- Brief Notices
Note: Appearance among these brief mentions of recent publications that arrived too late for assignment in this issue does not preclude more extended and competent review in a later issue of M L N.
Eileen Gillooly, Smile of Discontent: Humor, Gender, and Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xxv + 289 pages.
In writing about the practice of humor and wit it is notoriously difficult for the critic to be both humorous and witty. The author of this volume, who teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, brilliantly meets this challenge while at the same time constructing a persuasive argument about the subtly imbricated relations between humor and gender in nineteenth-century fiction. Professor Gillooly works on a broad canvas—from Fanny Burney and Jane Austin to Henry James and Edith Wharton—but supports her investigation of “feminine humor” as a discursive term through precise and nuanced readings of individual texts.
Discovering an understated, wryly amusing narrative perspective that differs in rhetoric, affect, and cultural politics from traditional forms of comic expression, Gillooly shows how such humor became an unobtrusive and prudent means of expressing discontent with a culture that was ideologically committed to restricting female agency and identity. If the aggression and emotional distance of traditional irony and satire mark these types of humor as “masculine,” then the “passivity, indirection, and self-effacement” of the humor of “sympathy” that she discloses in her readings render it “feminine” in subtle yet significant ways.
Gillooly, who recognizes how “hazardous” definitions can be in the practice of literary criticism and who readily admits that the history of heavily freighted terms such as “comedy” and “the comic” is certainly no laughing matter, shrewdly opts to discuss her fictional terrain in terms of “humor.” Taking the word in its least restrictive sense, she soberly observes that “humor signifies both a cognitive, psychological process and its textual product,” adding that its gamut includes “any sociocultural stimulus capable of interpretation (a statement, an image, a sound) read bisociationally,” a term she probably borrows from Arthur Koestler and glosses as “[read] with an awareness of at least two conflicting interpretive contexts—and in being so [End Page 1161] read is found to be both incongruous and amusing.” While these doublings hedge somewhat the old arguments about the source of humor, the definition allows her then to develop “feminine humor” as a gender-marked offspring of the parent category.
With a prudent skepticism about irony, the parallel binary term most often associated with the fictions she is exploring, Gillooly deploys an easy familiarity with theorists and rhetoricians of ironic discourse from Aristotle to Kierkegaard, Freud, and beyond, in order to suggest alternative, humorous processes grounded in “feminine difference.” Against the position of authority assumed in most models of irony, she develops readings based on a revised psychodynamics of the family romance, patterns in her novelists where humor can serve as a means of negotiating frustration and a tactic of social subversion. Humor is thus related to “maternal aggression” (Austen), “daughterly defense” (Gaskell), and “maternal protection” (Eliot). Her conceptual analysis is flexible enough to yield, along the way, genuinely original insights into aspects of “feminine humor” in the fictions of Anthony Trollope and Henry James, gender games that seem to have unsettled many of their reviewers. As a bonus, she includes a brief Coda considering the practices of indirection and litotes in some late twentieth-century inheritors of “the smile of discontent”—Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner, and Penelope Fitzgerald.
While the agenda and scope of her book sound formidable, Gillooly manages both her theory and her readings with well aimed wit and the resources of the very humor that is her subject.
Shaun Irlam, Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. 284 pages.
In Elations Shaun Irlam, who teaches at...