“My Life and Hard Times” is an autobiographicalnovel written by humorist James Thurber.

Although, the title seems to lend theimpression that the life of the novelist was probably filled with tragic andtrying events, the novel can be initially regarded as quite the opposite. Thenarrative is a string of seemingly unrelated events that take place inThurber’s youth, against the backdrop of Columbus, Ohio  at the turn of the twentieth century.Thurber’s use of humour throughout the text can be interpreted in manydifferent ways. It has the effect of assuaging the severity of the situationshe describes, or it could be to elevate the drama and action of quirky butharmless situations, that almost everyone experiences and something that mostrenowned autobiographers do not emphasize on. In order to implement this, he uses an array of techniques: similes,metaphors; exaggerated diction and the recurring idea of blindness.Furthermore, certain theories of humour designed by figures such as SigmundFreud can also be applied to his work. Some of the many assumptions behind what makespeople laugh are the “Incongruity theory”, “Superiority theory” and “Relieftheory”.

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In Chapter 1, which Thurber names after what his mother describes thesituation as “The Night The Bed Fell” , the incongruity theory is at play. Theincongruity theory claims that people tend to find it humorous when theirexpectations are dodged, especially if it the outcome is not so severe as theyhad imagined previously. In the case of the night described by Thurber, whichis full of selfish misconception by each of the family members, the outcome isnot like what they may have imagined. As Thurber’s father makes the untimelydecision to sleep on the old,precarious bed in the attic room, Thurber’s paranoidmother warns him against it, fearing he will die. In the interim, Thurber isalso accompanied that night with a cousin who has a fear of dying in his sleepdue to ceasing to breathe, a jumpy dog, and his brothers Roy and Herman.

Totalchaos ensues when Thurber is the one who falls down off of his flimsy cot andeach member of the family interprets the sound produced in their own way,aligning with their own fears, before they finally are calm enough to learn thetruth. In retrospection, this incident itself is quite humorous. A secondinstance where this theory of humour can be applied is in Chapter 3, when theentire East side of Colombus is under the impression that a dam in their cityhas broken and they were all doomed to be engulfed in its water. The mosthilarious incident is perhaps the one concerning the doctor, Mr.Mallory, as heruns against what he imagines to be the flood (but in reality is a young boy onroller skates) due to a swishing sound he hears behind him. This also complieswith the “Relief theory” as , of course, the dam had not actually broken oroverflooded, which is why some people find the affair funny years later.Another theory that can be applied in Chapters 8 and 9, which are titled”University Days” and “Draft Board Nights” respectively, is the ‘SuperiorityTheory’.

This can be extracted in a situation where a person finds humour inbeing superior to another person, which is evident in the doctors, botanyteacher, commandant and even Thurber himself. In chapter 8, Thurber firstdescribes the botany teachers unwillingness to believe he had an issue with hiseyesight. Following that, he speaks of two other students and their failings,possibly to highlight he was not the only one who had weaknesses or failed in alaughable manner. In chapter 9, the army, who has a considerable amount ofpower over the commoners, sends Thurber summonses for about four months despitethe fact that his checkup was complete and he would ideally have been exemptedfrom military service.

The humour technique is a very important one in ‘My Lifeand Hard Times’ as it makes the situations more relatable and accessible to thereader.  Thurber’s use of similes and metaphors furthercontribute to the hilarity of his vignettes because of the nature of the objects,situations and people he utilizes for his comparisons. In chapter 1, hedescribes his cousin to be “…like a drowning man” when he accidentally spillscamphor on his face and begins to choke slightly. In chapter 3, he likens thedispersal of the dam breaking to a cry that “..

.spread like grassfire”. He alsoimagines that any far-off speculators would compare the event to the sightingof the mysteriously abandoned ship, Marie Celeste.

In addition, he compares theoutraged quivering of his professor to the prominent American actor-directorLionel Barrymore. It can be noted that he compares his situations to ones thatare relatively more intense, famed, important or ‘serious’ in nature. Thisreiterates how the situations described were not that ‘hard’ in a macrocosmicperspective ; however, for him, they were one of the most tragic or challengingaffairs of his life.

