Date of Award

5-2014

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

English

First Advisor

Paul Stasi

Second Advisor

Derik Smith

Abstract

In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, comedy plays an important yet convoluted role. In his own rendering of the Blues Aesthetic, Ellison is able to present laughter and humor as a healthy and natural reaction to painful and distressing events. The significance of this technique, which builds upon double consciousness , is evident in Ellison’s many essays, where he suggests that laughter may be the only way for America to accept the crude reality of its foundations and move forward. In my thesis, I differentiate between four general types of comedy found in Invisible Man. These can be summarized as irony, outright hilarity or puns, laughter as relief from discomfort, and ‘comic deformity’ or self-shattering imagery. Finally, I show how laughter and a sense of humor is not just the reaction of Invisible Man’s unnamed protagonist but an element of modernist American ideology that was crucial to Ellison and is perhaps best detected in improvisational jazz or the techniques some of the major figures in jazz, namely Louis Armstrong. This type of self-referential comedy is troubling, for it can be seen as building upon offensive and antiquated stereotypes, such as the Sambo image, perhaps reinforcing or even validating them. However, Ellison’s comedic aesthetic as well as Armstrong’s endemic smile and voice are inevitabilities of their artistic essence. Ellison himself saw humor as the only way to negotiate the violent underbelly of American life, “for when American’s can no longer laugh at each other, they have to fight one another” (Ellison, taken from Address to the Harvard College Alumni, Class of 1949).

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