Mechanisms of the comic effect in Oscar Wilde's "The importance of being earnest": An analysis according to Henry Bergson and Arthur Koestler

Seminar Paper, 2003
17 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Mechanisms of the comic effect
2.1 An overview of Henry Bergson’s theory of laughter
2.2 Bergsonian patterns of humour in Wilde’s play
2.3 The basic ideas of Koestler’s bisociative approach to the comic effect
2.4 Bisociative patterns in Wilde’s text

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” was on stage for the first time in 1895. Since then, it seems to have lost nothing of its wit. People still consider it funny, when Algernon and Jack, both alias Ernest, bend the truth to jazz up their lives, ending up with serious problems.

But what is it actually that made, that still makes Wilde’s play funny? What is the connection between a certain reply from Algernon or Lady Bracknell and the audience or reader trembling with laughter (or at least smiling)? This paper will be concerned with the question whether it is possible to trace all of Wilde’s comical devices, perhaps even all possible forms of humour, back to one basic “recipe of laughter”.

People tried to do this, although the matter seems to be extremely complicated. Who has not yet experienced the embarrassment, while trying to explain a pun or joke to somebody who did not get it on the first time: the comical element slips through your fingers like water and soon seems to have never existed, although it has caused audible and visible effect, namely laughter, a moment before.

We will start from what the philosopher Henry Bergson found out about mechanisms of the comic effect and see if his theory accounts for Wilde’s play being comical. Later I want to outline the theory of bisociation, which Arthur Koestler brought up, and finally analyze the play along the lines of the theoretical apparatus he developed. Throughout the second chapter I will show that both theories will break down if confronted with certain forms of the comic element.

2. Mechanisms of the comic effect

2.1 An overview of Henry Bergson’s theory of laughter

The French philosopher Henri Bergson developed a very lively theory of laughter in his work (originally called) Le Rire in 1901. (All quotes in this chapter are from the translated English version called “Laughter”)

Bergson makes some preliminary observations about the comic effect in general. The first thing he claims is that “the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human” (Bergson 10): Something will only be laughable if it touches the human sphere in one or the other way. You will only laugh about an animal “because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression” (Bergson 10). A hat or any material thing will never be comical by itself, you will only laugh about an imaginary resemblance of its form for example to a part of the human body or about “the shape that men have given it” (Bergson 10).

His second point is that laughter is usually accompanied by an “absence of feeling” (Bergson 10). “Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion” (Bergson 10). When we see for instance someone stumble and fall, we can only laugh about him if we temporarily forget about pity. Bergson argues further that humour appeals exclusively to intelligence and requires what he calls a “momentary anaesthesia of the heart” (Bergson 11). Then he comes to the point that laughter always occurs within a group, even when there is no one else present to laugh with us. He claims that laughter is characterized by some “kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary” (Bergson 11): even when we would think we are laughing alone, for example at a play on words in a paper, we subconsciously imagine our group, the people that, had they been present, would have laughed with us.

At this point you could argue that he contradicts his thesis of the “absence of feeling” (Bergson 10) he just claimed before: complicity, especially this covert or secret one, is clearly an emotional occurrence, like pity, it also has to do with empathy. And now this feeling should be a crucial condition for laughter to take place? Bergson doesn’t explicitly overcome this contradiction in his work, so we must assume that he simply talks of “two different types of emotion” one of which must be avoided (pity) and the other must have already been there (“we are a group”) in order for the comic effect to take place.

For Bergson, laughter must have a “social signification” (Bergson 12): since it occurs in society, society must somehow benefit from it. He takes this thesis as his starting point for the further analysis of the comic. The solution he gives is that laughter arises when someone detects in someone else, in nature, in words, etc. some inelasticity, rigidity or momentum: Life doesn’t permit any of these things, it demands elasticity, vividness and adaptability. And laughter is society’s, or life’s, corrective for these slight nonconformities, just as court and jail are for the greater nonconformities. He calls it a kind of “social gesture” (Bergson 16) needed to force back all kinds of eccentricities, as the following lines illustrate:

Society will therefore be suspicious of all inelasticity of character, of mind and even of body, because it is the possible sign of a slumbering activity as well as of an activity with separatist tendencies, that inclines to swerve from the common centre round which society gravitates: in short, because it is the sign of an eccentricity. [ ]

By the fear which it [laughter] inspires, it restrains eccentricity, keeps constantly awake and in mutual contact certain activities of a secondary order which might retire into their shell and go to sleep, and, in short, softens down whatever the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical inelasticity. (Bergson 16)

The quintessential point of his theory is that all forms of the comic effect can be somehow derived from the friction between the absolute flexibility demanded by life and any habitual, eccentric behaviour of man: He terms it “something mechanical encrusted upon something living” (Bergson 23). For him this is the central image of the original source of every laughter, to which all his further observations refer back. Nevertheless, he admits that with one simple formula we will not directly be able to account for the numerous forms of the comic effect. His answer is that all the cases, which seem to have nothing to do with the main formula at the first sight, each are indirectly related to it by bearing some resemblance to one of the main effects at which this connection can be directly seen: “[ ] these [main] effects each appear as models round which new effects resembling them take their places in a circle: These latter are not deductions from the formula, but are comic through their relationship with those that are” (Bergson 23). Bergson claims that there are three main effects which group around this primary source of everything comical.

As the first main comic effect he brings up “every form of disguise”. He argues that indeed every form of fashion and clothing in general is a form of disguise or masquerade and therefore “de jure” comical. The reason why we don’t laugh at virtually every garment is that the comic here appears in a latent manner and therefore remains covert. By virtue of seeing today’s fashion every day, we don’t take it as a disguise anymore, in our heads the clothing merges with the body wearing it. We don’t see the rigid crust the clothes form upon our fellow men any longer because we are accustomed to this special kind of “disguise”. However, the comical quality of clothing gets revived, when someone dresses in a way which is not fitting to the predominant fashion. Bergson goes even further, he argues on that, by what he terms “the logic of the imagination” (Bergson 24) this “disguise” theme can be extended to situations were there is not really a disguise. When a black man is for instance laughed at, this is because by means of this “logic of imagination” which is “something like the logic of dreams” (Bergson 24) he is considered a white man in disguise. These lines illustrate what Bergson has in mind with his argumentation:

Let us then follow this logic of the imagination in the special case in hand. A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is also comic. So, by analogy, any disguise is seen to become comic, not only that of a man, but that of society also, and even the disguise of nature. (Bergson 24f)


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Mechanisms of the comic effect in Oscar Wilde's "The importance of being earnest": An analysis according to Henry Bergson and Arthur Koestler
University of Tubingen  (New Philology)
Introduction to Literary Studies: Drama
1 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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500 KB
Mechanisms, Oscar, Wilde, Henry, Bergson, Arthur, Koestler, Introduction, Literary, Studies, Drama
Quote paper
Andreas Glombitza (Author), 2003, Mechanisms of the comic effect in Oscar Wilde's "The importance of being earnest": An analysis according to Henry Bergson and Arthur Koestler, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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