Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

how humor takes UTC endward

One Student's picture

In "Get Out of Gaol Free, or: How to Read a Comic Plot" by John Bruns1, Bruns writes that "a novelistic plot demands that we, as readers, must always be moving endward, in a more or less rectilinear fashion, towards resolution, closure, and understanding"; he opposes this understanding of the genre of the novel to the novel as "a way of enabling characters to engage in lively dialogues to which the reader can then respond". Bruns then goes on to say that "the comic plot, however has no demands, save one: that the reader must always be moving somewhere, moving anywhere. In the comic plot, characters needs not be understood - their movement alone can be the object of the reader's desire". Quoting Thomas McFarland, "Tragic plot or mythos is burdened with the large task of revealing tragic character. Comic plot, questions of character settled beforehand in the comic typology, becomes frolicsome and restive, complex and mazelike." 

I do not think that McFarland’s theorizing of comic plots in novels is accurate in all cases, unless he restricts his definition of ‘comic’ in some way (I see problems with applying it to both Dead Babies by Martin Amis and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, two satires, though satires with very different intended effects). However, it is useful in that it emphasizes for me the fact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin (henceforth UCT) is on the whole a non-comic novel which contains comic elements. Regardless of whether comic novels move endward or not, UCT certainly does.

I am interested in how the comic elements function in UCT, in how the comic is used to further serious goals, how comic elements move the novel endward and the reader toward realization. Looking at the structure of the novel as a whole, Eliza’s storyline fades from desperation to freedom, while Tom’s gets progressively darker and darker until his death, which is both tragic and triumphant, but which is certainly not funny. However, Tom’s story-line provided the bulk of the comic elements, and so UCT closes on a non-comic note, despite Eliza’s happy ending. For example, when Cassy escapes through the swamp, Sambo and Quimbo do not provide anything like the comic relief of Sam and Andy when Eliza escaped at the beginning. 

But I find it necessary to look at the characters particularly before looking at the novel generally. Some characters are simply humorous; some are entirely serious; and some have a mixture of the serious and the comic, though usually with the serious dominating the end of their developmental arc. I am not sure if McFarland means character development when he talks of “revealing tragic character”, but this raises another important question for UCT, since many of the comic elements, particular those pertaining to the black/slave characters, are drawn from the comic typology of Beecher Stowe’s time. One thing I should do is research the comic typology of blackface, so that I can tell whether any of the humorous mobilizations attendant on Tom, for example, are typological. Characters like Dinah, and Sam and Andy, on the other hand, seem fairly certainly to be in the main comic types; they are also used for particular scenes, rather than being developed, with their own plot arcs.

Tom and Topsy are two characters who are both developed in the latter way. Both are introduced in a light-hearted manner (the jollity of the chapter “Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and both perform for their white owners early on. Tom’s performance, a reading lesson with George Shelby, is less literal and more positive than Topsy being bid to sing and dance. Their respective story arcs share the same shape as that of the novel as a whole, both becoming less comic by their ends. Tom’s death is simultaneously a tragedy and a Christian victory, while Topsy’s future is dead serious with respectability, and it’s safe to assume that she taught her students in Africa ‘proper’ (white) hymns rather than the songs (so derided by Beecher Stowe) that she learned as a slave. Ophelia’s arc also shades from humor to utterly serious. She takes part in satiric scenes (like with Dinah), is an amusingly stern and unamused foil to her cousin Augustine’s facetiousness and irony, and her humorous attributes are used to reveal the hypocrisy of Northerners who criticize but do not act. However, in the end, what she does is good and not to be made fun of. In the end, she does what Beecher Stowe feels all good (white) Christians should do. A parodic character transforms into a character worth emulating.

I am describing Ophelia as parodic, and what I mean by parody is an intentionally inaccurate mirror, a polemical and critical mirror, a mirror that exaggerates certain characteristics of the original in order to entertain and to comment, in some proportion. So, Ophelia’s position in the South parodies Beecher Stowe’s own position when she visited the South: Beecher Stowe was an observer from the North there, but Ophelia participates in the system of slavery much more directly because she runs a slavery-based household; the fact that the household itself it in many ways ridiculous adds to the humor of Ophelia’s position.  

