Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (I)

Character:            The qualities that define or sum up an person in a text.
         There are three fundamental methods of characterization:  (1) the explicit presentation by the author of the character through direct exposition, either in an introductory block or more often piecemeal throughout the work, illustrated by action; (2) the presentation of the character in action, with little or no explicit comment by the author, in the expectation that the reader can deduce the attributes of the actor from the actions; and (3) the representation from within a character, without comment by the author, of the impact of actions and emotions on the character's inner self.
         Regardless of the method by which a character is presented, the author may concentrate on a dominate trait to the exclusion of other aspects of personality, or the author may attempt to present a fully rounded creation.  If the presentation of a single dominate trait is carried to an extreme, not a believable character but a caricature will result. . . .  On the other hand, the author may present so convincing a congeries of personality traits that a complex rather than a simple character emerges; such a character is three-dimensional or, in E.M. Forster's term, "round" . . . .

         Furthermore, a character may be either static or dynamic.  A static character is one who changes little if at all.  Things happen to such a character rather than showing the character changing in response to the actions. . . .  A dynamic character, on the other hand, is one who is modified by actions and experiences, and one objective of the work in which the character appears is to reveal the consequences of these actions.

Comedy:  Any work, particularly a work of drama which is marked by a happy ending and a less exalted style than than in tragedy.  It seeks to depict the ludicrous--that which makes people laugh--by a vareity of means, and seldom is concerned to appear "real."  Indeed, though its style and methods, a comedy often clearly implies, "This isn't true.  It's only funny." 

Exaggeration:            When an object or person or situation is made to seem extremely large or small in relationship to its true size or importance.

Incongruity:  "When.. . a particular movement is perceived, the impulsion is given to forming an idea of it by means of a certain expenditure of energy.  In >trying to understand=, therefore, in apperceiving this movement, I make a certain expenditure, and in this portion of the mental process I behave exactly as though I were putting myself in the place of the person I am observing.  But at the same moment, probably, I bear in mind the aim of this movement, and my earlier experience enables me to estimate the scale of expenditure required for reaching that aim. . . .  If the other person=s movement is exaggerated and inexpedient, my increased expenditure in order to understand it is inhibited, as it were in the act of being mobilized; it is declared superfluous and is free for use elsewhere or perhaps for discharge by laughter. . . .  Thus a uniform explanation is provided of the fact that a person appears comic to us if, in comparison with ourselves, he makes too great an expenditure on his bodily functions and too little on his mental ones; and it cannot be denied that in both these cases our laughter expresses a pleasurable sense of the superiority which we feel in relation to him.  If the relation in the two cases is reversedBif the other person=s physical expenditure is found to be less than ours or his mental expenditure greaterBthen we no longer laugh, we are filled with astonishment and admiration.@ B Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

Mock Epic:            a form that burlesques the epic by treating a trevial subject in the grand style or uses the epic formulas to make a trivial subject by ludricrously overstating it.  A successful mock epic has a clear effect:  to ridicule trivial or silly conduct; to mock the pretensions and absurdities of epic proper; to bestow on affectionate measure of elevation on low or foolish characters; and to bestow a humanizing, deflating, or bebunking measure on elevated characters.

Plot:  The events or actions which take place in a text presented in the order in which they are revealed in the text.  The plot always has a forward progress:  it begins at the beginning, it has a middle, and it ends with an ending.  The text need not present these in this order, but, for a plot to exist, all must be in the text.  To present evidence of the plot, one must present an accurate summary of all its parts.

 


Point of View:            The vantage point from which an author presents a story.  If the author serves as a seemingly all-knowing maker, the points of view is called omniscient.  At the other extreme, a character in the story--major, minor, or marginal--may tell the story as he or she experienced it.  Such a character is usually called a first-person narrator; if the character does not comprehend the implications of what is told, the character is called a naive narrator.  The author may tell the story in the third person and yet present it as it is seen and understood by a single character, restricting information to what that character sees, hears, feels, and thinks; such a point of view is said to be limited.  The author may employ such a point of view and restrict the presentation to the interior responses of the point of view character, resulting in the interior monologue.,  The author may present material by a process of narrative exposition in which actions and conversation are presented in summary rather than in detail; this method is called panoramic.  On the other hand, the author may present actions and conversations in detail, as they occur, and more or less objectively--without authorial comment; such a method is usually called scenic.  If the author never speaks in his or her own person and does not obviously intrude, the author is said to be self-effacing.  In extended works, authors frequently employ several methods. . . .