The moment the comparison is made in the readers’ minds,they envision it in the same way Thurber experienced it. The comparisons themselvesare exceedingly witty and well-known, once again, aiding the readers tocomprehend the situation better and gain a different perspective on thesituations, which are all seemingly harmless.  Another aspect of his style of writing is verywisecracking: Thurber’s use of exaggerated diction. As mentioned above, Thurberdid not experience what is conventionally regarded as a ‘traumatic experience’.However, his diction paints an entirely antithetical picture. He describes thefoibles of his family in chapter 1 as an “incredible tale” as well as an”unheard-of and perilous situation” . He also claims that he was both”ennobled” and “demoralised” by the events that took place on the ‘day the dambroke’.

This statement is antithetical and perplexing, especially as thereaders ponder the reason behind his pride. (he later claims that most peopleinvolved in the incident “shut up like a clam” when it is brought up). Thisprovides an insight into how he elevates the importance of the experience,giving it a hint of mystery and complexity. Another instance that occurs inchapter 8 goes along the same line of elevating an incidents importance inone’s own mind, as compared to what it actually could be in reality. Whileglancing into a microscope he could not see into, much to the dismay of histeacher in botany class, he claims he sees a “nebulous milky substance” whilevoices only the words “I see what looks like a lot of milk” to his professor.

He states he went through “anguish” in both his botany and economics classes.It can be argued that the sophistication of his descriptions are a bitexaggerated. Once again, the superiority theory comes to play as the readersmay find the small failings of Thurber funny when they compare their lives tohis, whether they relate to it or not.  Thurber sustained an injury in his earlychildhood which caused some problems in his vision. This later gave way toalmost complete blindness. This is not mentioned in this novel in great detail,but it is clear that his eyesight was in the early stages of deterioration.This can be seen as one of the factors of his life that had the power ofobtrusively impacting its progression the most and yet he makes only fleetingmentions of it. However, the concept of blindness can be found in many of thecharacters and situations  of Thurber’snovel.

In chapters 1 and 3, it is quite clear that the characters are blind toreality (or at least pretend to be) and hence act and make certain decisions.Each of the family members in chapter 1 make their own assumptions about thesituation in an almost self-serving manner : Briggs Beall immediately assumesthat everyone is trying to “bring him out” and that he has stopped breathing,Thurber’s mother sticks to her assumption that her husband will die due to anold bed crashing down with him, Thurber assumes he is entombed like a mummy andhis father “decided” that the house was on fire. It was after minutes ofunthinking commotion that the situation was revisited in a more consideratemanner. And yet, Thurber’s mother chose to refer to it as “The Night The BedFell on your Father” even after knowing what truly happened . In chapter 3,when chaos was unleashed at the thought of the dam breaking, a woman who was ina cinema hall with his aunt immediately assumed it was a fire that caused thecommotion, because she was convinced she would probably die in one.

Similarsuperstitions are held by other characters in the novel and are not necessarilybacked by reason or logic. However, Thurber also makes a comment on how thisattitude may have serious repercussions. In chapter 9, the doctors who areresponsible for whether the potential soldiers of the country were healthyenough, they do so with no consideration of the fact that they could be sendingunfit or incapable people against their will.

Also, they show no concern aboutThurber’s unprofessional techniques or even his recurring appearance at thecentre, as both a pretend doctor and a patient. Technically, it is Thurber whois blind but he gives readers a glimpse into the shortcomings and roboticself-centeredness of the human condition and institutions, which is an amusingand ironic thing to do. At the same time, he is also equalizing himself withthe rest of society and comparing the gravity and significance of his problemsto those faced by society as a whole.  In the preface of his novel, Thurber states “Imyself have accomplished nothing of excellence except a remarkable and , tosome of my friends, unaccountable expertness in hitting empty ginger alebottles with small rocks at the distance of thirty paces…” Unlike most of theprominent autobiographers, he breaks certain conventions and stereotypes byimmortalizing his comical and unique experiences, that, although intrinsic tohim, are similar in nature to commoners like himself. This could draw to theconclusion that it is not the intensity of the situations faced that make aperson’s life ‘hard’, but it is the way the experience it emotionally, which isclear in Thurber’s descriptions and thoughts. His rendition of times that wereextremely chaotic emotionally to comical instances, coupled with his calm andsettled tone, reinforces the idea that even he may be laughing at his ownfoibles and eccentricities while reminiscing about them.   

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