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Enter here no purchase necessary. Join Now Login. Sort by: The narcissism of humor protects the individual from threat and pain. Narcissism is aggressive; it reduces everything to the service of ego. Psychological protection and pleasurable experience are equally important in dark humor. The modern psyche is bedeviled by a disturbing awareness of impotence and the oppressions of authority and restraint.
The arts, Freud argues in Civilization and Its Discontents, are among the palliative remedies the individual uses to cope with excessive disillusionment and suffering. Modernist dark humor satire examines the individual in society and reveals the seemingly hopeless struggle to fit in, simultaneously drawing on recognizable group experiences and undermining the possibility of having a truly shared experience.
The often savage indignation and scathing irony of Modernist dark humor are important developments in the history of comic prose fiction because they are not only aimed at the injustices of social orderings but at the idea that any kind of order is simply an illusion, and yet the effects of these illusions are damaging—if not murderous.
Speculators of the comic from Kant, Schiller, and Nietzsche to Baudelaire, Breton, and Bakhtin have all argued that the comic experience was important because it suggested the truth about the basic antinomies of existence, offering a way out, the possibility of understanding and then living with the anxiety of the human predicament.
Passing references are made to the idea that all humor is aggressive or to his paradigm of joke-work, but often the nuances and complexities of his theories are overlooked altogether.
Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious is a peculiar book. It is an uneven and difficult text and many scholars of Freud find that it raises more questions than it answers. Not all of the characters in dark comedy use humor in a self-protective fashion, but the narrative stance of the texts is aggressively humorous and allows the reader protection from the traumatic circumstances presented by examining these circumstances from a safe comedic distance.
The reader, more often than not, identifies with the narrator, implied or otherwise, who is in control than with the character who is not.
It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able here to assert itself against the unkindness of the real circumstances. Violence on a grand scale, the loss of identity, and the increasing mechanization of society left the modern individual in a dilemma.
Traumatized by recent historical events, there was the fear that some incalculable and horrible catastrophe awaited, yet, deprived of a sense of forward movement, there was the equally terrible prospect that nothing at all would happen. Why did certain authors in the interwar period in Britain represent this troubling impasse and the disturbing sense of powerlessness comedically? Many writers of the period—Joyce, Woolf, Beckett—turned inward, choosing to explore individual consciousness and to extend the possibilities of the literary forms inherited from the nineteenth century to better represent alienation and fragmented identity.
The inability to understand comfortably the relationship between motive and action among the characters reflects a larger uncertainty about meaning and existence, an uncertainty that is at the root of dark humor. Dark humor suggests that there is really only established disorder. Sometimes it examines alienation and absurdity through the intensely subjective individual perceptions of characters, but more often it makes an aggressively objective evaluation of chaos and fragmentation.
The canonical Virginia Woolf employs both of these strategies in Mrs. Dalloway, but reading her in the context of dark humor not only sheds new light on her work but also reveals its connections to other writers of her time. Rethinking Modernist humor is important not only because it allows for canonical and noncanonical writers, but it also claims a tradition of dark humor for all of them. Dark humor is generally seen as an American phenomenon, and nearly all of the texts dedicated to it discuss American and European writers.
Essays inroduction: The point is to wrest from pain a momentary victory in laughter; it makes no other claims. The only triumph available is momentary and individual; it allows for pleasure even in the most unpleasant situations because it insists on a humorous appraisal of circumstances that often runs counter to material reality.
Clearly, the political and ethical uselessness of dark humor has profound implications for Postmodern literature. Claiming a tradition for dark humor in the British novel bridges the gap between Modernism and Postmodernism, a gap that is arguable in the first place. They suggest very little in the way of change, and their work is not a break with the past as much as it is a continuation of it. Humor does not invoke a truth more universal than that of the masters; it does not even struggle in the name of the majority by incriminating the masters for being a minority.
Humor wants rather to have this recognized: Of course, not all comedies of the era were dark. Social comedies were popular in the early decades of the century, and writers such as E. Their work also partakes of a certain comedic ambivalence and, I would argue, is much less conservative than is generally assumed.
These writers savage their own social set without any expectation that their satire will materially change anything. For the most part, the writers of dark humor satire all write about similar circumstances— sometimes with radically different styles—and behind all the humor lies acute feelings of alienation and isolation.
Writers as different as Woolf and Powell share a ruthless observation of the social system and a concern with how individuals are damaged by it yet seemingly survive within it. For example, in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf gives us both Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith, two characters who have performed their duties and have done what is expected of them.
