Literature and Humor
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
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ANALOGIES: GENRES AND SEASONS
• 1ST: SPRING = COMEDY
• 2ND: SUMMER = ROMANCE
• 3RD AUTUMN = TRAGEDY
• 4TH WINTER = IRONY or SATIRE
• THEN BACK TO SPRING = COMEDY
• (Frye 131-139)
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SPRING
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SUMMER
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AUTUMN
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WINTER
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1ST: SPRING = COMEDY
• Comedy is based on an unjust law or
tradition which in the end is broken. There is
always a complication, but the comedy ends
in the reestablishment of the natural order of
things, and everybody paired off and living
happily ever after.
• Two sub-genres of Comedy are “Comedy of
Manners” and Comedy of Humors.”
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COMEDY OF HUMORS
• The Comedy of Humors goes back to the
belief of medieval physiology that human
dispositions are based on the balance of the
four basic fluids, phlegm, blood, black bile,
and yellow bile.
• If the balance is not right a person might be
phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholy or bilious.
• (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 248)
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• If a character’s humors are out of balance, he
is a “humors” character, otherwise known as
an “eccentric,” or even (as with Flannery
O’Connor’s characters) a “grotesque.”
• Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is filled with
humors characters “ranging from the
energetic Wife of Bath to the pretentious but
little educated Nun and from the overly
religious and hypocritical Monk to the crude
rascal of The Miller and the comically
romantic Knight.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 248)
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• In Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, Oscar
Madison’s exaggerated sloppiness is
placed in opposition to the
meticulousness of Felix Unger.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 107)
• In contrast, a Comedy of Manners
parodies and satirizes the manners and
conventions of high society.
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Alazons and Eirons
• “Alazons and Eirons are stock humorous
characters going back to Greek drama.
Alazons are overly confident braggarts
getting their way by blustering and bullying.
At the other extreme, are the eirons, who are
sly rogues getting their way through feigned
ignorance or dumb luck.” The term “eiron”
is related to the term “irony,” because the
Eirons say one thing, but mean another.
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 248)
• Note that in Japanese culture, the Samurai
are the Alazons, and the Ninja are the Eirons.
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Comedy of Manners
• “Comedies of manners
frequently stress the superior
intellectual and moral values of
middle class characters as
compared to the established
aristocracy.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 247)
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• In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being
Earnest Jack responds to Lady Bracknell’s
question of whether he smokes and she
answers, “I am glad to hear it. A man should
have an occupation of some kind.”
• Later, Jack answers one of her questions by
saying he doesn’t know, to which she
cheerfully responds, “I am pleased to hear it.
I do not approve anything that tampers with
natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a
delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is
gone.” (Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 248)
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• In Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro,
which was later made into an opera by
Mozart, the unjust law was that the Lord of
the Manor had the right to take the virginity
of any woman marrying one of the Lord’s
serfs.
• The plot of the play revolves around how
Figaro and his bride repeatedly outwit the
Lord of the Manor until the couple is married
and the Lord is no longer entitled to this
privilege.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 107)
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• In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of
Venice, the unjust law relates to the
pound of flesh that Shylock is authorized
to receive.
• Portia, the lawyer, overturns the unjust
law by arguing that while Shylock may
be allowed to take his pound of flesh, he
cannot shed one drop of blood in
obtaining it.
• (Nilsen & Nilsen 107)
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COMEDY BECOMES
TRAGEDY
• The line which changes Shakespeare’s
Romeo and Juliet from a comedy to a
tragedy was spoken by Mercutio (a
mercurial figure).
• When Mercutio is wounded in a sword
fight Romeo says, “Courage, man, the
hurt cannot be much,”
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• and Mercutio responds, “No, ‘tis not so
deep as a well, nor so wide as a churchdoor, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.”
• “Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find
me a grave man.”
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ADDITIONAL EXAMPLES
• COMEDY OF HUMORS: Canterbury
Tales, Little Women, “The Owl and the
Nightingale,” The Taming of the Shrew
• COMEDY OF MANNERS: The
Importance of Being Ernest, The Rivals
(with Mrs. Malaprop)
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2ND: SUMMER = ROMANCE
• The Romance “presents an idealized world, the
black-and-white world of our desires, where good
things are really good, and bad things are really bad.
• The Romance involves the Journey, and the Journey
involves the Hero, the Villain, the Quest, the Sage,
the Prohibition, the Sacrifice, the Dragon, the
Treasure, and sometimes the rescue of the Maiden.
• The epiphany (mountain top, tower, island,
lighthouse, ladder, staircase, Jack’s beanstalk,
Rapunzel’s hair, Indian rope trick etc.) connects
Heaven and Earth” (Frye 203).
