Humor's Place in the 20th Century Novel
In her essay, “The Beautiful and Sublime Revisited,” Iris Murdoch says:
The modern novel, the serious novel, does tend toward either two extremes: either it is a tight metaphysical object, which wishes it were a poem, and which attempts to convey, often in mythical form, some central truth about the human condition or else it is a loose journalistic epic, documentary or possibly even didactic in inspiration, offering a commentary on current institutions or on some matter out of history (264).
Murdoch’s words do hold some truth in them. Certainly, her words can be applied to many of the most well-known modern novels from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. However, her descriptions can just as easily be applied to the post modern novel. Though seriousness has generally been associated with modern literature, it is an aspect of post modern literature, as well. However, unlike most works of modern literature, the post modern novel does not focus solely on this seriousness, or on passing along a message of some sort. Rather, it strikes a delicate balance between humor and seriousness; between laughter and conveying “some central truth about the human condition” or “offering a commentary on…some matter out of history.”
Before I elaborate further, perhaps it is necessary to make a distinction between the terms “modern” and “post modern” as they will be used in this study. In the most general sense of the word, “modern” refers to those writings published before and during World War II, while “post modern” refers to the works that came after this time period.
Now that this distinction has been made, the issue of humor in modern and post modern literature can be explored further. Later in her essay, Murdoch asserts that “a novel must be a house fit for free characters to live in; and to combine form with a respect for reality with all its odd contingent ways is the highest art of prose (271).” This respect for reality that she writes about includes the idea that humor is a part of reality. Humor should be included in novels because it is as much a part of life as all of the terrible, “serious” things that modern writers focus on.
One way that humor manifests itself differently in modern and post modern literature can be seen in the different ways that these authors portray uncomfortable or embarrassing situations. For example, D.H. Lawrence presents several situations in Women in Love where his characters are in situations that are very uncomfortable. A good example of this is the scene near the end of the novel where Loerke shows his horse statue to Gudrun and Ursula. While Gudrun is busy admiring Loerke’s statue, Ursula speaks up and questions the artistic merit of the object by saying things like, “It is a picture of a horse, nevertheless (430).” This statement and others like it are met with contempt from Gudrun and Loerke, which leaves Ursula...