A Joke in Dickens

Alfie Bown (University of Manchester)

In his relatively recent book on humour Simon Critchley writes that ‘it is important to recognize that not all humour is [liberating], and most of the best jokes are fairly reactionary, or at best, simply serve to reinforce social consensus.’[1] Thus, for Critchley, as for much other joke theory, there are two types of joke; the reactionary on the one hand and the radical or liberatory on the other.

Dickens’s jokes, I argue, complicate this division between the positive, life-affirming theories of laughter as liberation, and the reactionary theories of laughter as asserting superiority or existing ideology.

The joke needs to be read with a kind of doubleness: jokes about nationality are a case in point.  The joke might reinforce a prejudice or superiority belief of one group over another, but it also reveals the construction of identity as based on the creation of otherness and the establishment of difference which is demonstrated by the joke form itself.  It is the form that is important rather than the content, so that the nationalities are interchangeable; the same jokes English people tell about Scottish people are told in Scotland about people from Aberdeen.  The joke asserts an identity, but it also shows that identity for what it is, a structure created by an assertion of one thing in relation to another, constituting both things in the process and thereby showing that they do not pre-exist.

This discussion of a joke from Little Dorrit comes from a chapter called ‘In which a Great Patriotic Conference is holden,’ so we know we are dealing with questions of nationality:

Lord Decimus had a reminiscence about a pear-tree formerly growing in a garden near the back of his dame’s house at Eton, upon which pear-tree the only joke of his life perennially bloomed. It was a joke of a compact and portable nature, turning on the difference between Eton pears and Parliamentary pairs; but it was a joke, a refined relish of which would seem to have appeared to Lord Decimus impossible to be had without a thorough and intimate acquaintance with the tree.

Parliamentary and Monarchic Pears became a feature of the nineteenth-century. Daumier’s Louis Philippe as a pear.

This joke is about types of pears.  It turns upon the difference between the Eton pears and the Parliamentary pears; it is structurally a nationality joke, asserting one over another.  It is ‘compact and portable’; it can be used or applied anywhere (the form is the important thing), but it also seems to the teller as if one would need to be well acquainted with the tree in order to appreciate the joke (it appears to have to do with content).  Thus, Dickens shows us that it is the form that is important here, so that we could be talking about nationalities or we could be talking about pears.  Also, crucially, he shows us that a trick is involved, which makes it seem as though the form refers to a content which exists elsewhere.  As such, the joke demonstrates how form appears to refer to a pre-existing content, when in fact both are created by the joke.   As such, the joke leaves us with a sense of the constructed nature of both form and content.

This is strangely Hegelian.  In ‘The Logic of Sense’ Hegel asks the question of how one speaks of any kind of origin or beginning.  ‘Earlier abstract thought,’ he comments, is ‘interested only in the principle as content.’  Hegel departs from those looking for an originary content which is represented by form and instead posits that the very beginning is the intersection between form and content.  A beginning ‘is to be made’ remarks Hegel, rather than pre-existing.  The key passage is perhaps:

There is nothing in heaven or nature or spirit or anywhere else that does not contain just as much immediacy as mediation, so that both these determinations prove to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them nothing real.[2]

The immediacy and its mediation are simultaneously produced, and they are separated not by something real but by a false appearance which allows content to appear as something originary ‘to be represented.’  Is this not precisely what the reactionary joke does, in producing the appearance of form and content as separate things? And does Dickens’s discussion of it not show us what Hegel’s does, that a double reading of the reactionary joke reveals exactly this trick which it plays?  This, I think, would be the radicalism of the ‘reactionary’ joke.

Alfie Bown is in the final year of his PhD on Dickens and Comedy at The University of Manchester, supervised by Professor Jeremy Tambling.  He teaches the nineteenth-century and critical theory at Manchester and at LJMU.  He has published 2 articles on Dickens and Caricature and another on D.H. Lawrence and Georges Bataille.  He tweets about comedy, psychoanalysis and the nineteenth-century at @morelikealfie.

[1] Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002) p. 11.

[2] Georg Freidrich Hegel, The Logic of Sense, ed. And trans. George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p. 45, 46.

One comment

  1. This is the best thing I’ve ever read! Completely changed my attitude toward comedy, literature and the nature of being.

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