The role of the individual in society was still of profound importance in Britain during the decades of the s and s, despite the increasing interest in subjectivity of experience. As a result, many writers had an abiding concern with how the individual negotiates increasingly complicated social arrangements and the performance of social roles that no longer corresponded to stable meanings or values. Dark humor admits disorder, incoherence, and instability and yet resists being overwhelmed by them.
Imposing a certain absurd logic, it takes potentially devastating meaninglessness and turns it into a joke. When external reality threatens the stability of the individual from all sides, dark humor allows for the triumph of narcissism, the protection of the individual, and the pleasure of laughter. Chapter 1 looks at comedy theory in relation to social comedy and discusses the characteristics of dark humor and the way joke-work functions.
According to Freud, humor involves at least three participants—the teller of the joke, the hearer of the joke, and the object of the joke; though, the teller may frequently make himself the object of the joke, as well.
Since humor generally requires an audience, I will also examine the relationship between the reader and the text and show how the implied narrator in these texts functions as the joke teller, creating in the reader the same pleasurable response and protective laughter that occurs in the joker. Clarissa is, of course, both. The vacuity of her social world is ridiculed, but her participation in it, despite her intuitive and uneasy awareness of its meaninglessness, is also represented as heroic, protecting her from the loss of self that drives Septimus to suicide.
Her absurd and incongruous identification with Septimus, a man who has been terribly wounded and has lost everything, is admitted within the dark comedy of the novel because it refuses a judgment of her. Those unable to psychologically protect themselves sink under the weight of cruelty—some die, some become unstable and cruel themselves—but those who endure, defend themselves with wit and sharply aggressive word-play, which mocks the authority of the domestic despot but never overturns it in open revolt.
In Vile Bodies modern life is presented as hopelessly violent and absurd, and traditional ethical categories of good and bad no longer obtain. Characters are distressingly unmoored from any meaning that would inform their breathless activity, left alone to negotiate confusing and constantly changing demands on them. Though denied the comfort of a critique of identifiable error, the reader joins with the narrative stance of the text and laughs at distressing events; thus, an absurd type of comedic order is imposed upon the chaos.
Known primarily for his epic Dance to the Music of Time, Powell presents in Afternoon Men a grim comment on a world similar to that of Vile Bodies and reveals slowly, repetitiously, and inexorably the numbing routine of social life in the interwar years.
Freud has also argued that repetition is humorous because it frustrates the demand of our conscious reason for advancement. As in all the works this study examines, the humor results in a very dark comedy of manners that elicits laughter at the absurdity that serves for life in the social world of the modern novel. Without hearing this chorus we cannot understand the drama as a whole. C h ap t e r 1 Comedy Theory, the Social Novel, and Freud A sense of humor develops in a society to the degree that its members are simultaneously conscious of being each a unique person and of being all in common subjection to unalterable laws.
Bergson is interested in gesture and the social manners that people adopt when playing a role in society, roles that too often become rigid and mechanical.
Bergson follows in a long tradition of philosophers—from Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero onwards—who described comedy as the humorous representation of inferior people and who held that humor arises from delight in witnessing the suffering of other people. His use of the jack-in-the-box to examine the humor found in mechanical repetition is telling. The child finds the mechanized inhumanity of the toy humorous as it pops up again and again, no matter how many times it is crushed back into the box, because it is incongruous with real, living life.
However, Bergson seems not to realize that the child must continually push the jack back down for the toy to repeat its motion. His very participation in the activity requires him to adapt to the machine all of this reminds us of the famous I Love Lucy Show episode with the candy on the conveyor belt, not to mention the comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Being in and of society now creates and requires mechanical behavior, and the moral, ethical, and psychological needs of societal members are sacrificed to the functioning of the machine.
This view opens a way for examining a new, darker, form of social satire that moves away from corrective critique and the comfort of stable values. He finds that the successful integration of the individual into society becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, and that there are only momentary triumphs through laughter. The loss of faith Polhemus discusses extends to all social and personal constructs in the twentieth century and defines the literature of Postmodernism.
However, the literature of the interwar years also is full of characters struggling not only to find a stable role in society that corresponds to ideas of an authentic self but with the disturbing awareness that a definite, unified self may not even exist. Additionally, in a complex and changing society, there are an increasing number of roles to perform, and they are often conflicting and unstable. Conversely, adaptability frequently results in a confusion of self-identity that can prove costly, resulting in madness or even death, as is the case with Septimus in Mrs.
