The Nature of Humor in Zoshchenko’s Short Stories
The Incongruity Theory of Humor in its different forms states that the cause of laughter is the perception of something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. It seems particularly true of comic absurdity which is based on a deadpan violation of established norms of logic and convention. The current paper explores linguistic mechanisms that underlie the comic effects in the works of Mikhail Zoshchenko, one of the great satirists of Soviet Russia. Zoshchenko is well-known for his simplified writing style which imitates the language and mentality of “the simple people” while at the same time mocking the nascent Soviet officialdom and its demands for the popular accessibility of art. The paper considers Zoshchenko’s narrative through the prism of conventional implicatures (Grice 1961, Karttunen and Peters 1979, Horn 2004, Potts 2005, 2007), or meanings that are not directly stated in the utterances, but implied by the speaker; e.g. Even John solved the problem implies that it was it was not expected of John to solve it. In successful communication, implicit meanings form the shared background of conversational partners; violation of these shared norms may be used to create comical effect. One of the most conventionalized societal norms and one Zoshchenko most frequently violates is the value of human life and, hence, solemn attitude to death. The narrator in Zoshchenko’s stories repeatedly implies otherwise, thus creating a comical portrait of the mentality of Homo Soveticus. Consider a quote from “The story about a greedy dairy woman”: “So, her husband died. At first she probably took it lightly. - A-a, she thought – no big deal… But then she realized – yes, this is a big deal!... Eligible bachelors are not running around in bunches. And then, of course, she started grieving” (shift in emphasis; the cause for grief is not the husband’s death but its inconvenience for the surviving wife). The story “A restless old man” (about an old man who lives in a communal flat and falls into lethargic stupor taken by his family and neighbors for death and then after waking up really dies) is based on violating the same conventional implicature. Throughout the story the narrator implicitly creates the image of death as an inconvenient occurrence and of a deceased person as an unwanted piece of waste. The harshly comic effect is achieved by implicatures about the shallow emotional impact of death (“And then of course there is aggravation: because the room is small and here is a superfluous element”, “If my husband, this surviving idiot, ordered the hearse right away, then the wait for it would have only been three days”; “The summoned doctor reassured everybody that now the old man is bona fide dead”); by violation of semantic compatibility rules whereby the seemingly dead old man is alternately referred to as an animate being (“The dead man is lying and demanding the last tribute to be paid to him”, “The babysitter is afraid to be in the room where a dead person is living”) or inanimate object (“There is so little space that there is even nowhere to pile up the old man”; “I am going to pile him up in the hall, let him wait for the hearse there”).