning, but I’m more cunning and I’ll win in the end even if I die in gaol at eighty-two, because I’ll have more fun and fire out my life than he’ll ever got out if (sic) his. (12)

When asked by the governor if he is “All right,” meaning whether he is ready to win the race for Borstal, Smith emphatically pretends “Yes, sir” … “Good show. I know you’ll get us that cup,” the governor condescends. Confiding in the reader, Smith confesses “And I swear under my breath: “Like boggery, I will” (12), meaning exactly the reverse. Imaginatively, he succeeds in reversing, so far at least, the balance of power, removing himself from the position of a subtly manipulated pawn to that of a satirical commentator enjoying some sort of verbal precedence over the governor and his friends whom he invectively calls the “potbellied pop-eyed bastards.” Reflecting upon his strategy of deception devised against his tormentors who keep tempting him with a good situation as a professional runner when he leaves Borstal, Smith confesses, not without sarcasm, that he will have his say in due course: “A line of potbellied pop-eyes gleamed at me and a row of goldfish mouths opened and wiggled gold teeth at me, so I gave them the answer they wanted because I’d hold my trump card until later” (35).

Smith realises, however, the danger of nearly yielding to their temptations as he starts fantasising about a better future:

But I’d have a wife and car and get my grinning long-distance clock in the papers and have a smashing secretary to answer piles of letters sent by tarts who’d mob me when they saw who I was as I pushed my way into Woolworth’s for a packet of razor blades and a cup of tea. (35)

Funnily enough, while Smith imaginatively relishes the glamour and glitter of stardom, he seems to be unable to relinquish his working-class habits, namely, buying his “packet of razor blades” and drinking “a cup of tea” at the popular department store “Woolworth’s.”

3. Structure of the story

Chronologically speaking, the story line has two distinct phases, i.e. Smith’s present experience as a Borstal inmate, which includes the beginning and the end of the story and past events relating to the robbery of the bakery by Smith and his friend Mike, which has led to the arrest of the former. But, structurally speaking, Sillitoe’s text falls into three distinct parts:

The first section relates, among other events, the narrator’s Spartan training at long-distance running (and cunning) at Borstal; the ransacking of a “posh” picnic by Smith and his friends; and, finally, Smith’s resolution to thwart the expectations of the governor by losing the race through “cunning.”

The second part is a lengthy flashback referring to the period prior to Smith’s detention when his father died of cancer of the throat, which won the family “a cool five hundred in insurance and benefits from the factory” (18). The “bereavement” money is lavishly spent by an irresponsible mother, buying a brand new fur cloak, a “twenty-one-inch telly,” a new carpet “because the old one was covered with blood from my dad’s dying;” and “bags” of food (19). In other words, money has triggered a mini revolution at home, which, as is ironically described by the narrator, sounds like an endless orgy.

Night after night we sat in front of the telly with a ham sandwich in one hand, a bar of chocolate in the other, and a bottle of lemonade between our boots, while mam was with some fancy man upstairs on the new bed she’d ordered… (19)

Ironically enough, the rest of the money peters out, wasted away by a profligate mother, before Smith realises that he has had no chance to buy a coat for the winter. The second part also relates the foredoomed burglary of the bakery, the dull police enquiry and the very ironical twist of events as Smith is finally found out and arrested by the police. The stolen banknotes, being “stuffed (…) up the drainpipe outside the door in the backyard” (27), are gradually washed down by the falling rain and suddenly begin to slide and spread on the floor, at the feet of the uncomprehending “copper” who is standing outside interrogating Smith about the robbery.

The third part dramatises the running experience being at its crucial stage now - the race itself during which Smith muses upon his father’s horrible-heroic death. His mind is now firmly set to lose this ‘rat race’ just to infuriate the “In-laws,” avenge his “dad” for having died an “Out-law” death, and eventually turn the tables in his favour for a change, albeit, in a desperate thrust of self-vindication (or self-sacrifice?).

4. Different kinds of Irony

4.1. Irony based on special linguistic uses

From the outset, the narrator informs the reader, in a straightforward manner, that there will be a contest of wits – or rather, a merciless war - going on between “him” and “them.”

I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only ‘them’ and ‘us’ had the same ideas we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand. (7)

The terms of the conflict are announced here without ambiguity, albeit somewhat naively as they reflect the radical position of a youth. The clash opposing Smith to the authorities is bound to be pitiless, its outcome partial, and its resolution deferred. The narrator’s unfulfilled wish “If only ‘them’ and ‘us’…” already indicates Smith’s self-defeating wishful thinking which undergoes a syntactic rupture operated by the conspicuous use of an oppositional “but” which radically obliterates the youth’s dream of unison by splitting the statement right at the middle.

What makes Smith’s unfulfilled wish sound all the more emphatically pointless is the ironical prospect expressed by the simile “we’d get on like a house on fire.” The verbal cohesion implied by “we” here has, in fact, no other reality beyond its mere grammatical function since this deictic “we” refers both to “them” and “us,” brought together in the text, only to signify, metonymically, the violent separateness of the ruling classes and the workers, implying otherwise that “we” will never get on with “them;” and that “hate” is what we share with our oppressors. This hatred takes on a dramatic, almost Talmudic or archaic significance; and derives its legitimacy and force from Smith’s sweeping assertion in the following chiastic self-evident statement (crisscross arrangement): “they don’t see eye to eye with us and we don’t see eye to eye with them.”

Furthermore, the narrator adds in the form of an ironical relief: “there’s no love lost between us.” Connotatively, these syntactically balanced opening statements of the “I” narrator sound like the setting off of a durably painful feud or of “an-eye-for-an-eye” massacre, tearing asunder the artificial social fabric of “we,” the “we” that reflects the “us” and “them” patched up compulsively by virtue of the law for political reasons.


[1] L.J. Potts, “explanatory notes”, The Poetics, by Aristotle (London: Cambridge University Press, 1959) 62 – 94.

[2] Smith’s extreme anxiety and restlessness are expressed in his saying: “Well, I’ll always feel during every bit of my life like those daft kids should have felt before we broke them up… I know every minute of my life that a big boot is always likely to smash any nice picnic I might be barmy and dishonest enough to make for myself” (16) (Italics added).

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Irony as a Strategy of Resistance and Subversion in Sillitoe's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner". Juvenile Class Consciousness
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irony, strategy, resistance, subversion, sillitoe, loneliness, long, distance, runner, juvenile, class, consciouness
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Mansour Khelifa (Author), 2005, Irony as a Strategy of Resistance and Subversion in Sillitoe's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner". Juvenile Class Consciousness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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