And when Ivy Compton-Burnett was writing the critics focused on the crimes and cruelty of her characters rather than her savagely funny unmasking of the brutality of the patriarchal Victorian household. Certainly, no one is safe from the scalding wit of Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Woolf takes great pleasure in mocking the pinched intellect of the poor Miss Kilman. However, it is a fact that women have lived with these social realities for centuries, and I also would argue that women have a long and thorough acquaintance with the dark comedic muse, which has historically been ignored.
Women, as Barreca notes, have always been funny, and, as Helene Cixious describes, they have been violently funny, and they have long engaged in a dark form of comedy that has enabled them to defend themselves against an oppressive social order. Auden and V. He is correct that particularly in the twentieth century, American humor does indeed seem outraged, and it is typically discussed as a reaction to the disorientation and uncertainty generated by a badly disintegrated American dream.
Play is therefore of the greatest importance and the deepest significance, and the joke, a literary form with origins in childhood play and in unconscious mechanisms, is equally important. Just as dreams are purposeful in playing with the real in a nonphysical reality, so are jokes, and both defend the individual from repression, inhibitions, and other forces that threaten the ego. In Jokes, Freud finds all forms of the comic rooted in play, and humor is the victory of pleasure and play over the most threatening aspects of reality.
Thus, the joke-work involved in both the creation and appreciation of this grim form of humor cannot be separated from the historically specific moment. If the man were being freed rather than led to the gallows, the statement might retain a trace of humor in its understatement, but it would cease to be darkly humorous in that it does not challenge the hostility of external reality with a response that runs counter to the expected expression of emotion.
The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure. What does it matter, after all, if a fellow like me is hanged? The teller of the joke may make himself the object of the joke, but this does not essentially change the way the joke-work functions. The teller treats himself with the same kind of distance he would treat any object of his joke, disassociating himself from his own experience in order to arrive at a humorous appraisal of the situation, the pleasure of which both the teller and hearer share.
This is where the humor is perhaps the most unsettling, as is, for instance, the death of Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies. But throughout these works the narrator insists on viewing the lives of the characters with the comic distance that allows them to be laughed at; whether overt or implied, the narrator functions as the teller of the joke, colluding humorously with the reader and refusing to assess serious situations seriously. Because of the comedic narrative stance of the texts, the works resist being overwhelmed by the events they present, and the reader is saved from the trauma of a painful affective response.
Darkly humorous novels do precisely the same thing; they rearrange what is typically tragic material and present it in a comical way. Thematic or plot characteristics that have been used to define dark humor are not funny in themselves but are made funny by being subjected to the processes of humor.
Reliance on caricature, subjecting people, things, and events to comic and even grotesque distortion, an almost maniacal celebration of nonsense, ineffectual protagonists, and other characteristics so often present in darkly humorous novels can all be seen as participating in the process of joke-work rather than simply being viewed as features that make comedy different from tragedy or functioning solely within the service of satiric correction of behavior. Freud begins his analysis in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious with an examination of the techniques of joke-work.
Like dream-work, the major features of the joking process are condensation and displacement, but unlike dreams jokes foreground these characteristics. Condensation, for Freud, means that the material to be processed experiences a startling compression in which more than one idea of representation is condensed into a single idea. It may even actually say what it has to say by not saying it. Displacement is particularly important in dark humor, because the content in these texts is very often disturbing, threatening, or violent, and in order for them to remain funny the reader cannot have the expected reaction to events.
Freud divides jokes into two groups: Even a brief examination of these two categories reveals that jokes and humor are more complicated than these categories allow for. These two observations prompt Freud to qualify his division of jokes into the two categories of innocent and hostile, and lead him to conclusions that are important for the examination of dark humor: However, if we are unsure what we are laughing at, humor is therefore deeply ambivalent and, more importantly for the purposes of dark humor, not particularly socially useful.
A joke, Freud explains, is the celebration of irrationality that serves rational purposes, a return to the childhood pleasures of play that helps preserve the sanity of the adult. Though some jokes may seem innocent or even nonsensical, they are really subversive and anarchic in that they promote thought which reason cannot use: Like tendentious jokes, dark humor allows for rebellion against oppressive circumstances and liberation from pressure. Though pleasure does momentarily triumph over pain, the reality of the victim is never denied, as Freud makes clear in the numerous Jewish jokes that run throughout Jokes.
The symbolic action of the joke does not deny the real conditions of oppression but simply finds a way of adapting to conditions while maintaining an acute awareness of them. He indicates that this dark species of humor is diverse and always changing, suggesting that it can only really be examined within its historical context: However, some critics have charged that making horrible events merely the object of laughter creates social satires that effectively end up reinforcing the values and beliefs of a society that has victimized its members.
