Tuesday, September 16, 2008

George Eliot, barrel of laughs - you couldn't tell the monkey from the mounseers

How many great writers lack a sense of humor? Very few, I think. I'd pick out Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Mann, let's see, Yukio Mishima. Feel free to suggest others. I can think of a much longer list of writers who do not get enough credit for their humor, and I was pleased to find that George Eliot belongs on the second list, not the first one.

Sometimes the characters in Adam Bede tell jokes; sometimes the narrator slips one in. How about this one:

"Meanwhile the conversation at the head of the table had taken a political turn. Mr. Craig was not above talking politics occasionally, though he piqued himself rather on a wise insight than on specific information. He saw so far beyond the mere facts of a case that really it was superfluous to know them." (Ch. 53, The Harvest Supper)

That's not just a sly observation, it's a bonafide joke, and a good one. A contemporary reader might be able to apply it to his own daily life. Perhaps to his own conversation. Ahem.

That whole Harvest Supper chapter is quite funny. The farmers discuss the Napoleonic war, and the poor fighting prowess of Bony and his mounseers. Mr. Poyser suspects it's the result of eating too much salad, and not enough beef. Mr. Craig argues ("thumping the table rather fiercely") that when the French drafted a "big monkey," "you couldn't tell the monkey from the mounseers!"

Although the book Adam Bede is often funny, the character Adam Bede is completely humorless. He argues that the story about the monkey, for example, is "all nonsense." Way to kill a joke, pal. Adam is good-humored, but is that ever not the same thing as having a sense of humor. He's the fellow who laughs along with a joke because he recognizes the form, not because he actually gets it.

Come to think of it, none of the central characters - Hetty, Arthur, Dinah, God forbid - have much of a sense of humor. Well, they have their own business in the book. Mr. Craig, Mrs. Poyser, Adam's mother, and our narrator George Eliot - they provide the humorous undercurrent that keeps much of the book moving along. I was delighted to encounter this side of Eliot.


  1. It's what saved the book for me, frankly. Without it I doubt I would have stuck so long with it, schedule or no schedule. I reread Mrs. Poyser's landlord takedown several times and I can't help chuckling just thinking about it.

    As for other great writers without a sense of humour...William Blake, maybe?

  2. That's a great observation about the characters being far less humorous (or at least deliberately so) than the narrator. Both The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch are pretty funny at times too--though in them too, as in AB, the humour can be rather at the expense of the characters. I wonder how far that habit undermines the narrator's overt insistence on sympathy and fellow feeling.

    Middlemarch is a much greater novel that AB, just btw; now that you've had a taste of what Eliot can offer, maybe that one will go in your 'to read' pile.

  3. You know I have to disagree with you that Emerson doesn't have a sense of humor. I think he is very funny at times, certainly no comedian, but he's not above a joke now and then :)

  4. Take stefanie's word on Emerson - she's read more of him than I have. I want to believe! William Blake is a good candidate for the humorless list. "Visionary" writers usually have a different idea of a joke than the rest of us.

    Right, Eliot is more detached from her characters than I at first realized. Maybe I'll think about this more in the context of Hetty's journey.

    Middlemarch tops my Humiliation list. Someday, definitely.

  5. And did you ever get to 'Middlemarch'?

  6. Unfortunate that you didn't feel up to your usual week of analysis :(