I’ve been looking at Salvatore Attardo’s Linguistic Theories of Humor because I’m getting ready to teach Candide this week. (Luckily it’s a team teaching situation because I’m no scholar of French literature.) While reviewing this classic I asked myself a simple question: why is this funny? Attardo details different types of humor: Hostility/disparagement; Release theories; and Incongruity. The Hostility angle relates to symbolic aggression and the superiority of one perspective over another. Release theories are related to psychoanalysis and to the idea that what is funny is related to the liberation of what is repressed. The Incongruity approach to humor refers to mismatching concepts and definitions. (I should write here that the release paradigm is essentially about Incongruity but its emphasis is psychological, which is why it has historically been put in a separate position.) I like Incongruity as a starting point for talking about humor in literature because it’s concrete; unlike the Hostility paradigm it isn’t predicated on intent, or on hidden psychological impulses. Incongruity is concrete and structuralist, it’s about words, and phrases, and definitions, and misdefinition.

Attardo offers us Paul McGhee’s succinct definition of incongruity from his Humor: Its Origin and Development (1979):

“The notion of congruity and incongruity refer to the relationships between components of an object, event, idea, social expectation, and so forth. When the arrangement of the constituent elements of an event is incompatible with the normal or expected pattern, the event is perceived as incongrous” (1979, 6-7).

Attardo also writes that in The World as Will and Idea (1819), Schopenhauer defined laughter as a function of incongruity. Schopenhauer wrote: “The cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity.”

The first few chapters of Candide are full of humorous incongruities of this kind:

  • Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh is very rich and powerful because his castle has a door and windows and one decorative tapestry. The incongruity is in the rift between words (powerful) and actual reality (paltry door, windows, one tapestry). [Chapter 1.]
  • His wife, who weighs 350 pounds is considered a “person of substance.” The incongruity relates to a difference between figurative and literal meaning. [Chapter 1]
  • Sex is described as “experimental physics,” a “science,” and sexual arousal and/or the male penis are admiringly and desiringly described as “sufficient reason.” The incongruity once again lies in the mixing of unrelated registers: the elevated, cerebral, and sober language of science with that of the baser instincts and bodily satisfactions. [Chapter 1]
  • A beautiful description of two armies juxtaposed with descriptions of their destruction in unholy carnage. The incongruity of opposites, summarized by the oxymoron “heroic butchery.” [Chapter 3]
  • The juxtaposition of Candide’s joy at being rescued by a goodhearted Anabaptist, immediately followed by a horrific description of a crippled beggar who is literally decomposing on the side of the road. Same as above. [Chapter 3.]

As a character, Candide is a man unburdened by interiority. He is transparent and innocent. What you see is what you get. This is why he cannot deceive and why he is so easy to deceive. In a manner of speaking, as a straight man, Candide is incapable of being incongruous and of understanding the incongruity of the world around him. That is why he is so insistent on believing what Dr. Pangloss has told him: that the world is as good as it can be, always! This innocent rigidity and faithfulness, this inability to register incongruity as a worldly reality, is what generates incongruous contrasts and makes this particular character ridiculous and entertaining.

Incongruity is also at the center of the inception of Candide. When an earthquake destroyed Lisbon on All Saint’s Day in 1755, killing 15,000 people, Voltaire wrote a poem decrying religious discourse surrounding the event, as well as the idea of the great chain of being, defended by Gottfried Leibniz’s Metaphysics and Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, which argued that all events, good or tragic, were somehow necessary to God’s plan, regardless of our ability to understand their place. In a note to his poem, Voltaire wrote: “…there are events that have effects, and others that do not. The chain of events is rather like a genealogical tree; one sees branches that die out after one generation, and others that continue the family. Many events have no descendants” (102).

In his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, An Inquiry into the Maxim, ‘Whatever is, is right,’” Voltaire describes the “Women and children heaped up mountain high,/Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie;/Wretches unnumbered in the pangs of death,/Who mangled, torn, and panting for their breath,/Buried beneath their sinking roofs expire,/And end their wretched lives in torments dire” (99). For Voltaire, it was incongruous to join such horrors with a grand celestial design as Christians and certain philosophers were doing. Although he had been a philosophical optimist before the earthquake, he was shaken now, and pushed for a vision that was somewhat more accommodating of human agency and will. When he sat down to write his brutally satirical Candide, he was responding to a horrifying conceptual incongruity. He took his pen and extended and multiplied the incongruities through fanciful episodes and descriptions about a wide-eyed, innocent optimist who, at first at least, uncritically accepts the “all is well” and “all is for the best” worldview.

*My quotes from Candide and its context are drawn from David Wootton’s Candide and Related Texts (Hackett Publishing, 2000).