Eagleton suggests that the social comedies of the upper-class novels present the reader with the view that society is a game, and the uncommitted satire of Mrs. The satire is most definitely uncommitted, and that is precisely the point. The novels in this study capture an aspect of society that, for the most part, no longer exists. Even though Wodehouse began writing early in the century, he continued to write about the decades between the wars well into the s, and in these novels upper-class society of the s and s is frozen in time and blissfully untouched by the turmoil of the era.
Social comedy tends to be aristocratic, but the works in this study also are deeply affected by their historical moment, and, though their social milieu is rather enclosed and elitist, they directly engage the concerns with violence, alienation, fragmentation, and disintegration.
Indeed, the fact that their specific social world is no longer relevant or even present in British life attests to the anxiety of loss and confusion present in the novels. When an individual functioning within the social structure is made redundant, the effect is deeply traumatic, whether that individual is an aristocratic, a returning war veteran, or a factory worker.
Of course, some would argue that the loss of the social world represented in these novels is no great one, and the novels themselves seem anxiously aware of this.
However, this awareness does nothing to alleviate the sense of existential unease and only heightens feelings of meaninglessness and isolation within the works.
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All the novels studied here are concerned with how people can give meaning to their existence in the absence of traditional structures.
However, the inability of all social systems to address the needs of the complex individuals who compose them is inherent in civilized life. However, happiness is fleeting, and even when we find pleasure in situations, it wanes after a certain length of time. The capacity for unhappiness is limitless, though, and Freud suggests we are threatened with suffering from three directions: The comedic and the religious are the only views of the world that admit irreconcilables to exist in tension.
For the most part, it is better to be humble rather than arrogant, tolerant rather than bigoted, and generous rather than mean. However, in the modern world, there appears to be no stable correspondences to these values, and they become largely a matter of perspective.
Because of this, the actions of even the best-intentioned characters frequently result in horror or death and morally ambivalent characters are blown from disaster to fortune by arbitrary winds, offering no connection between actions, attitudes, and end results. This has often resulted in dark comedic novels being labeled amoral, but designations of this sort are beside the point.
Dark humor, like the carnivalesque, valorizes the subversion of authority, and this of course means political, religious, moral, and rhetorical authority, as well as even the idea of authority itself.
To the sudden flow of mirth, it adds comic structure. The novel has often been described as a form that reflects society and shows us ourselves, and reflective devices have always been central in theories and myths of narcissism.
The metaphor of the mirror, important in such works of criticism as M. They insist on confronting the violence and confusion of the twentieth century and reflect it back to us, and, with astonishing creative tension, assert the pleasure of humor. In doing so it undermines the law. It makes us feel the uneasiness of living under a law—any law. Umberto Eco Virginia Woolf thought that her reputation might well rest on her satiric sensibilities and that she would be remembered merely for being a humorist, and in most of her writing her satirical impulses are evident.
However, Woolf was also aware of the importance of humor as a coping device, and in both her life and her fiction, she often greeted injustice, madness, violence, and death with a grimly humorous attitude. In Mrs. Socially constructed categories and the values underpinning them, springing from ideas of order and the belief in rational progress for the future, no longer appear viable when confronted with the realities of a cruelly irrational, postwar world. Societal institutions are paradoxically shown to impose too much order and not enough—too much in that they do violence to individuals in the interest of the status quo and a slavish adherence to rules—and too little in that they cannot truly fulfill their functions since they are incapable of dealing with the complexities of human behavior.
Dalloway the negotiation of the social system is often comical, even while it is set against the backdrop of madness, death, and war. The wishes and desires of men [sic] have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside exacting and ruthless morality. And in our days it has been said in forceful and stirring sentences that this morality is only a selfish regulation laid down by the few who are rich and powerful and who can satisfy their wishes at any time without any postponement.
So long as the art of healing has not gone further in making our life safe and so long as social arrangements do no more to make it more enjoyable, so long will it be impossible to stifle the voice within us that rebels against the demands of morality.
This is where the power of the comic is most salutary: Dalloway is the one novel in which woolf: Clarissa and Septimus have both done what was expected of them, yet remain isolated and alienated from that society which has imposed patterns of behavior on them: It rasped her.
For, of course, Woolf herself was familiar with both responses to the trauma of violence and oppression. Her sense of comedy allows her to carry on and create pleasure in a dark and threatening world.
