Black humor is a literary device employed in novels and plays to tackle taboo subjects while injecting an element of comedy. It's often described as a non-serious approach to dealing with grave or serious matters. Writers utilize it as a tool to delve into weighty issues, provoking serious contemplation and discomfort among the audience.
Understanding Black Humor
Black humor is frequently associated with tragedies and is sometimes likened to tragic farce, serving to lighten the intensity of serious events. While it often aims to evoke laughter, it plays a substantial role in advancing the narrative of a play or novel. Etymologically, black humor consists of two words, "black" and "humor," clearly signifying a humorous approach to something that is inherently serious. It is also referred to as black comedy, dark comedy, or gallows humor.
Examples of Black Humor from Literature
Example #1: "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut
"In 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' Kurt Vonnegut portrays the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, as a character who lacks control over his life. He humorously describes Billy's perception of being unstuck in time, making his existence akin to a perpetual stage fright. Billy believes he has already experienced all the events of his life, creating a war-torn mindset that profoundly impacts his reality. This description exemplifies black humor, contributing to the novel's anti-war message."
Example #2: "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller
"In 'Catch-22,' Joseph Heller presents a conversation between Yossarian and Clevinger, highlighting the absurdity of wartime. Yossarian expresses his fear that someone is trying to kill him, to which Clevinger responds nonchalantly that they're shooting at everyone. This exchange humorously underscores the notion that death is a common occurrence in war, adding a touch of humor to the otherwise grim context."
Example #3: "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka
"In 'The Metamorphosis,' Franz Kafka employs black humor towards the end of the story when the cleaning woman hired by the family discovers Gregor's lifeless body. She reacts in an absurd manner, referring to his death as being 'absolutely crooked.' This macabre description adds an element of dark humor to the tragic event, while also illustrating the ironic relief Gregor's demise brings to his family."
Example #4: "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett
"In 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett, the characters Vladimir and Estragon engage in a humorous exchange. Estragon suggests leaving, but Vladimir insists they cannot until they meet Godot. This dialogue humorously portrays their inability to make independent decisions due to their unwavering wait for Godot, providing the audience with an opportunity to find amusement amidst their suffering."
Functions of Black Humor
Black humor serves as a temporary reprieve or pause for the audience following intense and somber scenes, akin to comic relief. It offers an opportunity for the audience to experience laughter and discomfort simultaneously. Essentially, black humor serves to alleviate the seriousness of preceding scenes or events, making them appear somewhat lighter than they inherently are. It may involve discussions about death, as seen in 'Catch-22,' or the portrayal of a very serious situation rendered absurdly common, as in 'Waiting for Godot.'