            In “Fathering and Blackface in Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Christina Zwarg evaluates UCT as a political satire, and the novel certainly has qualities of a political satire. But I don’t want to be bound by that particular genre. Certainly, part of the endeavor of UCT is to criticize the political system which refuses to dismantle slavery. But the basic structure and arc of the book is that of the sentimental novel; it is a sentimental novel with satiric elements, satiric scenes. For example, Zwarg makes much of a portrait of a black George Washington in Uncle Tom’s cabin, but that is a detail, and one I missed – I was looking for humor and so didn’t see it, while Zwarg was looking for political satire and so saw it. But humor is always able to make the status quo look ridiculous, and can easily be used to show what actually is ridiculous about the status quo, in the view of the writer (though the joke is only funny to those of zir audience who shares sufficiently in the writer’s view).

            Ophelia takes part in one of the most satiric, or most purely satiric, scenes in the book: Dinah’s kitchen. Dinah’s disorganization – so obvious to everyone but herself – and her attempts to justify her disorganization, her insistence that she is not disorganized, satirizes the ‘disorganization’ of American society brought about slavery. This parodic reflection of American society inaccurately translates society into different terms – that inaccuracy, with its unaccustomed terms both amuses the audience with its incongruity and to see the matter afresh, while highlighting what does not work about the system. Thus, it contributes to UTC’s endeavor to show why slavery makes no sense, both with serious tactics (the death of a good man like Tom) and through humorous tactics, like this one.

            One sticky question, in humor studies, is who the audience is supposed to identify with. More than once, Beecher Stowe breaks the fourth wall and calls on her (white) audience to identify with a particular character, always black and always serious or in a serious situation – the first instance of this is when Eliza flees her home in order to save her child from being sold downriver.

            On might assume that the butt of a joke would be someone that both the speaker and the audience laugh at, with neither of them identifying with that figure. However, a recent scholar on the Roman satirist Juvenal has suggested that Juvenal’s satiric persona is intended to be the butt of the joke, or part of the butt of the joke – the reader is invited to laugh at the persona, as well as or rather than laughing with it. This creates tremendous possibilities for the function/s of the persona. In the case of both Ophelia and Augustine, the audience is invited both to laugh at them and to identify themselves with these two characters, who are sincerely engaging with the sticky practical question of what exactly to do about slavery; unlike the Quakers, who have all made their minds up, the audience has the opportunity to watch them sort through the morality of slavery and the difficulty of working against the system, a situation in which the audience is more likely to find itself than in the Quakers’ position.


Anne Dalke's picture

Comedy: Making Non-Sense

I'm very much interested in this project, which (for me) forms an important part of my own larger inquiry into the evolution of varieties of storytelling. I am quite struck by your (Bruns') initial contrast between comedy--always in (undirected?) motion--and tragedy--always moving toward an end.

That links neatly to your exploration, @ the end, of our being invited both to laugh @ Ophelia and Augustine, and to identify with them as they sort through moral quesions; that messiness is actually an important part of what enables the comedy. Comedy thus becomes a representation of the restless & unsettled, in sharp contrast to tragedy, which is always explanatory, always succeeding in finding MEANING. So another way to talk about the trajectory of Stowe's novel is that, @ first moving restlessly @ first, it comes to settle on an end...

Your description of this darkening arc of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the turning of comedy into tragedy, puts me in mind of a (reverse) narrative I told in the course which proceeded this one, a course on the evolution of stories. I tried arguing then that the comedy of Ahab's Wife replaced the tragedy of Moby-Dick, that Una is impelled with the same intensity as Ahab--but Naslund uses her equanimity to poke fun at Ahab's monomania, offering readers an alternative model for coping with loss.

All that said, I do wonder about over-all usefulness of the binary (which you maintain throughout) between the "simply humorous" and the "entirely serious"; are those categories really so clearly distinct? And I certainly challenge your collapsing the "tragic" and the "Christian victory." I'd say that, once Tom goes to glory, he is no longer enacting tragedy--is actually actively refusing to enact it; he is explicitly saved from a tragic end by Christian eschatology.

One last question: tell me why you "find it necessary to look at the characters particuarly before looking at the novel generally." What is the logic of that necessity? Why privilege character over plot? Why look at the particularities of individuals before the shape of the whole, the more abstract pattern they form as they move variously north- and southward?

P.S. Take a look @ M's essay, "Anyone for Theory?" which develops a contrast between open-ended theory and endward romance which is strikingly analogous to your/Bruns' contrast between comedy and tragedy.