Literature and Humor by Don L. F. Nilsen

Literature and Humor by Don L. F. Nilsen


(Frye 131-139) 54 2 SPRING 54 3 SUMMER 54


ST Comedy is based on an unjust law or tradition which in the end is broken. There is always a complication, but the comedy ends in the reestablishment of the natural order of things, and everybody paired off and living happily ever after. Two sub-genres of Comedy are Comedy of Manners and Comedy of Humors. 54 7 COMEDY OF HUMORS

The Comedy of Humors goes back to the belief of medieval physiology that human dispositions are based on the balance of the four basic fluids, phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile. If the balance is not right a person might be phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholy or bilious. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 248) 54 8 If a characters humors are out of balance, he is a humors character, otherwise known as an eccentric, or even (as with Flannery

OConnors characters) a grotesque. Chaucers Canterbury Tales is filled with humors characters ranging from the energetic Wife of Bath to the pretentious but little educated Nun and from the overly religious and hypocritical Monk to the crude rascal of The Miller and the comically romantic Knight. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 248) 54 9 In Neil Simons The Odd Couple, Oscar Madisons exaggerated sloppiness is

placed in opposition to the meticulousness of Felix Unger. (Nilsen & Nilsen 107) In contrast, a Comedy of Manners parodies and satirizes the manners and conventions of high society. 54 10 Alazons and Eirons Alazons and Eirons are stock humorous characters going back to Greek drama. Alazons are overly confident braggarts getting

their way by blustering and bullying. At the other extreme, are the eirons, who are sly rogues getting their way through feigned ignorance or dumb luck. The term eiron is related to the term irony, because the Eirons say one thing, but mean another. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 248) Note that in Japanese culture, the Samurai are the Alazons, and the Ninja are the Eirons. 54 11 Comedy of Manners Comedies of manners

frequently stress the superior intellectual and moral values of middle class characters as compared to the established aristocracy. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 247) 54 12 In Oscar Wildes The Importance of Being Earnest Jack responds to Lady Bracknells question of whether he smokes and she answers, I am glad to hear it. A man should have an occupation of some kind.

Later, Jack answers one of her questions by saying he doesnt know, to which she cheerfully responds, I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 248) 54 13 In Beaumarchaiss The Marriage of Figaro, which was later made into an opera by Mozart, the unjust law was that the Lord of the Manor had the right to take the virginity

of any woman marrying one of the Lords serfs. The plot of the play revolves around how Figaro and his bride repeatedly outwit the Lord of the Manor until the couple is married and the Lord is no longer entitled to this privilege. (Nilsen & Nilsen 107) 54 14 In Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice, the unjust law relates to the

pound of flesh that Shylock is authorized to receive. Portia, the lawyer, overturns the unjust law by arguing that while Shylock may be allowed to take his pound of flesh, he cannot shed one drop of blood in obtaining it. (Nilsen & Nilsen 107) 54 15 COMEDY BECOMES TRAGEDY The line which changes Shakespeares

Romeo and Juliet from a comedy to a tragedy was spoken by Mercutio (a mercurial figure). When Mercutio is wounded in a sword fight Romeo says, Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much, 54 16 and Mercutio responds, No, tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a churchdoor, but tis enough, twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.

54 17 ADDITIONAL EXAMPLES COMEDY OF HUMORS: Canterbury Tales, Little Women, The Owl and the Nightingale, The Taming of the Shrew COMEDY OF MANNERS: The Importance of Being Ernest, The Rivals (with Mrs. Malaprop) 54 18

2 : SUMMER = ROMANCE ND The Romance presents an idealized world, the black-and-white world of our desires, where good things are really good, and bad things are really bad. The Romance involves the Journey, and the Journey involves the Hero, the Villain, the Quest, the Sage, the Prohibition, the Sacrifice, the Dragon, the Treasure, and sometimes the rescue of the Maiden. The epiphany (mountain top, tower, island, lighthouse, ladder, staircase, Jacks beanstalk, Rapunzels hair, Indian rope trick etc.) connects Heaven and Earth (Frye 203).

