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Literature and Humor. by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Stephen King said:. “Fiction is the truth within the lie.” What does this mean? What is the difference between “truth” and “verisimilitude”?

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Literature and Humor


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    1. Literature and Humor by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen 54

    2. Stephen King said: “Fiction is the truth within the lie.” What does this mean? What is the difference between “truth” and “verisimilitude”? Does fiction (e.g. Red Badge of Courage) or non-fiction (e.g. Stillness at Appomattox) give a more accurate portrayal of the Civil War? 54

    3. ANALOGIES: GENRES AND SEASONS • 1ST: SPRING = COMEDY • 2ND: SUMMER = ROMANCE • 3RD AUTUMN = TRAGEDY • 4TH WINTER = IRONY or SATIRE • THEN BACK TO SPRING = COMEDY • (Frye 131-139) 54

    4. SPRING 54

    5. SUMMER 54

    6. AUTUMN 54

    7. WINTER 54

    8. 1ST: SPRING = COMEDY • 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

    9. 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

    10. If a character’s humors are out of balance, he is a “humors” character, otherwise known as an “eccentric,” or even (as with Flannery O’Connor’s characters) a “grotesque.” • Chaucer’s 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

    11. In Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison’s 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

    12. 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

    13. 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

    14. In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest Jack responds to Lady Bracknell’s 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 doesn’t 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

    15. In Beaumarchais’s 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 Lord’s 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

    16. In Shakespeare’s 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

    17. COMEDY BECOMES TRAGEDY • The line which changes Shakespeare’s 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

    18. and Mercutio responds, “No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.” • “Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” 54

    19. 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

    20. 2ND: SUMMER = ROMANCE • 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, Jack’s beanstalk, Rapunzel’s hair, Indian rope trick etc.) connects Heaven and Earth” (Frye 203). 54

    21. EXAMPLES OF ROMANCE • The Divine Comedy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost 54

    22. 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

    23. EXAMPLES OF TRAGEDY • The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet 54

    24. 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

    25. EXAMPLES OF SATIRE • HORATIAN SATIRE (mild and amusing): Animal Farm, Brave New World, Gulliver’s 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

    26. 4TH WINTER = IRONY • “Whenever a reader is not sure what the author’s attitude is or what his own is supposed to be, we have irony with relatively little satire” (Frye 223). 54

    27. EXAMPLES OF IRONY OR GALLOWS HUMOR • Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, Fargo, The Loved One, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Portnoy’s Complaint, Pulp Fiction, Slaughterhouse 5, The World According to Garp 54

    28. 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

    29. 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

    30. Lewis Carroll • After the success of Lewis Carroll’s 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

    31. BILDUNGSROMAN • In a Bildungsroman, the character grows. • Examples of Bildungsroman novels include Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and Moll Flanders. 54

    32. CAUTIONARY TALE • A Cautionary Tale tells us what not to do. • Examples of Cautionary Tales include Aesop’s Fables, The Bidpai Tales, Coyote Stories, La Fontaine’s Fables, Uncle Remus Stories and Urban Legends. 54

    33. 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

    34. Erotic Literature • Erotic literature is sexy, and it is usually humorous. • Examples of Erotic Humor include Fear of Flying, Leaves of Grass, Lolita, and Tom Jones, • …and others too numerous to mention. 54

    35. Ethnic LiteratureHenry 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

    36. Vine Deloria • The title of Vine Deloria’s 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

    37. Fantasy Humor • Fantasy Humor requires a special suspension of disbelief, and includes the genre of Science Fiction. • Examples of Fantasy Humor include Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Jungle Book, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Pan, The Adventures of Walter Mitty, and The Wizard of Oz. 54

    38. Farce: A Violent but Innocent Genre • Jessica Milner Davis says that “whether it be English, medieval Dutch, Spanish, French, Viennese, Russian, improvised commedia dell’arte, or even Japanese kyògen of nò 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

    39. 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

    40. 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

    41. 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

    42. Comedy vs. TragedyHigh Comedy and Low Comedy • In the classical sense, the “comedy” isn’t 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

    43. Phunny Phellows vs. SatiristsMasks 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 Lewis’s 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

    44. 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

    45. 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

    46. “Agee’s 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 people’s actions.” (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260) 54

    47. 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

    48. PARODY • Parody mimics and exaggerates the style of the original. • Examples of Parody include Byron’s Don Juan, Fables for our Times, “Humpty Dumpty à la Poe,” The Rape of the Lock and Lewis Carroll’s “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat.” 54

    49. Mark Twain and Doggerel Poetry • Julia Moore’s ‘death’ poetry of the mid-1800s is an example of doggerel poetry. “In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain modeled his “Ode to Stephen Bots, Dec’d” 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

    50. THE PICARESQUE NOVEL • A Picaresque Novel is a mock quest done by a Picaro who doesn’t 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