Septimus, too, is aware of the death and the horror of isolation, and his madness is another expression of the determination to preserve his autonomous self. She felt glad he had done it.
Their wit evolves into an essential strategy for survival. Using the daily events and customary activities of the family as fodder, The Hyde Park Gate News is ruthlessly satirical.
As does Mrs. The concern with catching a cold on the way to a hanging brings into sharp comic relief the death sentence under which we all exist and dramatically calls into question the meaning and usefulness of any activity. As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship. Sir William had a friend in Surrey where they taught, what Sir William frankly admitted was a difficult art—a sense of proportion. There were, moreover, family affection; honour; courage; and a brilliant career.
All of these had in Sir William a resolute champion. If they failed him, he had to support police and the good of society, which, he remarked very quietly, would take care, down in Surrey, that these unsocial impulses, bred more than anything by the lack of good blood, were held in control. With this narrative technique, she ridicules social conventions when they are taken as essentially meaningful and used to define and circumscribe individual lives.
Dalloway—and her social world is mocked by Woolf for its pretension and hypocrisy. With comic vengeance, Woolf reveals the disparity between the reputations many of the characters have within the world of the novel and their actions and motivations as revealed by the narrator.
The most obvious targets of attack—Sir William Bradshaw and Lady Bruton— represent social norms at their most oppressive: The worship of silver and gold by Sir and Lady Bradshaw appears almost biblical as they hypocritically use the medical profession in their pursuit of power and wealth just as woolf: For often Sir William would travel sixty miles or more down into the country to visit the rich, the afflicted, who could afford the very large fee which Sir William very properly charged for his advice.
Her ladyship waited with the rugs about her knees an hour or more, leaning back, thinking sometimes of the patients, sometimes, excusably, of the wall of gold, mounting minute by minute while she waited.
Woolf does not give us a happy ending, but instead, the narrative suggests only a way of negotiating the world and a comic perspective on the trivial and the traumatic, the earnest and the insincere. As in all satire, there is an ethical norm in Mrs. Dalloway—though it is not prescriptive and is profoundly ambivalent—and the reader recognizes it or there would be no opportunity for humor.
As I have argued, much of the humor originates in the satiric observations of an informed and mocking narrator and relies on the collusion between that narrator and the reader.
Though Woolf presents characters who are obvious targets of attack, even her sympathetic characters are mocked. She simultaneously grants us enough distance to laugh at these characters and also reveals their most private internal thoughts, so we often find ourselves laughing at characters we identify and even sympathize with.
Throughout Mrs. Dalloway customs, courtesies, and manners form the pivot of the comedy, and unthinking adherence to them becomes the object of her attack; anything can create this lack of knowledge—self-delusion, social illusion, stupidity, pride, or merely the passage of time.
Clarissa is frequently mocked for her unknowing, but other characters, such as Hugh Whitbread and Peter Walsh, are also shown to either misunderstand or be unaware of their own motivations. Clarissa is a part of society, though she feels alienated from it, and, despite the fact that she resists being overwhelmed and defined by her woolf: Though Clarissa is kind and generous to her servants and she prides herself for her enlightened relationship with them, her attitude toward them is defined by hierarchical class distinctions.
When her maid Lucy had to miss the end of a play the night before because her companions were required to return to their employers before ten, Clarissa expresses sympathy for her spoilt evening, but the narrator breaks in to add: The rest of the episode maintains this ironic view of Clarissa, as it wryly questions her generosity in sending Lucy off with the present of a cushion for the cook, Mrs. As in most dark humor, the psychological safety of the purely satiric stance is violated: Clarissa is ambiguously a vacuous lady of fashion and a complicated skeptic, standing at the top of the stairs and bravely maintaining her selfhood, and we simultaneously laugh at her and with her.
Both ambiguity and simultaneity are important to dark humor, because they keep the reader off balance and prevent them from making a useful moral judgment of the characters. Dark humor laughs at the very norms that would enable a moral judgment and suggests with grim pleasure that because they are created by human beings, who are generally unable to know or understand their own motivations and sink into greed and tyranny with alarming ease, there is really no hope for the betterment of society.
Social satire in the twentieth century tends toward dark humor because lurking behind all the fun is the sneaking suspicion that society and its constructions, which are usually hierarchical, unjust, and deforming to individual subjectivity, are all there is, and underpinning them is the finality of death.
Thus, the satire in Mrs. Dalloway is dark comedy not only because the humor is juxtaposed against madness, death, and the effects of war but also because beneath all of this is the unsettling belief that the notion of the rational progress of history is merely illusion. Septimus commits suicide and Clarissa remains fundamentally isolated. Though we first meet Clarissa plunging into life, there is a sense of danger and apprehension accompanying her at all times.
