Humor in Middlemarch

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One doesn't often see comment on the vein of rich and ironic humor that pervades much of the early part of Middlemarch, just as, again, humor is not much of a discussion in the work of Hawthorne. And that is a shame, because while this humor, in both cases, is not of the laugh-out-loud variety, it provides a certain warmth and atmosphere that makes reading the books pleasurable.

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

And how should Dorothea not marry?--a girl so handsome and with such
prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her
insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a
wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her
at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune,
who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer
and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the
Apostles--who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of
sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken
you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her
income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of
saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself
in such fellowship.

Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of
society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane
people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at
large, one might know and avoid them.

The last sentences of each of these two paragraphs have a certain humor, admittedly somewhat bitter, but not actually biting, that can engage the reader fortunate enough to find the strain and continue.

Humor, and a sense that an author has some knowledge of the matter, are prerequisites in fiction. No work of fiction can be entirely successful without some sense of humor. Even Dante showed it, although maliciously, in some of the people and punishments in Hell and Purgatory. In fact, it is the absence of this strain that tends to make Heaven such a ghastly bore in comparison to the other two works. The author is so overwhelmed by his experiences that, while he continues to compose amazing poetry, he simply isn't engaging at the same level as he is in the other parts of his masterpiece.

Humor stems from a sense of displacement, it is, in a sense, an ultimately Christian virtue. Humor often results from the juxtaposition of impossible events, from the use of a word in two or more ways, from the sudden and unexpected. These are the deep seams of humor, the understanding that things are not as they seem, that we are not what we seem, and that ultimately we are not really where we belong. The recognition that where we belong is infinitely better gives rise to deep strains of humor.

It may also give rise to deep strains of sadness or despair of the human condition. By far a less "likeable" result of the realization. And sometimes, to the untrained eye, they are nearly indistinguishable. I think particularly here of the works of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy--both fundamentally humorous and joyous, but if one were to read only "The River" for instance, one might be left wondering whether or not Flannery O'Connor had any faith whatsoever. And I am witness to the fact that the hilarity of Love in the Ruins bypasses the majority of readers, who see instead the darkness that the humor masks. The inability to apprehend an author's humor can make of reading an unbearable toil. Probably the reason I find most nonfiction reading neither illuminating nor particularly informative. Most political books inspire me the way Chilton's manuals do. Most works of science are long, dry treatises with nothing of appeal to anyone seeking the imagination behind them. This is the particular skill of the popularizers, and the particular pitfall. They bring into sharp life and relief the humanity and the reality behind the discoveries. For a prime example of their effectiveness compare Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science with the prose of Peitgen and Richter's The Beauty of Fractals . (I just looked that one up on Amazon and was astounded at its price-tag--$84.00--I'm certain I paid nothing like that for it--I bought it as a grad student and wouldn't think of spending that kind of money on a book at the time.)

Humor then, a Christian virtue stemming from the recognition of the anomalies resulting from our pilgrim status, is one essential for readable fiction. In the case of Eliot, it is subdued and distinctly bitter. In Hawthorne's case, similarly, subdued, but more ironic than bitter, and sometime laugh-out-loud funny if you are paying attention. Like the "clown scenes" in Shakespeare's tragedies, the humor need not be pervasive, merely present. It is ultimately inviting and welcoming to the reader.

Humor, in literature, as in life, is an essential ingredient for success.

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I agree about the humour in Dante. A student gave an informal presentation on Inferno last week and gave the funniest description of the punishment of the Lukewarm.

Well, okay, the humour is actually Dante's, not hers. That image of people running around in the dark, stark naked, being stung by wasps, and cursing God all the while, made me laugh aloud so much that some of my more pious students were scandalised! :)



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 5, 2006 9:05 AM.

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