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EXAMPLES OF ROMANCE
• The Divine Comedy, The
Lion, the Witch and the
Wardrobe, Lord of the
Rings, Paradise Lost
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3RD AUTUMN = TRAGEDY
• Tragedy is the opposite of
comedy in that the happiness
appears at the beginning or the
middle. Somebody is privileged,
but with a fatal flaw, usually an
obsession and hubris which
causes the downfall.
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EXAMPLES OF TRAGEDY
•The Great Gatsby,
Hamlet, King Lear,
Macbeth, Othello,
Romeo and Juliet
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4TH WINTER = SATIRE
• “Satire demands at least a
token fantasy (Utopia and
Dystopia), a content which
the reader recognizes as
grotesque, and at least an
implicit moral standard”
(Frye 224).
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EXAMPLES OF SATIRE
• HORATIAN SATIRE (mild and amusing):
Animal Farm, Brave New World,
Gulliver’s Travels, Little Big Man,
Lysistrata, Screwtape Letters
• JUVENALIAN SATIRE (harsh and
bitter): 1984, Clockwork Orange,
Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, A
Modest Proposal
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4TH WINTER = IRONY
• “Whenever a reader is not
sure what the author’s
attitude is or what his own is
supposed to be, we have
irony with relatively little
satire” (Frye 223).
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EXAMPLES OF IRONY
OR GALLOWS HUMOR
• Catch 22, Catcher in the
Rye, Fargo, The Loved One,
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
Nest, Portnoy’s Complaint,
Pulp Fiction,
Slaughterhouse 5, The
World According to Garp
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ADDITIONAL GENRES
• Other genres of literature include the
following:
• Benign Humor, the Bildungsroman, the
Cautionary Tale, the Doppelganger
Genre, Erotic Humor, Fantasy Humor,
Farce, Gothic Humor, the
Metamorphosis Genre, Parody, the
Picaresque Novel, Pourquoi Stories,
and Vernacular Humor
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BENIGN HUMOR
• Benign Humor is non-threatening. It is a mild
type of satire with much word play.
• Examples of Benign Humor include Alice in
Wonderland, the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves
novels, Peter Rabbit, Through the Looking
Glass, The Wind and the Willows, and Winnie
the Pooh.
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Lewis Carroll
• After the success of Lewis Carroll’s
Alice in Wonderland, and Through the
Looking Glass, Queen Victoria gave
permission to Lewis Carroll to dedicate
his next book to her.
• He complied by honoring her with a
mathematical treatise.
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 244)
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BILDUNGSROMAN
• In a Bildungsroman, the character
grows.
• Examples of Bildungsroman novels
include Are You There, God? It’s Me,
Margaret, The Chocolate War, I Am the
Cheese, and Moll Flanders.
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CAUTIONARY TALE
• A Cautionary Tale tells us what not to
do.
• Examples of Cautionary Tales include
Aesop’s Fables, The Bidpai Tales,
Coyote Stories, La Fontaine’s Fables,
Uncle Remus Stories and Urban
Legends.
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DOPPELGANGER GENRE
• The Doppelganger Genre concentrates on a
single character with two personalities, or
two characters with a single personality.
• Examples of the Doppelganger Genre include
Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde, Pride and Prejudice,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,
Sense and Sensibility, and “Tweedledum and
Tweedledee.”
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Ethnic Literature
Henry Louis Gates, and Signifying
• In his 1988 The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of
African American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis
Gates, Jr. says that because African American slaves
were denied the use of normal and private
communication, they developed double-entendre
Trickster signifiers.
• “Speakers would say something that meant one
thing to whites and another to blacks. The humor
comes from the realization that simultaneous
messages are being communicated and that the
authority figures (usually whites) understand only
one message while the other participants
comprehend both” (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 258).
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Vine Deloria
• The title of Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for
Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto is an example
of a pan-Indian joke (especially meaningful
only to tribal or family members).
• Another example of a pan-Indian joke says
that when the missionaries came, they had
only the Bible, while the Indians had all the
land. But now, “They have all the land, and
Indians have only the Bible.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 258)
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Fantasy Humor
• Fantasy Humor requires a special
suspension of disbelief, and includes the
genre of Science Fiction.
• Examples of Fantasy Humor include
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Legend
of Sleepy Hollow, The Jungle Book, A
Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Pan, The
Adventures of Walter Mitty, and The Wizard
of Oz.
