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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Techniques of humour in the works of John Steinbeck Payerle, Cornell Stephen

Abstract

An analysis of John Steinbeck's humour leads to a better understanding of the author and his career. Steinbeck uses humour most often to characterize, to control his distance from his material, to intensify his serious passages, and to satirize. The study of his humour helps to solve the problems presented in his writing. His variety of forms, a result of his versatility and experimentation, is to some extent determined by his oscillation between humorous and serious treatments of subject matter. The fluctuation between serious and humorous works depends to a great extent on his degree of concern for his subject, while the inconsistency in the quality of his writing, as well as the inconsistency in the quality and quantity of his humour, is directly related to his degree of familiarity with his materials. Chapter One is a statement of the critical opinions of Steinbeck's humour. In Chapter Two the tradition of American humour is considered. The shaping of the national character is seen as a manifestation of national humour. The three main national characters are traced through from the American Revolution to the time of Mark Twain, when they emerged as elements of society. These elements are traced through to the present day with emphasis on Steinbeck's manipulation of them in his creation of humour. Chapter Three defines the qualities found in humour, then isolates humour from related modes. A definition of general areas of humour is followed by a definition of literary forms dependent on humour and by a discussion of techniques for the creation of humour. Chapter Four, a descriptive analysis of the humour in Steinbeck's works, attempts to determine the quality of the humour and to discover what types of humour predominate. Steinbeck's combination of the general areas of humour, his use of a variety of literary forms, and his utilization of different techniques are discussed. It is concluded that satire is the most persistent and the most successful element in his humour. Chapter Five deals with Steinbeck's uses of humour: to characterize, to control the distance from his material, to intensify the force of serious passages, and to satirize. In Chapter Six the chronology of the works, both fiction and non-fiction, is traced in order to determine the pattern of his humour. Issues which are serious but not crucial he tends to treat humorously, while those which are urgent he treats seriously. The relationship between the success of the writing, the success of the humour, and the author's familiarity with his materials is examined. In Chapter Seven a number of conclusions are reached. The fluctuations in the quality of Steinbeck's writing are directly related to his degree of familiarity with his materials. When he is remote from his subject matter there is a decline both in his artistry and in the quality of his humour. It is natural for him to view his material humorously, but crucial issues demand serious treatment. Although his tendency to experiment caused him to treat a wide range of topics, Steinbeck writes basically about America. He expresses himself through a natural sense of humour yet his writing pertains to the American scene in a way indicative of his concern as a humanist.

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