Black Humor

Definition of Black Humor

Black humor is a literary device used in novels and plays to discuss taboo subjects while adding an element of comedy. Cambridge dictionary defines it as a non-serious way of treating or dealing with serious subjects. It is often used to present any serious, gruesome or painful incidents lightly. The writers use it as a tool to explore serious issues, inciting serious thoughts and discomfort in the audience.

In literature, this term is often associated with tragedies and is sometimes equated with tragic farce. In this sense, it makes the serious incident or event bit lighter in intensity. Although it is often inserted to induce laughter, it plays a significant role in advancing the action of the play or novel. Etymologically, black humor is a phrase of two words black and humor. The meanings are clear that it is a humorous way of treating something that is serious. It is also called black comedy, dark comedy or gallows humor.

Examples of Black Humor from Literature

Example #1

“Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.”

(Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, Chapter 2)

These lines are taken from the second Two of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The writer explains that the protagonist of the novel, Billy Pilgrim never had control over his life. He illustrates the war-torn mentality of Billy that has disturbed the normal pace of his life. Billy thinks that he has already visited all the events of his life. His planetary movements and theories about life and death have left a profound impact on his real life. This description proves black humor as it contributes to the novel’s anti-war message.

Example #2

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Chapter- 22)

These lines occur in chapter twenty-two of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The protagonist, Yossarian, is expressing his fears to his friend. Yossarian thinks that everyone intends to kill him, while Clevenger takes it in a very light way, implying death is something normal on the war-front. To him, death is an accepted reality during wars, so it should not be taken seriously. Therefore, he suggests that they are not specifically trying to kill Yossarian but everyone. This is a sort of humor for the readers when the tragedies become too heavy for them.

Example #3

“Since she happened to be clutching the long broom, she tried to tickle him from the door way. This had no effect, and so she grew annoyed and began poking Gregor. It was only upon shoving him from his place but meeting no resistance that she became alert. When the true state of affairs now dawned on the charwomen, her eyes bulged with amazement and she whistled to herself. But instead of dawdling there, she yanked the bedroom door open and hollered into the darkness; “Go and look it’s croaked; it’s lying there absolutely crooked.”

(The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka)

These lines occur toward the end of the text, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. These lines show the attitude of the woman hired by the family to clean Gregor’s room. After the gruesome incident, the demise of Gregor. Here the word “crooked” refers to Gregor’s death, which adds the element of black humor in the situation. The miserable plight of Gregor is narrated absurdly. Ironically, his death provides solace to his family and also illustrates that his metamorphosis was a must to alter the circumstances of his family. This incident presents black humor as it provides the audience to see the way the death of a family member has been described as if he is really an insect.

Example #4

“ESTRAGON
Let’s go.
VLADIMIR
We can’t.
ESTRAGON
Why not?
VLADIMIR
We’re waiting for Godot.”

(Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket, Act- I Scene-II, Lines 91-94)

This is another example of black humor from the play, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket. There are two characters in the scene. They are talking about the Godot, whom they are waiting for. These lines show that this wait never allows them to go for independent choices. Vladimir is so promising that he does not want to move until he meets Godot. This black humor shows the audience a chance to see their sufferings with a wry smile on their faces.

Functions of Black Humour

Black humor is a type of hiatus or pause for the audience after a heavy dose of tragic or serious incidents and similar to comic relief. It also gives them a chance to experience laughter and discomfort at the same time. As black humor means to end the tragic seriousness of the previous scenes or incidents, it often makes the same subject or topic or incident a bit lighter than it is. For example, it could be the discussion about the death as in Catch-22, or silliness of the very serious situation in which the fate of people is in someone’s hand but it is made a common absurd situation such as in Waiting for Godot.