Instead she turns to life and the rather trivial things that make it up. Dalloway, and both the narrator and Clarissa either dismiss or ironize any belief in God or an afterlife. Therefore, the laughter of dark comedy lacks the untroubled simplicity and unshaken self-confidence of traditional social satire, and the grim comic spirit of the twentieth century takes nothing entirely seriously nor entirely lightly.
But often now this body she wore she stopped to look at a Dutch picture , this body, with all its capacities seemed nothing—nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more, this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway. Creating parity between what has been seen as trivial and important has implications for both dark humor and feminist humor.
As Barreca has argued, it is generally men who have decided what is trivial and what is important, and the fact that many women woolf: Yet it is the masculine values that prevail.
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in the drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
The dark humor has probably been overlooked for the same reasons the subversive nature of her feminism was for so long. One of the earliest examples of its usage comes after Clarissa has been informed that her husband will be lunching with Lady Bruton and that she was not invited. But I too, she thought, and, taking up her needle, summoned, like a Queen whose guards have fallen asleep and left her unprotected she had been quite taken aback by this visit—it had upset her so that any one can stroll in and have a look at her where she lies with the brambles curving over her, summoned to her help the things she did; the things she liked; her husband; Elizabeth; her self, in short, which Peter hardly knew now, all to come about her and beat off the enemy.
Woolf further accomplishes this by trivializing the professional and political world dominated by men. But he did it extremely efficiently. As he stares at the statue of the Duke of Cambridge, he identifies with the icon of nationalism and patriarchy and thinks, the future of civilization lies in the hands of young men like that; of young men such as he was, thirty years ago; with their love of abstract principles; getting books sent out to them all the way from London to a peak in the Himalayas; reading science; reading philosophy.
The future lies in the hands of young men like that, he thought. Women are usually the victims because they have not had a hand in their own definitions. And it was a tricky business to laugh at males who share those conditions. Depending on the period and milieu producing a text, differences [between male and female comedy] can shade into similarities and vice versa, and the lines of demarcation are not always sharply drawn.
The great tragedy that informs all the action in Mrs. Though Woolf would write eloquently about her feminist-pacifist position in Three Guineas, she was noticeably silent about the war while it was raging.
Of course, Woolf was suffering from one of her worst mental breakdowns during the years —16, so perhaps it is no surprise that Mrs.
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Everyone in the novel is victimized by the war, and Woolf writes with authority about the damage on the home front. Her attack on the treatment Septimus receives at woolf: Some case, Sir William was mentioning, lowering his voice.
It had its bearing upon what he was saying about the deferred effects of shell shock. There must be some provision in the Bill. Dalloway the very notion of self-knowledge is questioned, and morality in the postwar world is exposed as being a matter of perspective. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed.
The war has left the living in the difficult position of carrying on in a world where the old values and moral certainties no longer work, and there seems nothing with which to replace them. For one of the most salient themes in the darkly comedic literature of the century is how to live in the ever-present shadow of war.
In dealing with the absurdly irrational climate created by war, they explore the unsolved and irresolvable moral and philosophical enigmas of life in the modern world. Living in the shadow of war is much like living in the shadow of the gallows; one can have a variety of responses, but there is very little to be done about the actual circumstances.
For the most part, the novelists in this study, choose to retain a customary concern with the manners and mores of society—even while they are critical of them and impose comedic order on the chaos and meaninglessness represented in the texts. As stated at the beginning, Woolf is not generally viewed as a practitioner of dark humor; however, Mrs. Dalloway, is an important contribution to the literature of grim humor in the twentieth century. In her presentation of a flawed but humorous protagonist, who is as much a product of the society as a critique of it, her treatment of isolation, death, and violence done to the individual by society, and her reevaluation of culture in the aftermath of a devastating and fruitless war, Woolf engages the issues that will preoccupy the rest of the century, woolf: George Meredith Ivy Compton-Burnett occupies an unusual space in British literary history, for, like many novelists of her generation, her work is deeply influenced by British literary tradition.
At the same time it breaks with that tradition in an attempt to find an aesthetic that more accurately portrays the social and psychological realities of modern life.
However, unlike many of her contemporaries, Compton-Burnett generally has not been viewed as an experimentalist, and her work is rarely examined in the light of Modernist artistic aims. With a condensed, abstract style, ComptonBurnett reveals aesthetic sensibilities influenced by the innovations associated with the more impersonal strains of literary modernism such as those of Ford Maddox Ford, T.
Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis. When an age has ended, you see it as it is. Compton-Burnett trains her gaze at the circumscribed world of the domestic and pointedly uses a precise vocabulary that is at once plainspoken and sophisticatedly understated to expose greed, hypocrisy, and unjust power relations. Her action takes place under strictly controlled circumstances, but its import reaches well beyond the country-house set. In the microcosm of the family Compton-Burnett examines the misuse of power and the misery and violence that result, and her work, though set in a previous historical epoch, suggests the anxiety over the threat of future violence and the increasing distrust of government and those in power that pervades much of the literature of the s.
Maurice Cranston nicely sums up her oeuvre: She depicts a world where power counts above all things, a time when the bourgeoisie is at its moment of ripeness, with the rot already there but the disintegration yet to come; she sees all relations in terms of the family, and the family as an institution based on property; the class war is endemic in her novels, and history unfolds itself at once dialectically and inevitably. The acts of domestic tyranny that seem too sordid for polite exposure are presented without remorse in almost grotesquely stilted language that is grim, glittering, and astoundingly precise.
For Compton-Burnett, the family is the focus of both her plots and all the relationships examined in her novels. For her the family is the central meeting place and model for love, hate, greed, ambition, and real affection. In a characteristic example of a domestic despot defending power excesses in the name of family, Henrietta Ponsonby muses to her brother in Daughters and Sons: What is a little impatience, hastiness—tyranny, if it must be said— compared with real isolation and loneliness?
I am afraid it must be said, and they are a great deal worse. Because of the self-contained and mannered character of the Edwardian household, daughters, younger sons, and dependent relations are unable to protect themselves from tyrannical heads of families except through their intelligence and word play.
When crimes such as murder, adultery, will tampering, or incest are finally revealed, it is done through such a controlled use of language that they frequently appear less shocking than the daily cruelty of the breakfast table.
She is compton-burnett: Indeed, much to the consternation of several of the reviewers of her early books, villains and tyrants in Compton-Burnett novels are rarely punished, and in the end power relationships remain much as they were at the beginning of the works.
Though this is also true at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, Compton-Burnett is more disturbingly ambivalent, and there is no ethical norm to be found. Her dark comedy is beyond good and evil, and it exposes the arbitrariness of those categories. Such ill-doing may meet with little retribution, may indeed be hardly recognized, and I cannot feel so surprised if people yield to it.
I think it is a literary convention. I think the evidence tends to show that crime on the whole pays. As in Mrs. Dalloway, there is no one view the reader is asked to adopt, and, although her domestic tyrants are shocking in their despotism, the victims can be equally vicious in their response and in their treatment of those more powerless than they.
Compton-Burnett has stated in several interviews that her tyrants never seem to her as monstrous as they seem to others, and she attempts to show in her fiction that most people are capable of cruelty when they feel threatened and of yielding to strong temptation if there is no risk of being found out.
The melodramatic aspects of her plots—the family secrets of incest, illegitimacy, and the occasional murder—do not serve a didactic function as much as they suggest the instability of personality. And if, as sometimes happens, the revelation was untrue or events take another turn, they must once again redefine themselves in accordance with their former role, all of which involves a rather large degree of psychological trauma.
Briefly, the complicated plot revolves around the towering ego of the head of the household, Duncan Edgeworth, who after shortening the life of his first wife with his bullying, is left with his two daughters, Nance and Sibyl, and his nephew Grant, who has been groomed to take over the estate. Duncan soon marries Alison, a young woman thirtynine years younger than he.
Alison, chaffing under the despotism of Duncan, runs off with Almeric Bode, a young man from the village. He is a patriarch whose family belongs to him in much the same way his estate does, and he uses his family merely as instruments for his happiness, which rests on retaining his power as head of the household for as long as he can. Her egoists demand respect, credit for virtue and glories of civilized society, power, eternal life, adoration, and love.
The many levels of their egoism creates desires that conflict within themselves, but they also find themselves living in a world with other egoists so every encounter becomes a battle of wills. His behavior, like that of all the characters in the novel, is of course defined by the economic and power hierarchies that create the Victorian household.
Their scale of values, their ambitions and ideas for the future, their attitude to other people and themselves. Though Duncan has played more than a small role in the death of his first wife, he feels her loss acutely because there is one fewer person in the household to dominate. Duncan rules supreme at the family dining table, and his insistence that every family member be present at family meals, despite the tension and discomfort he creates, extends to his obviously ill wife Ellen.