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Farce: A Violent but Innocent Genre
• Jessica Milner Davis says that “whether it be
English, medieval Dutch, Spanish, French,
Viennese, Russian, improvised commedia
dell’arte, or even Japanese kyògen of nò
theatre, farce is both the most violent and
physically shocking of dramatic forms of
comedy…, but it is almost the most innocent
in that unlike satire or burlesque it does not
offend either individuals or society.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 264)
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• Davis continues, “Equally paradoxically,
farce is not particularly fantastic or
unrealistic: indeed in terms of acting
style, actors assert that the
truthfulness-to-life of their character is
absolutely essential for the release of
laughter by the audience.”
• But the violence is highly stylized with
“precision of timing and intonation
notoriously difficult to achieve.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 264)
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GOTHIC HUMOR
• Gothic Humor occurs in haunted houses or
in mysterious caves. It is a dark and stormy
night, and many of the sights and sounds are
mysterious and threatening.
• Examples of Gothic Humor include Dracula,
Frankenstein, The House of Usher,
Northanger Abbey, The Langaliers, and
Wuthering Heights.
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• Paul Lewis studied the role of gothic
narratives, and was “struck by the range of
possible responses including puzzlement,
fear, and humor and by the relation between
these responses and gothic sub-genres
including didactic gothic, speculative or
ambiguous gothic, and mock-gothic.”
• Lewis argued that “the eruption of fearful
mysteries in a narrative is an essential
generic element of the gothic.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 265)
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Comedy vs. Tragedy
High Comedy and Low Comedy
• In the classical sense, the “comedy” isn’t
necessarily funny, but in contrast to the
“tragedy” the “comedy” has a happy ending.
• “High comedy (what we now call ‘smart
comedy’ or ‘literary comedy’) relies for its
humor on wit and sophistication, while low
comedy relies on burlesque, crude jokes,
and buffoonery.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 246)
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Phunny Phellows vs. Satirists
Masks and Voices
• Daniel Royot said that comedians don masks and
borrow voices, and “it is the interplay of such
conflicting masks and voices that results in open or
subtle incongruities. With only masks, the effect
would be simply parodic, grotesque humor as is
unfortunately too much of Jerry Lewis’s stuff and
that of other “phunny phellows.” On the other hand,
if they use just voices without masks, the result is
merely satirical.”
• Royot then contrasts the visual humor of Mel Brooks
with the satirical humor of Woody Allen.
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260)
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Joe Sandwich and a Unified Theory of Humor
• In The Vale of Laughter, Peter De Vries has a
character named Joe Sandwich who says,
• “No single theory has yet managed to
explain all varieties of mirth. Nine tenths of
what we laugh at answers to Bergson,
another nine tenths to Freud, still another to
Kant or Plato, and so on, leaving always that
elusive tenth that makes each definition like
a woman trying to pack more into a girdle
than it will legitimately hold.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 261)
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Laughter and Literature
• In correlating laughter with screen comedians,
James Agee concluded that “four of the main grades
of laughter are the titter, the yowl, the belly laugh,
and the buffo…, which he organized into six
categories ranging from the incipient or ‘inner and
inaudible’ laugh (the simper and smirk) to the loud
and unrestrained howl, yowl, shriek, and Olympian
laugh.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260)
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• “Agee’s study demonstrates an
interesting crossover between
literature and real-life because
in a way it is measuring the
care and the skill with which
authors observe and record
people’s actions.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260)
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METAMORPHOSIS HUMOR
• Metamorphosis Humor always results
in a miraculous transformation.
• Examples of Metamorphosis Humor
include Faust, The Metamorphosis, My
Fair Lady, Pinnochio, and Pygmalion.
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PARODY
• Parody mimics and exaggerates the
style of the original.
• Examples of Parody include Byron’s
Don Juan, Fables for our Times,
“Humpty Dumpty à la Poe,” The Rape
of the Lock and Lewis Carroll’s
“Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat.”
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Mark Twain and Doggerel Poetry
• Julia Moore’s ‘death’ poetry of the mid-1800s
is an example of doggerel poetry. “In
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain modeled his
“Ode to Stephen Bots, Dec’d” on her work.
• Twain described her as having a rare
“organic talent” for humor. She could make
“an intentionally humorous episode pathetic
and an intentionally pathetic one funny.”
(Nilsens in Raskin 261-262)
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THE PICARESQUE NOVEL
• A Picaresque Novel is a mock quest done by
a Picaro who doesn’t have any money,
power, or prestige. This Picaro lives by his
wits as he encounters various powerful
eccentrics in his episodic adventures.
• Examples of Picaresque Novels include Don
Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, and Pickwick
Papers.
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There are six qualities that are associated with
the picaresque novel:
1. “The first-person account tells a part or the
whole life of a rogue or picaro.
2. Rogues and picaros are drawn from a lower
social level, are of loose character, and if
employed, do menial labor and live by their
wit and playful language.
