Humour in Literature

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Humour in Literature

Humor is part of the communicative relations. When humor exists communication is different. Speech is free, open and no differences are admitted. A different kind of logic is searched for, stiffness is broken and contradictions dominate. Hartmann thinks that life is full with comical things, but it cannot be noticed without the writers’ mediation. The comical in literature correlates to the fantasy game in fairy tales. In that game the similarities join the incongruent things and replace the meaningful with the meaningless. Jokes follow certain life rules, just like the ones followed by superstitions that are based on semi-conscious convictions of the hidden connection between distant things. But every case must be based upon concealed legitimacy. Every comical situation and joke are connected by an invisible cause and they have their own justification. Sometimes this justification is meaningless, another time it springs from the moral background which appears in the degradation of the values, in spiritual comparison, in indirect presentation supported by contrasts, in certain allusions that should not be, or cannot be, expressed differently. Humor is most effective when shaping up characters, describing only one-sided characters, such as the pretentious sick, the misanthropes, the sluggards, the stingy, the simpletons etc. Moliere’s comedies, which are usually named after their protagonists, contain and use this kind of approach to the comical. Concerning the features of the characters in comedies, Northrop Frye17F in “Anatomy of Criticism” points out four different types of characters: alazon or liar, eiron or self– minimizer, bomolochos or rejoicer, agroicos or clumsy. The fight between the liar and the self-minimizer is the basis of the comical action, while the rejoicer and the clumsy are polar pair who encircles the comical event. Liar roles are mostly male characters such as a strict father, a niggler or a dandy of Lord Theodos’ type, Tartuffe or Don Juan. Shrewd servants or intriguing slaves such as the characters of Spiro from “Lord Theodos” or Leporella in “Don Huan” play the characters of the self-minimizers. The third type, the rejoicer, comes from the Greek comedy and usually appears to cheer up the audience with his jokes and tricks. In the renaissance comedy there is a great deal of supporting characters of professional clowns, singers, fools. The clumsy appears on the stage with just a few words and laughter and humor simply pass him by. Such is the case with sad Jacques is in the comedy “As You Like It”, or gloomy Bertrand from the comedy “All Is Well That Ends Well”.
Humor can emerge out of the themes and motives of literary works. Good examples of humor are the situations when people present themselves differently from what they really are. They cheer us up disclosing their weaknesses for which probably even they are not aware of, or they have the tendency to cover them up and project the opposite. The comical effect disappears when the cover-up is suddenly discovered. The theme of laziness becomes comical if hidden behind fake engagements (folklore stories about “The lazy daughter-in-law”), simpletons are comical when they think they are very cautious (“The Inspector General” by Gogol), anger is comical when it is believed that it is deep and justifiable (the anger of the maid Rosalia Karlovna from Chekhov’s short story “Nerves”). A special group of comical themes are weaknesses tinged with intellectual defects. Here is the foolish shrewdness (the stories of Clever Peter, “Science Against Luck” by Mark Twain), the transfer of ready-made opinions (“Sweetheart” by Chekhov), the eternal wish of the ignorant to teach (“The Man Who Knew Coolidge” by Sinclair Lewis or “Frogs” by Aristophanes), the sick self-complacence (Olivera Strezoska in “The Big Water” by Čingo), vanity (the character of the Dutchman Mener Peperkon from “The Magic Shore” by Thomas Mann), conceitedness (“She-minister” by Nušić), pretence (“The Intelligent Log” by Chekhov), imposition (Jovanka from the novel “Miss” or the short story “Autobiography” by Andrić) etc. Another group of comical themes refers to strictly following stiff forms, fake morale (“Tartuffe” by Moliere or “Bathroom” by Zoshchenko), extreme precaution (“Georgi Georgević” by Andrić), fake strictness (“Administrative trance” by Zoshchenko), self-confident naiveté (short story “Signs” by Andrić), misused conventions (“Sudden Death of an Anarchist” by Dario Fo) etc. In addition, there is a group of themes referring to the naive whose defects spring from their ignorance. Different kinds of clumsiness, stumbling, stammering, missing the obvious and completely jinxed behavior befall in this group.
Humor can result by using language expressive resources. Humor needs precise expressions, technical details, and concrete facts. One of the basic features of comical presentation is dense expression, playing with words, the paradoxes, the irony, the principle of opposing, unpretence, prudence, precise thinking etc. The spiritual riddles used in the context of literary texts show a tendency towards densing the expression and pointing out something that seems to be hidden at first sight. The soul of humor is short. This form can embody and transcend the overall psychological complex in the didactic orientation sphere, or simply present an expression of the necessity of good spirits. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the talkative Pollenie says: “The core of cleverness lies in shortness”. The novel “Grasshoppers” by P. M. Andreevski is filled with aphoristic folklore wisdom of the type “A man with female offspring is like a tree with someone else leaves” or “Some people’s luck is always active, while others is always asleep”. The comedies of Vasil Iljoski are also full of comical folklore riddles “a tied up goat is a sign of quiet year”, “a man without a moustache, a devil without horns “, “it is easy to carry a light brain” and so on. Language itself can be used for comical needs, in other words, by using its acoustics. The specific rhythm organization of the sentence in the works of Dimitar Solev, through its sonority and function, also brings up comical feelings. (“… that is because everybody knows that Sam Slaughterstork is a hen person, even though he does not slaughter hens” or “Garlic and water, a nail with a nail. What ever did they do when there was no aspirin?”). Also, humor is accomplished by using different forms of professional and social jargon. By using medical-latin jargon Moliere covers up the ignorance of the self-educated doctor in the comedy “Self-made doctor”. By using the names of the characters the writer points out their comical features. In Shakespeare we meet names such as “Sly”, “Simple”, “Stareting”, and so on. In that sense the names of the characters of the hyperbolic satire “Labourers” by Čingo are indicative. Such are the characters of Waterdrop – the honest man, Flamboyantski – a man from Europe, Hexer – the man bringing bad luck, Mike-strike, Decentovski etc. The use of foreign names can also be comical. In Gogol’s “Dead Souls” there is a character called McDonald Karlovich, in “Wedding” the character of Baltazar Baltazarevich Gevakin and in the novel “St. Petersburg” by Bely, the characters of Apolonij Apolonovich Ableuhov and Nikolaj Apolonovich Ableuhov18F.


17. Frye Northrop: Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957, pg.196.
18. Regarding usage of names for Bjeli’s characters see the article of Višnja Rister, Pojmovnik ruske avangarde, (Glossary of Russian Avantgarde) Part IV, pg.51-67.

AuthorJasmina Mojsieva Guševa
2018-08-21T17:24:02+00:00 October 1st, 1998|Categories: Reviews, Literature, Blesok no. 05|0 Comments