Dark Humor and Social Satire in the Modern British Novel by Lisa Colletta

By Lisa Colletta

Literary modernism normally makes a speciality of the writings of self-consciously avant-garde writers who tried to wreck with literary and aesthetic varieties inherited from the nineteenth-century. This view of Modernism has ignored a lot of the social comedy of the interval, assessing it as satiric and as a result conservative, reinforcing the very cultural values it units out to critique. reading the paintings of Virginia Woolf, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Evelyn Waugh, and Anthony Powell in mild of psychoanalytic theories of joke-work and gallows humor, Colletta claims that darkish humor is a crucial attribute of Modernism.

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Though pleasure does momentarily triumph over pain, the reality of the victim is never denied, as Freud makes clear in the numerous Jewish jokes that run throughout Jokes. The symbolic action of the joke does not deny the real conditions of oppression but simply finds a way of adapting to conditions while maintaining an acute awareness of them. This, of course, is the position represented by many modern writers, and Freud’s theories at the beginning of the century offer a way of reading comedic literary responses to violence and brutality.

27 Clarissa has not lost the ability to create comic little dramas—this is basically what her party is—but Peter has lost the ability to recognize her creations as courageous, though he momentarily regains this at the very end of the novel. Her sense of comedy allows her to carry on and create pleasure in a dark and threatening world. Aware of death and the “horror”28 of the fundamentally isolated existence of the individual, Clarissa does not shut her eyes but rather dons a party dress in her determination to remain creative and to insist on her own subjectivity.

With this narrative technique, she ridicules social conventions when they are taken as essentially meaningful and used to define and circumscribe individual lives. Though Clarissa uses the social world creatively and protectively, she is “a Lady of Fashion”—a title Woolf had considered using before she settled on Mrs. Dalloway—and her social world is mocked by Woolf for its pretension and hypocrisy. With comic vengeance, Woolf reveals the disparity between the reputations many of the characters have within the world of the novel and their actions and motivations as revealed by the narrator.

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