 Setting:  The places and historical times in which the actions of a text are said to take place.  They may be general, highly specific, or both. 

 


 Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (II)

 Imagery:            a pattern of visual pictures, often implanted in a text without the conscious awareness of the author, which can point to insights beyond the plot.  The key aspects of imagery are that it must suggest something comprehended by the senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste) and it must be repeated at various points in the text.

Incongruity:  The linking together of two incompatible items into a single unit, forcing an awareness of the difference between the two items.  Freud saw incongruity as essential the production of humor.  He writes, "When.. . a particular movement is perceived, the impulsion is given to forming an idea of it by means of a certain expenditure of energy.  In >trying to understand=, therefore, in apperceiving this movement, I make a certain expenditure, and in this portion of the mental process I behave exactly as though I were putting myself in the place of the person I am observing.  But at the same moment, probably, I bear in mind the aim of this movement, and my earlier experience enables me to estimate the scale of expenditure required for reaching that aim. . . .  If the other person=s movement is exaggerated and inexpedient, my increased expenditure in order to understand it is inhibited, as it were in the act of being mobilized; it is declared superfluous and is free for use elsewhere or perhaps for discharge by laughter. . . .  Thus a uniform explanation is provided of the fact that a person appears comic to us if, in comparison with ourselves, he makes too great an expenditure on his bodily functions and too little on his mental ones; and it cannot be denied that in both these cases our laughter expresses a pleasurable sense of the superiority which we feel in relation to him.  If the relation in the two cases is reversedBif the other person=s physical expenditure is found to be less than ours or his mental expenditure greaterBthen we no longer laugh, we are filled with astonishment and admiration.@ B Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

Initiation Story:  Any narrative that centers on a character's movement from ignorance about life or some aspect of life to knowledge about life or some aspect of life.  Usually, it involves a character giving up or having taken away from childhood illusion about the nature of reality  However, it can also involve a character refusing to give up an illusion or somehow avoiding the acceptance of knowledge presented to him/her.  In American literature, a classic example of initiation stories are many of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories such as "Indian Camp" and "The Battler." 

 


 Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (III)

Evidence:      material from the text that proves the existence of a literary element.  It may take different forms for different literary elements (examples: evidence for plot is a plot summary; evidence for language is a list of specific words), but it always includes documented references to the literary text.

Meaning Statement:            a complete statement about human existence or experience.  It can be universal or specific to groups.  It is not a moral or lesson, but a philosophical idea found in the text, and it is defended by reasons and evidence.

Reasons:        literary elements that support a meaning statement.

Symbol:            A symbol is something that is itself and also stands for something else; as the letters a p p l e form a word that stands for particular objective reality; or as a flag is a piece of colored cloth that stands for country.  All language is symbolic in this sense, and many of the objects we use in daily life are also.
          In a literary sense, a symbol combines a literal and sensuous quality with an abstract or suggestive aspect. . . .  If we consider an image to have a concrete referent in the objective world and to function as an image when it powerfully evokes that referent, then a symbol is like an image in doing the same thing but different from it in going beyond the evoking of the objective referent by making that referent suggest a meaning beyond itself; in other words, a symbol is an image that evokes an objective, concrete reality and prompts that reality to suggest another level of meaning.  The symbol evokes an object that suggests the meaning. . . .
         Literary symbols are of two broad types:  One includes those embodying universal suggestions of meaning, as flowing water suggests time and eternity, a voyage suggests life.  Such symbols are used widely (and sometimes unconsciously) in literature.  The other type of symbol acquires its suggestiveness not from qualities inherent in itself but from the way in which it is used in a given work.  Thus, in Moby Dick the voyage, the land, the ocean are objects pregnant with meanings that seem almost independent of Melville's use of them in his story; on the other hand, the white whale is invested with meaning--and differing meanings for different crew members--through the handling of materials in the novel. . . .

