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farther to endward

One Student's picture

Ok, got bogged down last time.

My overall topic is: how does humor function in Uncle Tom's Cabin? I'm not theorizing on the difference between characters in comedies and characters with comedic attributes in serious works. 

One principle of the theory of humor which I am constructing is that a work may be humorous in nature, or a work may be non-humorous ('serious', is too value-laden a term) but with comedic elements. (Likewise, there are tragic works and tragic elements in non-tragic works; adventure stories can have tragic and comedic elements without being either comic or tragic overall).

What is curious is that non-humorous works have humorous elements. And for many different reasons. One thing I can salvage from my previous post is the notion of mobilizations. This very much implies that the humor is not simply there to pleasure the audience, not only to temporarily move the audience to a state of laughter or pleasure, but to a different mindset altogether, to change their minds.

I noticed this distinction first in studying ancient and modern humorous depictions of warfare: Siegfried Sassoon, a soldier-poet of WWI, wanted to change the minds of his (civilian) readers about the war by showing them the horror of warfare, and mobilized ironic strategies to communicate effectively - an especially apt vehicle for his anger. The content of Sassoon's poems and his anger are such that I found it worthwhile to ask my Classical Warfare class whether they found Sassoon funny. On the other hand, while it is obvious that the two ancient playwrights Aristophanes and Plautus intended to entertain their respective audiences, it is worth debating whether they intended to change their audiences's minds about anything; and if so, it is not clear exactly how they intended their audiences minds to be changed).

Which brings me back to an idea which seemed dead-endish in my last post: the unchangingness of comic characters. (Is there a difference between 'comic' and 'comedic'? Does 'comedic' evoke the genre 'comedy'? I'll use 'comic' more, then.) A comic work is not supposed to take the audience anywhere, and at best or worst is open-ended. A non-humorous work with humorous elements (does it matter if I say 'comic' or 'humorous'?) has intent, a goal, an END. The plot ends and the argument concludes.

Topsy is not a comic character, she is a non-comic character with comic elements. Where she ends, her fate, is a matter of great seriousness, both for the reader and within the novel itself (Augustine buys her as a challenge and a lesson for Ophelia, and out of hope as well; Ophelia takes great pains with her and clearly has a tremendous emotional investment in her, and perhaps there is a kind of crisis of faith or of principle; and Topsy's conversion comes about through Saint Eva herself, the Virgin to Tom's Christ. And Topsy is I think the only slave who is freed 'on-stage' in the whole book).

Topsy's life echoes the arc of UCT as a whole, with a more humorous beginning that shades into a deadly serious end. Contrast Sassoon's poems, which tend to have their ironic punchline at the end, a brief swell of black, critical humor; Sassoon's much shorter works lend themselves in that direction, but I can imagine something the length of a sonnet which makes you laugh in the middle so that when you cry at the end, you cry all the harder.

But back to UCT. Part of the reason I'm working on UCT rather than Moby Dick (a work which gives me more pleasure for many reasons) is because I want to give Beecher Stowe more credit. I don't want to accuse UCT of inconsistency and leave it at that. I want to examine how humor helps Beecher Stowe say what she has to say. How does that darkening arc, from humor to seriousness, aid her project? 

It might help to contrast the mobilization of humor attendant on Topsy with the mobilization attendant on Augustine again. Augustine is self-aware of the humor of the situation and how he creates it; Topsy is not. Augustine has views which are in accordance with Beecher Stowe's, even if his choices are not entirely. Topsy illustrates Beecher Stowe's views. Topsy only knows that she performs when she is asked to by another character; Augustine almost always performs and is aware of it, but there is a scene where he drops his mask, his satiric persona and is straight-forward and honest. Like Augustine, Mrs. Shelby also has views which are in accordance with Beecher Stowe, but there's nothing funny about her ... Hmm ... Augustine as a character finds it useful to mobilize humor (laughs to keep from crying), and Beecher Stowe makes Augustine as a character useful through a mobilization of humor attendant upon him. This lenient master ends up in a farcical situation - his butler is a parody of himself, for example. Beecher Stowe answers the argument that slave-owners can be kind: if they kind, then their slaves are children, she says, which is preferable to them being animals with an owner like Legree, but better they should be free, educated, and converted human beings. 

Topsy piqued my interest first, I'll try to get back to her in my next post, fit her into this pattern which I'm developing. 

Also, I'm curious about Sam and Andy, especially in contrast to Sambo and Quimbo. There are many mirror images in this book (Tom and Eva, Eva and Topsy, Topsy and Augustine, Ophelia and Topsy, Ophelia and Augustine, Augustine and his brother; a positive fun house). Some of them are funny, too, and bringing out the humor in those situations draws the audience's attention ...


Myspace layouts's picture

I have been reading your

I have been reading your blog last couple of weeks and enjoy every bit. Thanks.