The Function of Black Humor and Satire in the Dystopian Novel "Oryx & Crake" by Margaret Atwood

Term Paper, 2016

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Black Humor and Satire
2.1 Definition
2.2 Kinds of Humor-Based Laughter

3. Observations on Black Humor and Satire in Oryx and Crake
3.1 Misuse of science/genetic engineering
3.2 Global Warming
3.3 Division of society
3.4 Function

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

My relatives are all from Nova Scotia. […] The deadpan humour1 and the skepticism about human motives are similar. The French have an expression, "Anglo-Saxon humour." It isn’t the same as wit. It’s dark; it’s when something is funny and awful at the same time. "Gallows humour" is called that partly because highwaymen about to be hanged were much admired if they could crack a joke in the face of death.

When things are really dismal, you can laugh or you can cave in completely. Jimmy tries to laugh, though some of the time he’s out of control, as most of us would be in his position. But if you can laugh, you’re still alive. You haven’t given up yet (Margaret Atwood 2003).

This quotation is taken from an interview, which Canada’s famous author gave shortly after Oryx and Crake was published in 2003 and which was released on the “Penguin Random House” publisher website. It is Margaret Atwood’s response to the question: “Though the book’s premise is serious, you included many wordplays and moments of deadpan humour. Was this difficult to achieve, or did it arrive naturally during the storytelling process? “. During my reading process of Oryx and Crake, I also noted Atwood’s use of dark humor - or in her words ‘gallows humor’ - because I had many moments of amusement and sorts of laughter, which simultaneously provoked my confusion since the novel in fact deals with serious and grave topics. That is why I asked myself, whether laughing is actually appropriate to the earnestness of the novel.

Oryx and Crake can be assigned to a dystopian novel. Although set either in the future or in an alternative present, dystopias attack contemporary society by showing an extreme and present a hard satirical look at the way things are today (cf. Elliott 2013, 5-20). This essay sets out to analyze Margaret Atwood’s use of black humor and satire in her novel Oryx andCrake. Furthermore, it examines the function of such. Especially, I look at Atwood’s intention to provide a satiric tone and black humor and show that they are based on social observations and concerns that are evident in the early twenty-first century.

To achieve this, I have structured my paper into two main chapters, the first one with two and the second one with four sub-sections. In the chapter on ‘Black Humor and Satire’, I give an overview of these terms, serving as a framework for my further investigations. Additionally, I deal with laughter, to show which kind of laughter derives from Atwood’s humor, which is necessary for my analysis. In the chapter on ‘Observations on Black Humor and Satire in Oryx and Crake ’, I have an explicit look at the satirical tone and the black humor in the novel, based on my own reception of the text. The conclusion contains a summary and an evaluation of my findings.

2. Black Humor and Satire

In general, it is to note that humor, comedy, grotesque, parody, wit, satire and so on are all closely related to each other and belong to the comic (cf. Eco in Campbell 2006, 244). Humor can be represented in various literary genres and tones and receives an important function within texts. Basically, humor is seen quite sympathetic, tolerant and warm (cf. Campbell 2006, 244), whereas black humor2 and satire provide a dark hint. It is necessary to define the terms ‘satire’ and ‘black humor’, before I am going to investigate the kinds of laughter, which derive from humor.

2.1 Definition

The following definition of ‘satire’ is taken from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary (cf. satire, n. OED s.v. 1.a.).

This definition underlines the main element of satire, namely to criticize, which can be performed either in a deadly serious way or through an intended use of humor. There is the genre ‘satires’ which have the main attempt to diminish a subject by ridicule. Besides, satiric elements can occur within many creations whose general mode is not satiric, as for example in a certain situation or as some commentary on contemporary society (cf. Abrams 1999, 276). Any literary form can be adapted to the purposes of ‘indirect satire’ (ibid., 277). The most common form here is a fictional narrative, in which the characters make themselves ridiculous by what they think, say and behave (ibid.).