 


Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (IV)

Freud on Jokes:

Since our individual childhood, and, similarly, since the childhood of human civilization, hostile impulses against our fellow men have been subject to the same restrictions, the same progressive repression, as our sexual urges.  We have not yet got so far as to be able to love our enemies or to offer our left check after being struck on the right . . . .  Though as children we are still endowed with a powerful inherited disposition to hostility, we are later taught by a higher personal civilization that it is an unworthy thing to use abusive language; and even where fighting has in itself remained permissible, the number of things which may not be employed as methods of fighting has extraordinarily increased.  Since we have been obliged to renounce the expression of hostility by deeds--held back by the passionless third person in whose interest it is that personal security shall be preserved--we have, just as in the case of sexual aggressiveness, developed a new technique of invective, which aims at enlisting this third person against our enemy.  By making our enemy small, inferior, despicable, or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him--to which the third person who has made no efforts, bears witness by his laughter.
         We are now prepared to realize the part played by jokes in hostile aggressiveness.  A joke will allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy which we could not, on account of obstacles in the way, bring forward openly or consciously; once again, then, the joke will evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible.  It will further bribe the hearer with its yield of pleasure into taking sides with us without any very close investigation . . . .

We are now able to state the formula for the mode of operation of tendentious [non-innocent] jokes.  They put themselves at the service of purposes in order that, by means of using the pleasure from jokes as a fore-pleasure, they may produce new pleasure by lifting suppressions and repressions.  If now we survey the course of development of the joke, we may say that from its beginning to its perfecting it remains true to its essential nature.  It begins as play, in order to derive pleasure from the free use of words and thoughts.  As soon as the strengthening of reasoning puts an end to this play with words as being senseless, and with thoughts as being nonsensical, it changes into a jest, in order that it may retain these sources of pleasure and be able to achieve fresh pleasure from the liberation of nonsense.  Next, as a joke proper, but still a non-tendentious [innocent] one, it gives its assistance to the thoughts and strengthens them against the challenge of critical judgment, a process in which the 'principle of confusion of sources of pleasure' is of use to it.  And finally it comes to the help of major purposes which are combating suppression, in order to lift their internal inhibitions by the 'principle of fore-pleasure'.  Reason, critical judgment, suppression--these are the forces against which it fights in succession; it holds fast to the original sources of verbal pleasure and, from the stage or the jest onwards, opens new sources of pleasure for itself by lifting inhibitions. 

--From Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

 

Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (VI)

 

Allusion:         A figure of speech that makes brief reference to a historical or literary figure, event, or object.  Strictly speaking, allusion is always indirect.  It seeks, by tapping the knowledge and memory of the reader, to secure a resonant emotional effect from the associations already existing in the reader's mind.   An example can be seen in this sentence:  “She was a subtle as Attila the Hun.”  Here, “Attila the Hun” is the allusion since he is a historical figure.  If the reader knows who Attila was and that he was known for his bold, obvious attacks, the reader would recognize the phrase as ironic.

 

Goniff:  a Yiddish term that refers to a thief, crook, or unscrupulous person.  Often this person serves as a Trickster figure in Jewish humor.

 

Imagery:         a pattern of visual pictures, often implanted in a text without the conscious awareness of the author, which can point to insights beyond the plot.  The key aspects of imagery are that it must suggest something comprehended by the senses (sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste) and it must be repeated at various points in the text.  Today, critics use the term “imagery” to mean figurative language, especially metaphor.  Figurative language is the conscious departure from normal or conventional ways of saying things.  For more information on imagery, see pages 90-93 in the Griffith text for this course.

