The Reader's Role in Ring Lardner's Rhetoric
Cowlishaw, Brian T., Studies in Short Fiction
Readers' responses to Ring Lardner's short stories are remarkably homogeneous. Who, other than the "confirmed pursuer of ironies" (Booth, Irony 5), finds Whitey, narrator of "Haircut," sly and perceptive?(1) Or Nurse Lyons, character in "Zone of Quiet," intelligent and charming? Few readers miss either Lardner's irony or his satire; they perceive the invitation to seek darker meanings below the innocuous surface, and they determine those meanings with consistent results.
Yet despite the strength and consistency of Lardner's rhetorical effects, critics have not thoroughly explained how they are achieved. Primarily critics overlook readers' activity, portraying readers as passive and helpless before Lardner's authorial manipulation. For instance, T. S. Matthews, reviewing Round Up in 1929, writes that "when you have finished the story, in each case, you are compelled to hate the person you have been hearing about" (36; emphasis added). Sarah Gilead claims that in Lardner's stories "the illusory moral authority of the authorial personae itself becomes symptomatic of exploitative abuses of language" (332). And William Keough argues that "[a]fter a while, the reader knows the formula and sits back to watch the characters self-destruct" (95). Readers, however, are never this passive; as Walter J. Ong has observed, all readers of all texts actively collate and decipher textual clues regarding the role of "implied reader," and decide the degree to which they will accept that proffered role. Readers of ironic stories such as Ring Lardner's must work particularly hard. In addition to choosing their level of involvement in the role of implied reader, they must reject the surface meaning (e.g., that Whitey merely describes an accidental death); test alternative explanations (namely, the man was actually murdered); determine the implied author's ironic intentions from clues in the text (by finding evidence to support alternative explanations and proving the presence of irony); and, finally, choose the best-supported reconstructed meaning from among the alternatives (Booth, Irony 10-13). The author provides the textual clues; the reader does the work. Thus, what Gilead terms a "flattering illusion" is a reality:
Lardner, through his own texts, instructs the reader in the shortcomings of his culture's behavioral and conceptual codes. Even when the reader is made to learn painful truths about himself, he can enjoy the flattering illusion that both he and the author are co-equals in their search after moral truth, the author by interpreting reality, the reader by interpreting the author's texts. (332)
As a consequence of this interpretive work, readers of Lardner's stories perceive a consistent set of corrective "lessons" conveyed satirically by the implied author - such lessons as, don't speak unless you have something interesting to say;(2) don't worship successful people uncritically;(3) don't be more ambitious and vain than justified by your talents;(4) don't be dishonest;(5) and so on. Readers accepting the role of implied reader - quite an attractive one, placing the implied reader as it does close to the implied author in an ostensibly small company of uncommonly intelligent, perceptive, and ethical people - accept these messages, and thus fulfill the timeless purpose of satire: social correction.
Critics generally agree that Round Up, published in 1929, contains 35 of Lardner's best and most representative stories. The volume's combination of quality, representativeness, and scope makes it the best single text for an analysis of his rhetoric. Lardner's rhetoric operators in two distinct patterns that are determined by the person in which the narrative is cast. In the third-person stories, the implied reader is consistently invited to join the implied author in finding characters inferior, and in doing so, to implicitly accept qualities opposite the characters' as desirable and valuable. In the first-person stories, the implied reader is (still) invited to share the implied author's views, but here the views of characters vary significantly: some characters appear, to them, definitely inferior; some are half-contemptible, half-likable; and some are quite sympathetic. …