Humour In Literature

A literary device or a mask to hide deeper, more tragic undercurrents?

Humour In Literature
Photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash

A literary device or a mask to hide deeper, more tragic undercurrents?

Have you ever read a book that made you laugh so hard, you feared you might roll off the bed and fall to the floor?

In this article, I am going to take you down the lane of humour in literature, and talk about some of the juiciest, most delightful moments covered in books.

I am going to share about how authors so effectively weave their words to give us readers a few laughs — sometimes, because that is the genre their books revolve around, and at others, to make us chuckle in delight before twisting a knife in our belly a couple of chapters down the line.

Wodehouse’s Idyllic World

I remember reading Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse one lazy summer afternoon back in 2006. The author was talking about the mollifying effect Jeeves, the ever-reliable gentleman’s gentleman, with his soothing, magnetic personality had on people.

At least, that is how I, or any other writer, would have described a man who could calm any distressed person down with merely a word.

But Wodehouse is not ‘every other writer’.

The line he used was — and it’s something I still remember crystal clear as if the 13 years that have passed since then are nothing —

To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid-stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.

This hyperbole hit me so hard, I had to keep the book down and laugh until I felt there was no more air left in my lungs. My mother looked on, while my brother, an enthusiastic reader himself, ran up to me, asking me what I was reading so he could start the book when I was done.

Ah, those were the days!

Douglas Adams and His Evergreen Humour

When it comes to humour in literature, can one write an article and not mention Douglas Adams in it? His absurdist science-fiction series The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy is famous all over the world for its hilarious premise and memorable, albeit eccentric characters.

Hidden beneath layers of what could easily be mistaken for simple jokes, his work has given many readers food for thought. Consider this snippet from the first book in the series —

On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.

Of course, it is funny, but it makes one think: what did man achieve by earning so much money, claiming so much territory for himself, fighting so many wars, if, after all this, he ended up compromising on ‘having a good time’?

Jerome’s Dry Wit

Another writer who famously used humour in his work was Jerome K Jerome. After all, what else can one expect, with a title like Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)?

Comedy is a form that grows old quicker than other genres, but Jerome’s masterpiece retains its timeless nature even in the 21st century. Can’t each one of us, even today, relate to this wonderfully-framed line —

The sight of another man asleep in bed when I am up, maddens me.

Or appreciate the humour in this one-liner that is a joke in itself —

Everything has its drawbacks, as the man said when his mother-in-law died, and they came down upon him for the funeral expenses.

Waugh’s Acerbic Wit

Another humourist, Evelyn Waugh, has been widely appreciated for his quick wit and acerbic language dripping generously with sarcasm.

Be it Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall, or Black Mischief; Waugh has been consistent in making his readers find something to laugh about even while describing melancholy situations.

The Women Who Were Humour Stalwarts

While writing about female specialists in humour, it would be a crime to leave out Betty MacDonald. In her book, The Egg and I, Betty quips —

Sunday is the day on which you do exactly as much work as you do on other days but feel guilty all of the time you are doing it because Sunday is a day of rest.

How funny, yet poignant it is, especially relevant in today’s cut-throat competitive world, where one finds lesser and lesser time for leisure, even on holidays. Or should I say, especially on holidays?

The Contemporaries

Among the contemporary authors who have successfully managed to make a horde of readers across the globe chuckle, perhaps the most well-known is Allie Brosh, for her internet-famous book Hyperbole and a Half. Accompanied by adorable illustrations, the book gives the reader a glimpse of what the author’s world looks like.

Allie had been struggling with anxiety and depression for a long while, and her book is her story of how she used humour as a coping mechanism.

On the surface, it is not much different from other memoirs, but as one delves deeper into her writing and illustrations, one cannot help but marvel at how masterfully she has dealt with difficult topics.

Some of the episodes described in the book could well have been Stephen King horror stories if only one removed the mask of humour and looked at the true horror it hid beneath. The fact that most of the stories are based on her real-life only makes the experience more personal, more intimate, and scarier than it would have been had this book been merely fiction. Hyperbole and a Half will make the readers laugh out loud, but at the same time, ruminate on some very ugly truths of the life we find ourselves trapped in. In Allie’s own words —

The absurdity of working so hard to continue doing something you don’t like can be overwhelming.

Closing Notes

These relatable quotes only make me wonder -would they still be as hard-hitting if they weren’t wrapped up in layers of jest?

Does the use of humour make it easier for authors to disguise bitter truths of life as innocuous jokes?

If you are a fan of soul-stirring books and don’t mind a few laughs here and there, I would suggest you to read the books I mentioned here.

Of course, you can take my advice, or you can ignore it and move on with your life. As Oscar Wilde, another famous humourist of the 19th century, had written in his book An Ideal Husband

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.

(Note: The links mentioned in this article are affiliate links. If you choose to purchase these books through these links, it will help me earn a small amount of money — at no extra cost to you. Thanks!)

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