 

Obscenity:      in terms of humor analysis, this is a humor type that involves not only “profane” or “dirty” language but also acts of violation against holy or divine rules and practices.

 

Self-Mockery:            a humor type in which a character or narrator uses humor against himself or herself, most often as a pre-emptive strike avoiding more serious attacks from enemies or as a way of belittling his or her real troubles by seeming not to take the matters seriously. 

 

Trickster:  a character type often seen in ethnic writing.  The trickster is always a figure who do what his name suggests:  trick others for his own advantage.  This is often done by disguising his own intelligence or common sense and making his opponent believe that he is superior to the Trickster.  Humor writers are generally kind to Trickster figures, admiring their skill and wit, but they also frequently note that the work of Tricksters leads to misfortunes for others if not for the Trickster himself.

 

         Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (VII):  Jewish Humor, A Few Thoughts and Definitions

 

There was nothing jolly and hilarious about the destitution that lay like a curse on millions of Jews in the Yiddish-speaking world; and it would be grotesque to speak of Sholom Aleichem=s and Mendele=s kaptsonim (paupers) and evyonim (indigents) as Apoor and happy.@  There were miserable, and they knew it; but the question that haunts us historically is, why did they not disintegrate intellectually and morally?  How were they able, under hideous oppression and corroding privation, under continuous starvationBthe tail of a herring was a dishBto keep alive against a better day the spirit originally breathed into man?  The answer lies in the self-mockery by which they rose above their condition to see afar off the hope of the future. B Maurice Samuel, In Praise of Yiddish

 

Jewish humor typically drains the charge of cosmic significance from suffering by grounding it in a world of homey practical realities.  "If you want to forget all your troubles," runs another Yiddish proverb, "put on a shoe that's too tight."  The point is not only in the "message" of the saying, that a present pain puts others out of mind, but also in its formulation:  Weltschmerz begins to seem preposterous when one is wincing over crushed bunions.  In the tradition of Jewish humor suffering is understandably imagined as inevitable, it is also conceived as incongruous with dignity--thus the sufferer is at least faintly ridiculous. . . .  The perception of incongruity implies the perception or alternate possibilities, humor peeking beyond the beleaguered present toward another kind of man and another kind of time; for the very aura of ridicule suggests that it is not, after all, fitting for a man to be this pitiful creature with a blade of anguish in his heart and both feet entangled in a clanking chain of calamities. -- Robert Alter, "Jewish Humor and The Domestication of Myth"

 

In the Yiddish joke, the schlemiel is usually portrayed as a character plagued by an ill luck that is somehow of his own making.  What the jokes celebrate--for all their pretense to comic pratfall and situational farce--is the value of "life" over the illusions of man-made follies. -- Sanford Pinsker, The Schlemiel as Metaphor

 

Definitions of Yiddish terms:

schnorrer:    a panhandler, beggar, moocher.

schlemiel (or shlemiel):    a bungler, fumbler, life screw up, unlucky.

schlimazel (or shlimazel):            a victim, even more unlucky than the schlemiel since the schlimazel is the one fumbled on by the schlemiel, always in the wrong place at the wrong time (example:  The schlemiel is the water who always spills the soup.  The schlimazel is the customer who inevitably gets the soup spilled on his/her new suit).

 

"Gimpel the Fool" in Historical Context:

Many witnesses and survivors [of the Holocaust] have alleged that . . . it was their faith in "mankind" and the in the "world" that betrayed the Jews.  If this is so, then we can accept "Gimpel the Fool" as a story written not in spite of, but because of, Singer's awareness of the Holocaust.  If worldliness is indeed the gullibility that disbelieves everything, then this is the most intense of all Singer's assaults upon it, for Gimpel is a character who insists on believing everything.  He is sternly indifferent to the voice of common sense, that faculty which, according to Hannah Arendt, was the most fatal of all to the appointed victims of the Holocaust, because it encouraged them "to explain away the intrinsically incredible by means of liberal rationalizations."  If, Gimpel might say, you disbelieve the nations who threaten to remove the Jewish people from the face of the earth, you will disbelieve anything. -- Edward Alexander, Isaac Bashevis Singer:  A Study of His Short Fiction

Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (VIII)
Complicating Character Types:  the Value of Psychological Insights

             The son’s choice of the mother as the object of libidinal desire encounters a sever obstacle—he has competition.  “It is easy to see that the little man wants to have his mother all to himself, that he feels the presence of his father as a nuisance, that he is resentful if his father indulges in any signs of affection towards his mother and that he shows satisfaction when his father has gone on a journey or is absent’ (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis).  This is the basis of the Oedipus complex.  Freud states that the story of King Oedipus, who unknowingly murders his father and marries his mother, resonates with us because it is our own.  “It may be that we were all destined to direct our first sexual impulses toward our mothers, and our first impulses of hatred and violence toward our fathers.”  (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams).  To make the transition to a healthy adult life we must be able to transform these elements of the Oedipus complex.  “For the son this task consists in detaching his libidinal wishes from his mother and employing them for the choice of a real outside love-object, and in reconciling himself with his father if he has remained in opposition to him, or in freeing himself from his pressure if, as a reaction to his infantile rebelliousness, he has become subservient to him.  These tasks are set to everyone; and it is remarkable how seldom they are dealt with in an ideal manner” (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis). 

            The reason we seldom deal with our Oedipal impulses successfully is that we are unaware of these feelings we have held (and hold) toward our parents.  Behind this lack of awareness we find two additional cornerstones of Freudian thought:  repression and the unconscious.  The mind represses, or pushes into the unconscious, certain memories or thoughts in order to avoid the pain they bring with them.  Childhood desire for one’s mother and the desire to kill one’s father certainly qualify as thoughts a person would want to repress.  However, no thought or experience is ever lost, and if these impulses reemerge, they still have the power to create pain.  Therefore, those who enter therapy do not, at first, want to be cured because this requires memory of distressing experiences.  “A man who has gone to the dentist because of an unbearable toothache will nevertheless try to hold the dentist back when he approaches the sick tooth with a pair of forceps” (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis). 

 

Freud states that . . . “[t]he derivation of religious needs from the infants helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to be incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate.  I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection” (Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents).   However, the father is not simply a source of security; he is also wrathful judge.  In the latter role, religion issues commandments and prohibitions that limit our natural inclinations. . . .

 

Because “the root of every form of religion [is] a longing for the father” (Freud, Totem and Taboo), Freud believes the Oedipal complex helps us understand the shape religion takes.  “The hatred of his father that arises in a boy from rivalry for his mother is not able to achieve uninhibited sway over his mind; it has to contend against his old-established affection and admiration for the very same person.  The child finds relief from the conflict arising out of this double-sided, this ambivalent emotional attitude toward his father by displacing his hostile and fearful feelings on a substitute for his father” (Freud, Totem and Taboo). . . .  The fact that the father, represented by God, continues to dominate the life of the religious person reveals, “Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity; like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipal complex, out of the relation to the father” (Freud, Future of an Illusion). 

--Source:  discussion of Freud in Christianity and Western Thought, vol 2, by Steve Wilkens and Alan G. Padget

Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (IX):  Black Humor

Black humor disturbs because it is not necessarily nor always light-hearted, funny, amusing, laughter-arousing. Furthermore, black humor seems to have little respect for the values and patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that have kept Anglo-American culture stable and effective, have provided a basis of equilibrium for society and the individual.  Black humor violates sacred and secular taboos alike without restraint or compunction.  It discovers cause for laughter in what has generally been regarded as too serious for frivolity:  the death of men, the disintegration or social institutions, mental and physical disease, deformity, suffering, anguish, privation and terror.

 

Humor [according to André Breton, French theorist and compiler of Anthologie de l'humour noir] was a means whereby one defended the inner self against the constraints of the human condition, physical and psychological as well as social.  Humor enabled one to transcend the trivial reality in which man is imprisoned by logic, reason, and subjective emotion, freeing him to achieve union with the objective metaphysical Absolute.  Detached by humor from the determinism of the material world and from the culturally determined self, man's dark unconscious could express its metaphysical yearnings and intuitions in the form of untrammelled dream, fantasy, and non-sense.  Hence black humor.

