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"I Never Saw Anything at Once So Pathetic and Funny": Humor in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman

Article excerpt

In the tradition of American comic literature, Mary Wilkins Freeman's comic stories of the 1880s and 1890s do not shy away from the paradoxical connections between death and creativity, and they are obsessively concerned with individual freedom and the consequences to freedom of social and biological constraints.(1) Freeman's work repeatedly confronts choices between individual freedoms and social connections, between justice and compatibility. But unlike much American comedy that, in its satiric argument, demonstrates a preference for freedom, Freeman's tales use comedy less to resolve these tensions in favor of freedom than to face frankly the costs, both social and individual, of resolving these tensions in either direction. Showing that each of us has no choice but to make choices, Freeman's humor finally serves as compensation for those costs by celebrating the existence of choice itself.

Before I can discuss how her humor works, though, I must first address the question of whether Freeman's works are humorous at all. Indeed, in the critical literature, a 1991 essay by Shirley Marchalonis seems to be the only current essay on Freeman that substantially addresses Freeman's humor, and it, too, begins with an apologia:

   To propose a humorous reading of Mary Wilkins Freeman's work certainly
   contradicts most published criticism. Yet her earliest important critic,
   William Dean Howells, and most contemporary reviewers, even as they gave
   her the "local color realist" label that has so limited reading of her
   work, saw a mixture of "humor and tenderness" or "humor and pathos,"
   particularly in her stories. (222)

The few other critics who even in passing mention Freeman's humor do so from a distinctly serious point of view, namely the view that Freeman was a realist and that reality is not funny. In particular, recent critics for the most part counter the old consensus opinion, that Freeman was the master chronicler of decline who vividly described stunted lives, by insisting that Freeman was realistically chronicling the hidden strengths of women who, though boxed in by the patriarchy, were in fact irrepressible. Susan A. Toth's "A Defiant Light: A Positive View of Mary Wilkins Freeman," for example, extols the heroism of Freeman's characters, all but ignoring the humor even as she mentions it: "Freeman has turned it ["A Village Singer"] into a challenge to selfish community spirit, an individual's refusal to be denied humanity and justice, and a sometimes humorous, occasionally pathetic but never maudlin character study of a remarkable old woman" (126). Toth's faint sense of comedy is overwhelmed by her grand sense of heroism.

In either case, the realism label gets in the way of understanding the full reach of Freeman's work because the teleologies of our literary histories shove comedy out of the picture. In periodizing the late nineteenth century as a time of transition from local-color realism to naturalism, literary histories do not know what to do with humor, based as it is on extravagant fantasy, caricature, exaggeration, and absurd implausibilities. Given that Freeman wrote local-color fiction, most critics insist on Freeman's realism, and in so doing they still see her according to that grand flow of realism that reached its crest in the early twentieth century. In concentrating on this history, though, we miss another marked and parallel shift in literary styles, from the amiable humor of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the modern sense of comedy as veiled aggression. Ignoring the fantasy of comedy for her putative realism, critics miss how thoroughly involved Freeman was in this latter aesthetic debate.

Of course, the modern view of comedy as aggression is really a return to the Hobbesian view of laughter as the outward sign of social victory. The late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century definitions of humor, as distinct from wit and satire, were postulated in response to Hobbesian naturalism (Tave passim). …