54 19 EXAMPLES OF ROMANCE The Divine Comedy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost 54 20

3RD AUTUMN = TRAGEDY Tragedy is the opposite of comedy in that the happiness appears at the beginning or the middle. Somebody is privileged, but with a fatal flaw, usually an obsession and hubris which causes the downfall. 54 21 EXAMPLES OF TRAGEDY The Great Gatsby,

Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet 54 22 4TH WINTER = SATIRE Satire demands at least a token fantasy (Utopia and Dystopia), a content which the reader recognizes as grotesque, and at least an implicit moral standard

(Frye 224). 54 23 EXAMPLES OF SATIRE HORATIAN SATIRE (mild and amusing): Animal Farm, Brave New World, Gullivers Travels, Little Big Man, Lysistrata, Screwtape Letters JUVENALIAN SATIRE (harsh and bitter): 1984, Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, A Modest Proposal 54

24 4 TH WINTER = IRONY Whenever a reader is not sure what the authors attitude is or what his own is supposed to be, we have irony with relatively little satire (Frye 223).

54 25 EXAMPLES OF IRONY OR GALLOWS HUMOR Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, Fargo, The Loved One, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Portnoys Complaint, Pulp Fiction, Slaughterhouse 5, The World According to Garp 54

26 ADDITIONAL GENRES Other genres of literature include the following: Benign Humor, the Bildungsroman, the Cautionary Tale, the Doppelganger Genre, Erotic Humor, Fantasy Humor, Farce, Gothic Humor, the Metamorphosis Genre, Parody, the Picaresque Novel, Pourquoi Stories, and Vernacular Humor 54

27 BENIGN HUMOR Benign Humor is non-threatening. It is a mild type of satire with much word play. Examples of Benign Humor include Alice in Wonderland, the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves novels, Peter Rabbit, Through the Looking Glass, The Wind and the Willows, and Winnie the Pooh. 54 28

Lewis Carroll After the success of Lewis Carrolls Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass, Queen Victoria gave permission to Lewis Carroll to dedicate his next book to her. He complied by honoring her with a mathematical treatise. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 244) 54 29 BILDUNGSROMAN In a Bildungsroman, the character

grows. Examples of Bildungsroman novels include Are You There, God? Its Me, Margaret, The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and Moll Flanders. 54 30 CAUTIONARY TALE A Cautionary Tale tells us what not to do. Examples of Cautionary Tales include Aesops Fables, The Bidpai Tales,

Coyote Stories, La Fontaines Fables, Uncle Remus Stories and Urban Legends. 54 31 DOPPELGANGER GENRE The Doppelganger Genre concentrates on a single character with two personalities, or two characters with a single personality. Examples of the Doppelganger Genre include Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde, Pride and Prejudice, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sense and Sensibility, and Tweedledum and

Tweedledee. 54 32 Ethnic Literature Henry Louis Gates, and Signifying In his 1988 The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says that because African American slaves were denied the use of normal and private communication, they developed double-entendre Trickster signifiers. Speakers would say something that meant one thing to whites and another to blacks. The humor

comes from the realization that simultaneous messages are being communicated and that the authority figures (usually whites) understand only one message while the other participants comprehend both (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 258). 54 33 Vine Deloria The title of Vine Delorias Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto is an example of a pan-Indian joke (especially meaningful only to tribal or family members). Another example of a pan-Indian joke says

that when the missionaries came, they had only the Bible, while the Indians had all the land. But now, They have all the land, and Indians have only the Bible. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 258) 54 34 Fantasy Humor Fantasy Humor requires a special suspension of disbelief, and includes the genre of Science Fiction. Examples of Fantasy Humor include Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Legend

of Sleepy Hollow, The Jungle Book, A Midsummer Nights Dream, Peter Pan, The Adventures of Walter Mitty, and The Wizard of Oz. 54 35 Farce: A Violent but Innocent Genre Jessica Milner Davis says that whether it be English, medieval Dutch, Spanish, French, Viennese, Russian, improvised commedia dellarte, or even Japanese kygen of n theatre, farce is both the most violent and physically shocking of dramatic forms of

comedy, but it is almost the most innocent in that unlike satire or burlesque it does not offend either individuals or society. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 264) 54 36 Davis continues, Equally paradoxically, farce is not particularly fantastic or unrealistic: indeed in terms of acting style, actors assert that the truthfulness-to-life of their character is absolutely essential for the release of laughter by the audience.

