The Fables for Our Time contained in Thurber's The Thurber Carnival are, in my opinion, particularly good examples of a writer successfully 'breaking frames' in order to create humor and satire. In this essay I am going to explore the main methods Thurber uses to create humor and satire in the fables "The Shrike and the Chipmunks" and "The Unicorn in the Garden"2.
Firstly though, what do I mean by the 'broken frame'? This is a reference to the idea that the violation of our 'frames of reference', and the recognition of the incongruity caused by it, is the basic element of humour. If the incongruity needs to be explained, the humour will be lost. Kant expresses this idea when he says "Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing"3.
Thurber violates several different types of expectation in his attempts to create humour and satire. These range from expectation of the rules of fable and other literature, to expectation of characterisation, and expectation of the familiar saying.
"The Shrike and the Chipmunks", is first and foremost a parody of the traditional fable. It has all the traditional ingredients: the anthropomorphised Chipmunks, corresponding with stereotyped human characters, the building of suspense over a perceived right and wrong type of behaviour, a corresponding climax, and a moral at the end.
Anthropomorphism is a common technique of humour. Umberto Eco explains that this is so that the audience can laugh at the 'broken frame', without the discomfort of empathy with the frame breaker. "It is for this reason that the animalisation of the comic hero is so important"4. But quite apart from this use, Thur...
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Critique of Judgement, Book II. E307 Photocopy. pp. 196-203.
The Thurber Carnival. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983.
1. Umberto Eco, "Frames of Comic Freedom," in Carnival!, ed. T. A. Sebeok (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984), p. 4.
2. James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983). Fables for Our Time pp. 278 - 305. "The Shrike and the Chipmunks" pp. 290-291. "The Unicorn in the Garden" pp. 304-305.
3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, Book II, E307 Photocoy. p. 199.
4. Eco, p. 2.
5. Thurber, p. 290.
6. Thurber, p. 290.
7. Thurber, p. 291.
8. Thurber, p.305.
9. Burton Bernstein, Thurber: A Biography (Great Britain: Lowe & Brydone, 1975), p. 308.
10. Eco, p. 2.
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