The goal of satire is to portray a state of things in such a way that the reader will be shocked into a new and better way of thinking and will then be active in correcting the current wrongs (cf. Raskin 2008, 248f.). Satire also serves to attack society, to voice concerns, to declare a warning and to clarify grievances. In contrast to the comic, which evokes laughter as an end in itself, satirical humor derides and uses laughter as a weapon against either an individual or against an institution, nation or even the entire humanity (cf. Abrams 1999, 275).

Another view on what satire provokes, is stated in a quotation of Klaus Hübner, manager of “Lichtenberg-Gesellschaft e.V.“ (an association dedicated to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a famous German physicist, philosopher and originator of German satire):

[…] Satire dient der Aufklärung, denn sie will ja durch Spott, Ironie oder Übertreibung bestimmte Personen, Anschauungen, Ereignisse oder Zustände kritisieren oder verächtlich machen. Satire folgt den gleichen Prinzipien der Aufklärung, denn sie will - und sie soll - unterhalten und nützlich sein. Satire enthält also eine zumeist ernste Botschaft, aber die bittere Medizin wird süß verpackt: Satire ist der Humor, bei dem man trotzdem lacht.

This quotation indicates that satire follows the notion of “Aufklärung”. The main goal is to teach or impart a morality tale by means of rhetorical techniques and devices such as exaggerations/hyperbole and irony. As Kurt Tucholsky, German journalist and author of Germany’s first satire magazine “Simplicissimus” used to say: “Was darf die Satire? Alles!” (1919).

The use of black humor in satiric works is a common affair (cf. Abrams 1999, 278). According to the OED, ‘black humor’ is defined as “[c]omedy, satire, etc., that presents tragic, distressing, or morbid situations in humorous terms; humour that is ironic, cynical, or dry; gallows humour” (cf. black humour/black humor, n. OED s.v. 2.). In this definition, ‘black humor’ is also defined as ‘satire’, which shows that these two terms are very similar to each other. Moreover, black humor is used to deal with “the widespread contemporary condition of social cruelty, inanity, or chaos” (Abrams 1999, 278). As earlier in Atwood’s statement, the term ‘gallows humor’ is also mentioned. Subject to Raskin (2008, 249), ‘gallows humor’ is a close relative of ‘black humor’ and they both grew out of satire. For the same concept, Atwood also speaks of ‘Canadian humour’, which she refers to as “survival laughter, born from conditions so awful that you either have to laugh or stick your head in the oven” (Atwood in Campbell 2006, 249).

2.2 Kinds of Humor-Based Laughter

As is generally known, the phenomenon of laughter is closely associated with humor, but cannot be equalized in any way (cf. Schubert 2014, 32). Humor can only be seen as “[…] one out of a number of different detonators of laughter” (Milner in Attardo 1994, 11). Smiling, another joke or verbal acknowledgment are other possible responses to successful attempts at humor, as well as laughter can be based on several other moods and emotions such as friendliness (cf. Provine and Ruch in Raskin 2008, 385).

At this point I would like to stress laughter, which is caused by intellectual humorous factors. Margaret Atwood herself defines four kinds of laughter in her article on Canadian humour (cf. Campbell 2006, 253). Firstly, there is the laughter of recognition and identity - the laughter that says “I am like that”. Secondly, there is the laughter of derision and distance - the one that says “I am not like that”. Thirdly, she names the laughter of survival - which says “better to laugh than kill yourself”. And last but not least, there is the laughter of satire, which becomes a weapon against what is dangerous in the world (ibid.).

The laughter, which is generated in Oryx and Crake, can partly be described as laughter of survival, which is provided for example in the narrator’s (Jimmy/Snowman) buffoonish mindset and behavior when he thinks about his potential death after the apocalypse (cf. Wagner 2012, 178). Nonetheless, most of the laughter can be related to the laughter of satire, for which I am going to provide many examples in the next chapter.