But the violence is highly stylized with precision of timing and intonation notoriously difficult to achieve. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 264) 54 37 GOTHIC HUMOR Gothic Humor occurs in haunted houses or in mysterious caves. It is a dark and stormy night, and many of the sights and sounds are mysterious and threatening. Examples of Gothic Humor include Dracula, Frankenstein, The House of Usher,

Northanger Abbey, The Langaliers, and Wuthering Heights. 54 38 Paul Lewis studied the role of gothic narratives, and was struck by the range of possible responses including puzzlement, fear, and humor and by the relation between these responses and gothic sub-genres including didactic gothic, speculative or ambiguous gothic, and mock-gothic. Lewis argued that the eruption of fearful mysteries in a narrative is an essential

generic element of the gothic. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 265) 54 39 Comedy vs. Tragedy High Comedy and Low Comedy In the classical sense, the comedy isnt necessarily funny, but in contrast to the tragedy the comedy has a happy ending. High comedy (what we now call smart comedy or literary comedy) relies for its humor on wit and sophistication, while low comedy relies on burlesque, crude jokes, and

buffoonery. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 246) 54 40 Phunny Phellows vs. Satirists Masks and Voices Daniel Royot said that comedians don masks and borrow voices, and it is the interplay of such conflicting masks and voices that results in open or subtle incongruities. With only masks, the effect would be simply parodic, grotesque humor as is unfortunately too much of Jerry Lewiss stuff and that of other phunny phellows. On the other hand,

if they use just voices without masks, the result is merely satirical. Royot then contrasts the visual humor of Mel Brooks with the satirical humor of Woody Allen. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260) 54 41 Joe Sandwich and a Unified Theory of Humor In The Vale of Laughter, Peter De Vries has a character named Joe Sandwich who says, No single theory has yet managed to explain all varieties of mirth. Nine tenths of what we laugh at answers to Bergson, another nine

tenths to Freud, still another to Kant or Plato, and so on, leaving always that elusive tenth that makes each definition like a woman trying to pack more into a girdle than it will legitimately hold. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 261) 54 42 Laughter and Literature In correlating laughter with screen comedians, James Agee concluded that four of the main grades of laughter are the titter, the yowl, the belly laugh, and the buffo, which he organized into six

categories ranging from the incipient or inner and inaudible laugh (the simper and smirk) to the loud and unrestrained howl, yowl, shriek, and Olympian laugh. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260) 54 43 Agees study demonstrates an interesting crossover between literature and real-life because in a way it is measuring the care and the skill with which

authors observe and record peoples actions. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260) 54 44 METAMORPHOSIS HUMOR Metamorphosis Humor always results in a miraculous transformation. Examples of Metamorphosis Humor include Faust, The Metamorphosis, My Fair Lady, Pinnochio, and Pygmalion. 54

45 PARODY Parody mimics and exaggerates the style of the original. Examples of Parody include Byrons Don Juan, Fables for our Times, Humpty Dumpty la Poe, The Rape of the Lock and Lewis Carrolls Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat. 54 46

Mark Twain and Doggerel Poetry Julia Moores death poetry of the mid-1800s is an example of doggerel poetry. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain modeled his Ode to Stephen Bots, Decd on her work. Twain described her as having a rare organic talent for humor. She could make an intentionally humorous episode pathetic and an intentionally pathetic one funny. (Nilsens in Raskin 261-262) 54 47 THE PICARESQUE NOVEL

A Picaresque Novel is a mock quest done by a Picaro who doesnt have any money, power, or prestige. This Picaro lives by his wits as he encounters various powerful eccentrics in his episodic adventures. Examples of Picaresque Novels include Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, and Pickwick Papers. 54 48 There are six qualities that are associated with the picaresque novel: 1. The first-person account tells a part or the

whole life of a rogue or picaro. 2. Rogues and picaros are drawn from a lower social level, are of loose character, and if employed, do menial labor and live by their wit and playful language. 3. Picaresque novels are episodic in nature. 54 49 4. Picaresque characters do not mature or develop. 5. The story is realistic. The language is plain (vernacular) and is filled with vivid detail. 6. Picaresque characters serve other higher

class characters and learn their foibles and frailties, thus providing opportunities to satirize social castes, national types, and/or racial peculiarities. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 253) 54 50 POURQUOI STORIES Pourquoi Stories explain how the world works. Examples of Pourquoi Stories include the Anansi Tales from Africa, and the Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill stories

from the United States. 54 51 VERNACULAR HUMOR Vernacular Humor is written the way people actually talk, using colloquial language, and eye dialect, such as iz and wuz. Examples of Vernacular Humor include Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, and anything written by Mark Twain or Charles Dickens, but nothing written by James Fennimore Cooper.

