Comprehending Faulkner's Humor

By Carothers, James B.; Sheldon, Kimma Jean | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Comprehending Faulkner's Humor


Carothers, James B., Sheldon, Kimma Jean, The Mississippi Quarterly


"Out with it," Varner said. "What do you think about it?" "You mean what I really think?" "What in damnation do you think I am talking about?" "I think the same as you do," Ratliff said quietly. "That there aint but two men I know can risk fooling with them folks. And just one of them is named Varner and his front name aint Jody." "And who's the other one?" Varner said. "That aint been proved yet neither," Ratliff said pleasantly.

--The Hamlet (30-31)

FAULKNER DESERVES RECOGNITION AS ONE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST humorists, for the hundreds of humorous characters, scenes, incidents, moments, and indelibly memorable passages that appear throughout his work, but although he commented intermittently on humor--both his own and others'--from the beginning of his career until the end, (1) we have, as yet, no comprehensive assessment, description, or taxonomy of his humor. "The largest problem," according to Hans Bungert, "results from the absence of a fully satisfactory theory of comedy or theory of humor" (141). (2) An even larger problem, perhaps, is the assumption that there is, or ought to be, a unified field theory of humor that can or should organize each of Faulkner's humorous plots, character types, devices, or tropes into a single coherent exegesis. Comprehending Faulkner's humor, however, most frequently means comprehending a particular moment in a particular text; attempts to isolate a single theory to explain all of Faulkner's humor, like attempts to isolate a single theory to explain all of anything else in Faulkner, are inevitably reductive and unsatisfactory.

Thadious Davis offers a relevant argument for dealing with Go Down, Moses, suggesting that the text comprehends aspects of genres that ought not to be seen as mutually exclusive:

   The question of genre for Go Down, Mases does not have to be
   answered in either-or/neither-nor terms. In fact, if claims of
   unity are dissolved by an attention to the reader as
   self-authorized to create a reading experience out of engagement
   with the text, and if claims of fragmentation (that is, story
   sequence) are suspended by an attention to the configuration of
   games marking the text as both contest and contested site, then
   momentarily at least Faulkner's authority over his text becomes
   bounded and the issue of its genre transgressable. (11)

Similarly, if we can comprehend Faulkner's humor in both/and rather than in either/or terms--it may be orthodox and subversive (as Jason Compson's section of The Sound and the Fury most assuredly is); it may be "funny" to some readers and appalling to others (as As I Lay Dying often proves to be); it may be, in places, conventional "high" comedy (as in Philip's courtship of Melisandre in "My Grandmother Millard") or, in other places, "low" comedy, as when, in the same story, the Yankees upset the privy that Melisandre is occupying); and it may be direct and blunt (as in Ikkemotubbe's rescue of David Hogganbeck from the cave in "A Courtship") or mock-epically eloquent (as in the mudhole episode of The Reivers)--if we can see the range and variety of Faulkner's humors, then we may be able to go beyond partial and reductive readings of his myriad humorous texts.

In what follows we shall contend that, as already established ably by several hands, elements and instances of Faulkner's humor are clearly, splendidly descended from American humorous techniques and texts and are both alternately and simultaneously derivative of European sources as well. His humor, by turns and at once, both endorses and undercuts the prevailing hegemonies within the societies he depicts, and in consequence, his humor is seldom easily isolated within his complexly inscribed texts. To advance these contentions, we propose to consider aspects of humor theory in general and of important notions of American humor, and to see what these ideas may contribute to our reading of Faulkner's comic and humorous texts. …

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