Comedy and The Color Purple
Priscilla L. Walton
[Laughter] is a froth with a saline base. Like froth it sparkles. It is gaiety itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste may find that the substance is scanty and the aftertaste bitter.
----- Henri Bergson, "Laughter"
This observation, written in 1900 by Henri Bergson, in the conclusion to his essay Laughter," ironically anticipates the changes that occur in the comic mode of the succeeding century when laughter's "froth" virtually disappears and its "bitter aftertaste" comes to predominate. After 1900, literature--comedy in particular-- becomes more acrimonious and discordant, perhaps better to represent life in our century of "disorder and irrationalism" ( Sypher201). The comic novel ceases to ring with the "silvery laughter" that George Meredith applauds: rather it reverberates to the maniacal, paranoid laughter in which Thomas Pynchon revels. In short, comedy enters the realm of the absurd and begins to reflect the individual disorientation in a "senseless, chaotic" world.
Yet even within this context, it might seem anomalous to call Alice Walker's 1982 work, The Color Purple, a comedy. The novel is arguably bleaker than many of the others that are included in the mode, since it deals with rape, incest, and social prejudice; yet the ideal "womanist" world in which it culminates ( Walker Searchxi) is joyous and celebratory--a condition of the comic. Although its subject matter appears at times to counteract the levity expected of a comic novel and so to be at variance with the comic purpose, if we set aside our more traditional expectations of the mode and look rather at the intent of the comic, we see that The Color Purple rather closely adheres to its theoretical tenets.
While it is not my intention here to offer an absolute definition of comedy, some idea of what the comic signifies is necessary to come to an understanding of its relevance to The Color Purple. My discussion is selective: the characteristics I discuss relate more specifically to what theorists of the comic call "high comedy," or the "comedy of ideas," since Walker's novel is obviously not of the kind of comedy which elicits hearty guffaws from its readers. But this does not disqualify it from the mode, for theorists of the comic often note that laughter is a very deceptive criterion by which to assess it ( Martin74, Sypher203). More often than not, high comedy concerns itself less with being "funny" than with dramatizing