3. Observations on Black Humor and Satire in Oryx and Crake

Basically, it is to say that Oryx and Crake does not belong to the genre ‘satire’, but does indeed provide a good sample for satiric elements. Atwood’s humor is based on the notion of an appropriate reception of the text. For Oryx and Crake, she has thought of an implied audience, namely a sociocritical and highly perspicacious reader. Successful reception thus requires a basic knowledge of a certain social context (cf. Dvorak 2006, 122). Atwood’s image of the recipient is fixed and recognizable in the novel through the use of specific signs (cf. Schmid 2013). These signs are not only indicated through many contextual elements in the book, but also in Atwood’s use of humor: Jimmy/Snowman clearly values humor and the whole novel provides a satiric tone and black humor, which are adapted from social observations and concerns of Atwood’s generation, social class and gender that are evident in the early twenty-first century. Therefore, she referred to headlines of the latest news about topics such as climate change, animals-extinction, video games and genetic engineering (cf. Howells 2006, 171). Atwood’s main concern in this affair is simple: “What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us?“ (Atwood quoted in Bouson 2004, 140).

Subsequently, I would like to analyze three examples of Atwood’s critical observations that are presented in a satirical light. Here, I am going to combine the phenomena of black/gallows/Canadian humor with satire, since Atwood’s writings in Oryx and Crake blur these artificial boundaries of these aspects. Furthermore, I have to note that not every reader has the same perception of what is satiric/dark humor, etc. Hence, the following observations are based on my own reception of the novel and might differ in someone else’s point of view.

3.1 Misuse of science/genetic engineering

Basically, Atwood’s satiric vision is about the misuse of science, especially about genetic engineering, on which the whole novel is based and eventually turns out to be the reason for the destruction of humanity. On the one hand, bioengineered animals are used as a deterrent example for genetic experiments, which are partially considered as morally wrong. Many of these transgenic monsters that live in Jimmy’s world are a creation of Atwood’s phantasy: There are for instance pigoons, wolvogs and rakunks. But one of them indeed is not only fictional: The luminous green rabbit, which is an actual gene-modified invention of the early twenty-first century. This animal appears not only on the novel’s cover, but also in a short passage of the chapter Toast:

Across the clearing to the south comes a rabbit, hopping, listening, pausing to nibble at the grass with its gigantic teeth. It glows in the dusk, a greenish glow filched from the iridicytes of a deep-sea jellyfish in some long-ago experiment. […] Even in Snowman’s boyhood there were luminous green rabbits, though they weren’t this big and they hadn’t yet slipped their cages and bred with the wild population, and become a nuisance (109f.).

Here, Atwood states, how the modification happened - namely through the use of jellyfish DNA - and she provides an example of a possible future trend of the genetically modified rabbit. When Jimmy visits Crake at Watson-Crick, Jimmy is introduced to some student projects. He is disgusted, for instance, by the headless object that grows chicken parts (238) or the shocking pink butterflies with wings as big as pancakes (235). When Jimmy asks whether those creatures are “real or fake” (ibid.), Crake answers that “the process is no longer important” (ibid.), as for the new gene-modified form is what the species now “look[s] like in real time” (ibid.).

On the other hand, not only animals are used as an example for genetic engineering, but also the Crakers - “Crake’s wonderful plan” (389). In my mind, Atwood’s method in presenting these hominids is supremely satirical. Atwood criticizes human’s pursuit of perfectness, which is for example performed in the Crakers’ appearance:

Each is sound of tooth, smooth of skin. No ripples of fat around their waists, no bulges, no dimpled-orange skin cellulite on their thighs.


1 The spelling of the word ‘humor’ differs within various sources. Some authors use the British English spelling ‘humour’. In this paper I will stick to the American English spelling.

2 Black humor is also used as a synonym for ‘dark humor’ in this paper.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Function of Black Humor and Satire in the Dystopian Novel "Oryx & Crake" by Margaret Atwood
University of Rostock  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Proseminar: Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake. Contexts and Criticism
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Oryx and Crake, Satire, Black Humor
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Jule Grassmann (Author), 2016, The Function of Black Humor and Satire in the Dystopian Novel "Oryx & Crake" by Margaret Atwood, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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