‘The Three Infernal Jokes’

“It was then that he who told this mournful story, drawn on by the boasts of others, leaned forward a little over the green baize into the light of the two guttering candles and revealed, no doubt a little shyly, his own extraordinary virtue. One woman was to him as ugly as another.

‘You have,’ said the stranger, ‘a surpassing virtue.'”

Here are some notes on “The Three Infernal Jokes” by Lord Dunsany.

In the story, a man exchanges his ‘virtue’–that to him all women are equally ugly–for three infernal jokes, which make anyone who hears them die of laughter.

At our book club meeting, much of the discussion was around the question of whether seeing all women as equally ugly could be considered a virtue.

A virtue is a habit ordered to the good. The majority was of the opinion that, on that basis, such a defect could not be considered a virtue, for, if a man found all women equally ugly, then he could not see their beauty, and, in that beauty, the hand of their Creator.

I was of the opinion that, while not a virtue in itself, the defect would make the practice of certain virtues easier, especially chastity, as it would be easy for a man to exercise self-control if he did not lust after women. In this sense, his defect could be considered valuable in that, while not a virtue in itself, it is nonetheless conducive to virtue, and therefore valuable. At least, hell’s agent seemed to think so.

And so the man, not valuing his own condition rightly, trades it for three infernal jokes, whose use can only can bring death and evil. Having used two of them, and thus guilty of the death of others, he wanders the world alone and condemned, the image of a damned soul. And what was his sin for which he was damned? It would seem that his sin was that he did not value his own fallen condition and did not see the potential for grace in his defect. He did not accept the cross he was given and thereby denied God the opportunity to bring good out of evil.


About Joseph Burke

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