 

Black humor's blackness . . . derives from its rejection of morality and other human codes ensuring earthly pattern and order, from its readiness to joke about the horror, violence, injustice, and death that rouses its indignation, from its avoidance of sentimentality by means of emotional coolness, and from its predilection for surprise and shock. -- Brom Weber, "The Mode of 'Black Humor'"

 

Black humor stops short of any such victory [of life over death].  It enacts no individual release or social reconciliation; it often moves toward, but ordinarily fails to reach, that goal.  Like Shakespeare's dark comedies, black humor condemns man to a dying world; it never envisions, as do Shakespeare's early and late comedies, the possibilities of human escape from an aberrant environment into a forest milieu, as a ritual of the triumph of the green world over the waste land. -- Max F. Schulz, "Toward a Definition of Black Humor"

 

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.  When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock--to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures. -- Flannery O'Connor, "The Fiction Writer and His Country"

 

Character Type:  Grotesques.  The term Agrotesque@ is generally used to name a decorative style in sculpture, painting, and architecture, characterized by fantastic representations of human and animal forms often combined into formal distortions of the natural to the point of absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.  Modern literary critics often use the term to refer to a special type of writing or to kinds of characters.  In this sense, the grotesque can be seen as the merging of the comic and tragic, resulting from our loss of faith in the moral universe.  In American literature, Sherwood Anderson, in his Winesburg, Ohio defined a grotesque character as a person who Atook one of the [many] truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live by it.@  Such a person, Anderson asserted, Abecame a grotesque and the truth he embraced a falsehood.@  In later works, particularly by Southern writers such William Faulkner, Flannery O=Connor, and Eudora Welty, grotesque characters are those who are either physically or spiritually deformed and who perform abnormal actionsBoften to communicate allegorical statements.

 

Greek Comic Form:               a story structure derived from extant comedies written in ancient Greece, especially the plays of Aristophanes.  This form is centered on a debate or argument (an agon) between two character-embodied ideas, with one idea appearing to be far more powerful or likely to win than the other.  However, the weaker argument always wins, and the comedy generally ends with a feast and/or wedding.  Also, the presentation of the agon often involves physical attacks--in Greek comedy, one character often striking another with a huge phallus.

Helpful Terms for Analyzing Humor (X):  Miss Lonelyhearts

I can't do a review of Miss Lonelyhearts, but here, at random, are some of the things I thought when writing it:

As subtitle:  "A novel in the form of a comic strip." The chapters to be squares in which many things happen through one action.  The speeches contained in the conventional balloons.  I abandoned this idea, but retained some of the comic strip technique:  Each chapter instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up, and down in space like a picture.  Violence images are used to illustrate commonplace events.  Violent acts are left almost bald.

 

Forget the epic, the master work.  In America fortunes do not accumulate, the soil does not grow, families have no history.  Leave slow growth to the book reviewers, you only have time to explode.  Remember William Carlos Williams' description of the pioneer women who shot their children against the wilderness like cannonballs.  Do the same with your novels.

 

. . . Miss Lonelyhearts became the portrait of a priest in one time who has a religious experience.  His case is classical and is built on all the cases in James' Varieties of Religious Experience and Starbuck's Psychology of Religion.  The psychology is theirs, not mine. -- Nathanael West, "Some Notes on Miss L."

 

In America violence is idiomatic.  Read our newspapers.  To make the front page a murderer has to use his imagination, he also has to use a particularly hideous instrument.  Take this morning's paper:  FATHER CUTS SON'S THROAT IN BASEBALL ARGUMENT.  It appears on an inside page.  To make the front page, he should have killed three sons and with a baseball bat instead of a knife.  Only liberality and symmetry could have made this daily occurrence interesting. -- Nathanael West, "Some Notes of Violence"

 

Newspapers do, certainly have Miss Lonely hearts columns; but in real life these are written by sensible, not very sensitive, people who conscientiously give the best advice they can, but do not take the woes of the correspondents home with them from the office, people, in fact, like Betty. . . .