The first fifty pages of the novel are devoted to the activities of this one day, and, in doing this, Compton-Burnett not only fully reveals the relationships among the family members but also adroitly establishes the links between social and religious authority that create and sustain those relationships. Ellen, it appears, is not worthy of a response without an audience present, so he ignores her question twice and then once again after she rephrases her query: Unwilling to allow them any defense, Duncan finally responds to his wife, pouncing on every word she says and twisting her every sentiment until she grows quiet.
At the beginning, her questions are not even acknowledged, and throughout the conversation she is less and less able to respond to Duncan. The mornings are getting dark! Do you mean they are so sunk in lethargy and self-indulgence, that they need a strong light to force them to raise their heads from their pillows? Is that what you mean? Though incest is never explicitly acknowledged, early in the novel, after the miserable Christmas morning breakfast, there is an exchange between Sibyl and her cousin Grant that hints of something sinister in her relationship with Duncan: I have known his look for me all my life.
Aggressive word play is the only defense in this household and those unable to use it meet with the most unfortunate ends; Ellen dies and the unstable Sibyl instigates the murder of an infant.
Sibyl, can you tell me what Day it is? Duncan simply turned from him. You asked for it. They are able to fend off compton-burnett: Duncan pretentiously claims responsibility for the moral instruction of his wards: I would not face the consequences of doing otherwise. That is why I asked somebody else.
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Indeed, I would argue that the significance of her oft-discussed, condensed style lies in its ability to represent the darkly funny battle between those who use language to bludgeon others into submission and those who use it as self-defense. Had these statements been explained thoroughly to Duncan there would be nothing humorous in the exchange; however, her economy of language makes the response witty and humorous.
The condensation in Compton-Burnett makes for brittle, caustic— but humorous—dialogue and a subterranean violence that requires a certain vigilance on the part of the reader. In dark humor satires, sentimentality is an ally of injustice and oppression, making individuals feel complacent and self-satisfied and prohibiting a defensive gesture. Condensation is an important aspect to the defensive and assertive nature of jokes because it allows for the expression of suppressed or prohibited thoughts without their having to be openly stated.
The anger and resentment felt by Duncan and Grant respectively are evident in the artfully condensed dialogue; however, no insults or invectives are exchanged, for their utterance would trespass against the rules of decorous, country-house culture.
The insult must therefore, it would seem, be swallowed in silence. But as Freud suggests and Compton-Burnett shows, the humor does not significantly alter power hierarchies, nor does it lead to the overthrow of the person in the exalted position, but it does provide for the self-defense of those lacking power and provides them a way of refusing to be silenced, succumbing to vaguely defined illnesses, or losing their grip on reality. As I have argued in chapter 1, the social satire in novels employing dark humor is not ameliorative, and all is not well nor does it end well.
Dark humor tends toward the distopian; it reveals the unjust and arbitrary nature of societal power structures, but it does not suggest that these structures, with the forces of tradition and economic privilege to sustain them, will be dismantled anytime soon—or, even if they were, that something better would replace them.
Dark humor only offers the humorous defiance of those who wield power and the institutions that support them.
The 15 best comedy books of all time. In many ways, one of the most influential novels — as far as it can be described as a novel — of all time. An infinity of digressions is turned into a fine comic art form, and Sterne seems to invent postmodernism years before anyone else gets there. It was originally written for Punch. Both a work of comic delight, following the titular three friends as they sail down the Thames, as well as an evocation of willow-trailed waters and grassgreen river banks.
It still touches those essential nerves: But Benson was fondly forgiving of his comic monsters and their friends. Buy Queen Lucia from the Telegraph Bookshop. That rare thing: This earthy saga of Sussex rural life with Ada Doom, and the Starkadders including the lustful Seth, and the Church of the Quivering Brethren as experienced by the year-old outsider Flora Poste continues to appeal to fresh generations.
Notable not least becauseWaugh was horrified by its success in America, this is a satirical, sick tale of English poets and the American death industry, as represented by the Happy Glades cemetery and the mortician Mr Joyboy.
Buy Molesworth from the Telegraph Bookshop. Still beloved for its set-pieces: Jim Dixon forced to endure an afternoon of madrigal singing, an occasion when drink is seemingly the only answer.
Buy Lucky Jim from the Telegraph Bookshop. As the country is divided between north and south, the village is absurdly cut in half, leading to chaos, satirical points and a feast of Joycean jokes. Buy Puckoon from the Telegraph Bookshop.