Sarcasm as a Signpost

Nicholas Johnson, Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange & Menacing World of Antarctica (193-216)

In the novel Big Dead Place the author, Nicholas Johnson, uses humor in snatches of conversation, letters and press releases to show the problems that exist within the government, the program’s administration and with people’s view of Antarctica. He injects tidbits of information between his sarcastic comments to explain why he is being sarcastic. The stupidity of the requirement of the workers from the government and the praise that the workers receive coming from false information make his situation funny. In chapter 10 he does this first by citing a letter from George W. Bush, secondly by using an excerpt from a conversation and thirdly by using a press release from the commander.


In the first instance Johnson cites a letter by George W. Bush which praises the work of the scientists and of other members of the crew. Bush says that it is the men and women who work on such projects as these that inspire children to further their education in math and science (194). Johnsons’ response to the letter is what allows his ability to use humor to point on the inconsistencies in the agencies that controls the program. He points out that the majority of the people in the program are not scientists and that since Bush was in charge of the program that he could make changes and allow them to have more fun (195). This use of humor makes it easier for the reader to connect with the author and also points out the major disconnect between the people in control and the program. Bush and the government have no clue what is really happening in the program and what the workers actually do. They assume that all of the people are working on a scientific project all the time. The humor allows Johnson to point out these inconsistencies and problems particularly with the American government.


The second example shows the inconsistencies between the upper management and the workers. When the character Jane is trying to figure out why she has to move, the character Franz is uncooperative and does not manage to answer any of her questions (204-206). The humor in this section is not as prevalent or as funny but it is still there. The way that Johnson shows Jane’s point of view and the constant questions make it funny because no one is actually answering the questions. Humor allows the reader to understand the dysfunctions that are prevalent in the administration. The people in higher positions do not want to answer for their actions. Johnson’s use of humor allows the reader to understand that what is happening is wrong but does it in a way that is not negative. This is important because a negative view would have effectively turned away the reader.

The third example of Johnson’s use of humor in this chapter is when Johnson uses excerpts from Commander Ronne’s press releases. The commander comments that many people have strange views of Antarctica. The people overly romanticize Antarctica and refer to it in terms such as, “beautiful sight whole northern heaven aflame” and “their mouthful of teeth and snorting sound makes one tremble” (208). These quotes are humorous because they do not correctly portray life in Antarctica. Johnson uses the excerpts to make the readers laugh and to point out the inaccuracies of the world’s view of Antarctica. Johnson is trying to point out that everyone thinks one thing about programs such as the Antarctica program when in reality their ideas are incorrect.

Johnson uses humor to make the inconsistencies and the problems within the government, the upper management and the views of the public less difficult for the reader to grasp. Through the use of sarcasm it is easy for the reader to point out what Johnson thinks is completely stupid. This allows the reader to connect with the author and to understand the way that the author thinks about things. His humor allows him to talk about things in a way that is funny rather than angry or upset. This makes it easier for Johnson to keep the readers’ attention and to keep from turning them away from the topic.

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One Response to Sarcasm as a Signpost

  1. klcowart says:

    Oh, one of the best parts of the book! Johnson certainly does a good job of pointing out absurdities of not only his local bureaucracy, but the ones of the “commander in chief.”
    This only one instance of Johnson’s humor, but I can agree with your explanation for his uses of humor and sarcasm as they can be found all throughout the book. In my section, one occasion of Johnson real-life humor is when he tapes his heavy metal Gorgoroth poster right next to Senor X’s delicate field of flowers. Since I know a little about metal, I could easily imagine the hilarious juxtaposition (life vs. death) of these two distinctly different images. I think the inclusion of this kind irony accurately depicts Johnson’s sense of sarcastic humor that he includes throughout his novel.

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