3. Picaresque novels are episodic in nature.
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4. Picaresque characters do not mature or
develop.
5. The story is realistic. The language is plain
(vernacular) and is filled with vivid detail.
6. Picaresque characters serve other higher
class characters and learn their foibles and
frailties, thus providing opportunities to
satirize social castes, national types, and/or
racial peculiarities.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 253)
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POURQUOI STORIES
• Pourquoi Stories explain how the world
works.
• Examples of Pourquoi Stories include
the Anansi Tales from Africa, and the
Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill stories
from the United States.
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VERNACULAR HUMOR
• Vernacular Humor is written the way people
actually talk, using colloquial language, and
eye dialect, such as “iz” and “wuz.”
• Examples of Vernacular Humor include
Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, and
anything written by Mark Twain or Charles
Dickens, but nothing written by James
Fennimore Cooper.
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!Women’s Humor
Regina Barreca
Some of the titles of Regina Barreca’s books
show how teasing occurs between the sexes:
They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted
Perfect Husbands: and Other Fairy Tales
Untamed and Unabashed: Essays on Women
and Humor in British Literature
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• !Regina Barreca said, “Women’s lives have
always been filled with humor. It emerged
“as a tool for survival in the social and
professional jungles” and works as a
“weapon against the absurdities of injustice.”
• “Women did not suddenly get funny in the
1990s any more than women suddenly got
ambitious in the 1970s or sexually aware in
the 1960s or intelligent in the 1980s.”
(Nilsen in [Raskin] 2008: 259)
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!!Wendy Wasserstein
• Wendy Wasserstein said,
• “When I speak up, it’s not because I
have any particular answers; rather, I
have a desire to puncture the
pretentiousness of those who seem so
certain they do.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 259)
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!!!E. B. and Katherine White
The Nature of Humor
• “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but
the thing dies in the process and the innards
are discouraging to any but the scientific
mind.”
• “Humor won’t stand much blowing up, and it
won’t stand much poking. It has a certain
fragility, and evasiveness, which one had
best respect. Essentially it is a complete
mystery.”
(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 243)
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!!AMERICAN LITERATURE WEB SITES I
AMERICAN HUMOR STUDIES ASSOCIATION OF MLA (DAVID SLOANE):
http://www.newhaven.edu/UNH/Special/AHSA/AHSAHomePage.htm
ART SPIEGELMAN:
http://lambiek.net/artists/s/spiegelman.htm
J. K. ROWLING:
http://www.jkrowling.com/
SANDRA CISNEROS:
http://www.sandracisneros.com/flash/books/books_05_front.html
JACK GANTOS:
http://www.jackgantos.com/jackgantos_print.html
LEMONY SNICKET:
http://www.lemonysnicket.com/VileVideos/video1.html
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LOST:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cZy8SGLkQk
PHILIP ROTH SOCIETY (DEREK ROYAL)
http://rothsociety.org
J. K. ROWLING:
http://www.jkrowling.com/
LEMONY SNICKET:
http://www.lemonysnicket.com/VileVideos/video1.html
ART SPIEGELMAN:
http://lambiek.net/artists/s/spiegelman.htm
YA-LIT WEB QUESTS:
http://www.asu.edu/clas/english/englished/yalit/webquest.htm
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Related PowerPoints
• Gallows Humor
• Irony
• Paradox
• Parody
• Poetry
• Satire
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Century American Literature. Hanover, NY: Tufts University Press,
1994.
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Devices: Translating Raymond Chandler,” in Vandaele, 235-257.
Attardo, Salvatore. “Humor and Irony in Interaction: From Mode Adoption
to Failure of Detection.” in Say Not to Say: New Perspectives on
Miscommunication Eds. Luigi Anolli, Rita Ciceri, and Giuseppe Riva.
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Attardo, Salvatore. “Irony as Relevant Inappropriateness.” Journal of
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Attardo, Salvatore. “Irony Markers and Functions: Towards a GoalOriented Theory of Irony and Its Processing, in Rask 12 (2000): 3-20.
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References # 2:
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Barreca, Regina. Perfect Husbands: and Other Fairy Tales. New York,
NY: Harmony Books, 1993.
Barreca, Regina. Untamed and Unabashed: Essays on Women and
Humor in British Literature. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University
Press, 1994.
Barreca, Regina. The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor. New York,
NY: Penguin, 1996.
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References # 3:
Barreca, Regina, ed. Last Laughs: Perspectives on Women and
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Barreca, Regina, ed. New Perspectives on Women and Comedy.
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References # 4:
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References # 6:
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References # 7:
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References # 8:
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Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.
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References # 10:
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