54 52 !Womens Humor Regina Barreca Some of the titles of Regina Barrecas books show how teasing occurs between the sexes: They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted Perfect Husbands: and Other Fairy Tales Untamed and Unabashed: Essays on Women and Humor in British Literature 54 53

!Regina Barreca said, Womens lives have always been filled with humor. It emerged as a tool for survival in the social and professional jungles and works as a weapon against the absurdities of injustice. Women did not suddenly get funny in the 1990s any more than women suddenly got ambitious in the 1970s or sexually aware in the 1960s or intelligent in the 1980s. (Nilsen in [Raskin] 2008: 259) 54 54

!!Wendy Wasserstein Wendy Wasserstein said, When I speak up, its not because I have any particular answers; rather, I have a desire to puncture the pretentiousness of those who seem so certain they do. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 259) 54 55 !!!E. B. and Katherine White The Nature of Humor Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the scientific mind. Humor wont stand much blowing up, and it wont stand much poking. It has a certain fragility, and evasiveness, which one had best respect. Essentially it is a complete mystery. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 243) 54 56 !!AMERICAN LITERATURE WEB SITES I AMERICAN HUMOR STUDIES ASSOCIATION OF MLA (DAVID SLOANE): ART SPIEGELMAN: J. K. ROWLING: SANDRA CISNEROS: JACK GANTOS: LEMONY SNICKET: 54 57


58 Related PowerPoints Gallows Humor Irony Paradox Parody Poetry Satire 54 59 References 1: Ammons, Elizabeth, and Annette White-Park. Tricksterism in Turn-of-the

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References # 2: Baker, Russell. Russell Bakers Book of American Humor. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1993. Barreca, Regina. They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted. New York, NY: Viking, 1991. Barreca, Regina. Perfect Husbands: and Other Fairy Tales. New York, NY: Harmony Books, 1993. Barreca, Regina. Untamed and Unabashed: Essays on Women and Humor in British Literature. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1994. Barreca, Regina. The Penguin Book of Womens Humor. New York, NY: Penguin, 1996. 54

61 References # 3: Barreca, Regina, ed. Last Laughs: Perspectives on Women and Comedy. New York, NY: New York, NY: Gordon and Breach, 1988. Barreca, Regina, ed. New Perspectives on Women and Comedy. Philadelphia, PA: Gordon and Breach, 1992. Bennett, Barbara. Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. Bier, Jesse. The Rise and Fall of American Humor. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. Blair, Walter. Native American Humor 1800-1900. New York, NY: American Book Company, 1937.

54 62 References # 4: Blair, Walter. Horse Sense in American Humor from Benjamin Franklin to Ogden Nash. New York, NY: Russell and Russell, 1942. Blair, Walter. Davy Crocket: Legendary Frontier Hero: His True Life Story and the Fabulous Tall Tales Told about Him. Springfield, IL: Lincoln-Herndon Press, 1986. Blair, Walter, with Hamlin Hill. Americas Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978. Blair, Walter, with Raven McDavid Jr. The Mirth of a Nation: Americas Great Dialect Humor. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Blake, Ann. The Comedy of Othello. The Critical Review 15 (1972): 46-51. Blount, Roy, ed. Roy Blounts Book of Southern Humor. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1994. 54 63 References # 5: Boatright, Mody C. Folk Laughter on the American Frontier. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1994. Botkin, B. A. A Treasury of American Folklore. New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1944. Bryant, Gregory A., and Jean E. Fox Tree. Is There an Ironic Tone of Voice? Language and Speech 48 (2005): 257-277.

Budd, Louis J., and Edwin H. Cady, eds. The Best from American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992. Camfield, Gregg. Necessary Madness: The Humor of Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997. 54 64 References # 6: Camfield, Gregg. Sentimental Twain: Samuel Clemens in the Maze of Moral Philosophy. Philadelplhia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Carlson, Richard S. The Benign Humorists. New York, NY: Archon, 1975. Cerf, Bennet, ed. An Encyclopedia of Modern American Humor. Garden City,

NY: Doubleday, 1954. Charney, Maurice, ed. Comedy: A Geographic and Historical Guide, Volumes I and II. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Clark, William Bedford, and W. Craig Turner. Critical Essays on American Humor. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1984. Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1978. 54 65 References # 7: Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

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