 

There are many admirable and extremely funny satirical passages in his books, but West is not a satirist.  Satire presupposes conscience and reason as the judges between the true and the false, the moral and the immoral, to which it appeals, but for West these faculties are themselves the creators of unreality.

 

When, for most people, their work, their company, even their marriages, were determined, not by personal choice or ability, but by the class into which they were born, the individual was less tempted to develop a personal grudge against Fate; his fate was not his own but that of everyone around him.

But the greater the equality of opportunity in a society becomes, the more obvious becomes the inequality of the talent and character among individuals, and the more bitter and personal it must be to fail, particularly for those who have some talent but not enough to win them second or third place.

In societies with fewer opportunities for amusement, it was also easier to tell a mere wish from a real desire.  If, in order to hear some music, a man has to wait for six months and then walk twenty miles, it is easy to tell whether the words, "I should like to hear some music," mean what they appear to mean, or merely, "At this moment I should like to forget myself."  When all he has to do is press a switch, it is more difficult.  He may easily come to believe that wishes can come true.  This is the first symptom of West's Disease; the later symptoms are less pleasant, but nobody who has read Nathanael West can say that he wasn't warned. -- W. H. Auden, "West's Disease"

 


His "particular kind of joking" . . . is a way to saying that the universe is always rigged against us and that our efforts to contend with it invariably lead to absurdity.  This sort of laughter--which, paradoxically, has the most intimate connection with compassion--is rarely heard in American literature, for it is not only anti-"radical" but almost un-American in its refusal to admit the possibility of improvement, amelioration, or cure. -- Norman Podhoretz, "Nathanael West:  A Particular Kind of Joking"

 

The goat-god Pan, half animal and half man in appearance with a face distinguished by a sardonic smile, was a pastoral god of fertility in primitive myth and ritual. Forever playing his flute, or reed pipes, and notoriously ugly, he devoted much of his time to licentious revelry, although, like Dionysus, he was a god of pain and suffering, death and rebirth as well.  As a result of his name and the fertility rites surrounding him, he came to be the personification of Nature and all of paganism.  From the Christian point of view, however, the Pan conception was a satanic carnality.  Christianity denounced his cult, but instead of eliminating it only succeeded in driving his worship underground.  He was discredited, though, for by the age of medieval drama, Pan, one of the horned gods, became the Devil with horns and cloven feet--both devil and buffoon. -- Robert J. Andreach, "Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts Between the Dead Pan and the Unborn Christ"

 

Shrike's name is marvelously apt.  The shrike or butcherbird impales its prey on thorns, and the name is a form of "shriek."  Shrike is of course the mocker who hands Miss Lonelyhearts his crown of thorns, and throughout the book he is a shrieking bird of prey; when not a butcherbird, "a screaming, clumsy gull." -- Stanley Edgar Hyman, Miss Lonelyhearts

 

Pun:                  A play on words based on the similarity of sound between two words with different meanings.  An example is Thomas Hood=s AThey went and told the sexton and the sexton tolled the bell.@  The pun is a humble thing, and many find it trifling or irritating.  Even so, puns are found in the most sublime scriptures (as with Aramaic qalmá, Agnat,@ and galmâ, Acamel,@ in Matthew 23.24) and throughout Shakespeare=s work.  From its earlier low or marginal status, the pun has steadily risen in dignity, to the point of being a main structural principle of Joyce=s Ulysses and Finnegan=s Wake.

 

Travesty:           Writing that by its incongruity of treatment ridicules a subject inherently noble or dignified.  The derivation of the wordBthe same as that of Atransvestite@Bsuggests presenting a subject in a dress intended for another subject.  Travesty usually presents a serious subject frivolously.  It typically ridicules a subject by lowering the style.