Humor in Literature
American literature is unique in that the attitudes of the works tend to reflect the spirit of the nation and of her citizens. One of the trademarks of American literature is that authors display a tone that can be very serious, but that also can be interpreted as humorous. Whereas texts from other cultures are usually more concerned with message and in presenting that message in a dry, even stoic manner, American literature is uniquely capable of mixing the honest and the humorous. Even in the most serious and earnest stories, the sensibility of American humor can be detected. Of course, there are different types of humor. Some stories are flat-out ridiculous and make the reader laugh. Other stories are more sarcastic in their approach to humor and the funny moments have to be analyzed to be better understood. Still other tales are anecdotal and function as a humorous suggestion to the reader or their wives. Finally, some forms of humor that are presented in American literature are in the form of parody, where an issue that would be taken seriously in another text are modified slightly so that the tone changes from serious to sly and silly. There are some books which are extremely serious in tone but still have moments of lightheartedness and humor. This tendency in American literature is made evident in several works including Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Purloined Letter."
Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn is a serious narrative about a young white boy who decides to escape the process of civilization in order to retain his sense of self. In the process of this, he helps a slave named Jim escape from bondage and, in so doing, makes the realization that, to him, slavery as an institution is wrong. Jim is his friend and he does not want him to be enslaved or to anyone else's property. Jim is a good man and deserves freedom. First feeling that he is committing a sin against God for helping this man escape slavery, Huckleberry finally comes to the conclusion that it is worth the worst penalty, even burning in Hell forever, to do what he feels is right and help his friend Jim (Twain 97). By writing the story from this boy's perspective, the author Twain allows the readers to relate to Huckleberry Finn and to make the same conclusions about racial inequality and slavery in the United States. However, within this novel which is full of heavy and important ideas, there is visible the humor that is characteristic of American literature.
Some of the funniest moments in Huckleberry Finn are perpetrated by the characters of the "Duke" and the "King." These are two men who Huck and Jim meet upon their journey. They pretend to be high ranking members of royalty and thus people to be revered. In reality, they are nothing but con men who try to bilk innocent, hard-working people out of their money. Their shenanigans include a performance of a play titled the Royal Nonesuch which features the two of them acting like idiots and doing some terrible acting. The townsfolk are disgusted by what they see and not only pay for the night's performance but for an additional night, planning to barrage the "actors" with rotten food as punishment. Unfortunately the villains expect this assault and flee the towns with their two days worth of funds. Upon another occasion, they pretend to be the long-lost family members of a recently-deceased man so that they can inherit the dead man's fortune and rob his daughters of their rightful inheritance. However, as is appropriate for a story about the question of what is morally right or wrong, the two men get their just comeuppance and are tarred and feathered by a township who they intended to rip off with another performance of the Nonesuch.
Another part of Huckleberry Finn that is more humorous than serious is at the end of the novel. Jim has been captured, turned in by the fraudsters already mentioned for the reward money. Tom Sawyer, Huck's best friend and a rake in his own right, devises a plan where instead of merely freeing Jim...
However, instead of using their own logic which is what has allowed Jim and Huck to get so far down the river undetected, they listen to the boy Tom and his unnecessary and rather ridiculous plans. Among other things, Tom insists that Jim make letters on pie plates using a sharpened spoon. They also make ropes of bed sheets, even though the shack where Jim is kept is not on the second story. Also, Tom fills the shack with insects to make his prison more like the stories that the boys read. Finally, they dig a hole so that Jim can escape. Yet again, Tom has to make things more exciting and informs the white men of Jim's escape even though doing so would seriously hinder their chances of success. Just as the carpetbagger con men were written to mock the belief that white men are some way better and more moral than black men, so the Tom Sawyer section is designed as a parody. Rather than listen to their own sense of logic, Huck and Jim give way to the suggestions of this other boy because they believe him to be in some way superior, either intellectually or emotionally. The reality is though that they were much better off when they were not subject to Tom's imagination.
As Huckleberry Finn is a serious book with some humorous moments, so too Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is about a very serious subject matter that just happens to contain a few light moments. In this story, a woman is forced to wear a red A on her garments to indicate to all the people that she is an adulteress and has had a baby out of wedlock. There are far fewer moments of levity in this piece than the Twain story, but they do exist. The humor that is evident in The Scarlet Letter is more sarcastic in tone. That is to say, many of the events and sentences of the text have a double meaning, just as the A that Hester Prynne wears on her chest comes to have multiple meanings. The story reads like a prolonged double entendre rather than a few moments of levity amid a serious length.
Besides the actual A which at first means Adulteress and then comes to mean various other things, such as Able and Angel, there are other things in the story with a dual meaning, including Hester's daughter Pearl. Much of what Pearl says in the story can be taken in two ways: one as a surface-level statement that represents the uncertainty of the world as viewed through a child's eyes, and secondly as a sexually-knowledgeable creature who speaks of that secret knowledge almost openly. The first indication of this knowledge in Pearl comes when she is being interviewed by the town officials and they ask her where she has come from. Pearl responds that her mother picked her from the rose bush that was growing beside the prison walls where her mother was kept following her arrest on adultery charges. This illustrates at the surface level that Pearl is at least partly aware of the circumstances of her birth and the location of that occasion. It also has a sexual meaning because many people refer to the loss of virginity as deflowering. Similarly the color red evokes heat and passion. The mixture of the two things is what led to Pearl's birth. Another example of Pearl's dual purpose is during the scene where Pearl and her mother are walking in the forest and the daughter asks her mother when she will get an A for her own garments. Pearl asks her mother when she will receive her own A (Hawthorn 168). Pearl believes that the A is indicative of womanhood. In a way, she is right. Hester is forced to wear the A because she engaged in a sexual act with a man because of lust and not marital necessity. She was made a woman when she gave herself physically because of sexual desire and not obligation. So too, one day Pearl will engage in sexual activity. If she enjoys it and she is unmarried, she too may be forced to wear the A.
Author Washington Irving is an interesting addition to this discussion because his sense of humor is something of a mix of what has been presented from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain. Like Hawthorne, much of what is said can be read in two ways:…
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