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James Thurber creates a memorable comic persona in the “University Days” section of his autobiographical work My Life and Hard Times. This persona contributes to the humor and effectiveness of the book in various ways, including the following:
- The section opens with the persona mocking himself (as well as his botany instructor) because the persona cannot see plant cells through a microscope. The persona thus appeals to us by showing that he has a good sense of humor about himself as well as about other people. His humor is not simply sarcastic or condescending: he can make himself the butt of humor as much as he can make other people his comic targets. Ironically, he may not be able to see very well through a microscope, but his perception of comical circumstances and situations is excellent.
- The persona shows himself capable of comic understatement, as when he says, referring to his exasperated instructor,
his scenes with me had taken a great deal out of him.
- The persona also shows his capacity for inventive language. Thus, instead of merely saying once more that all he saw through the microscope was a milky blurriness, he refers to “the familiar lacteal opacity.” He thus implies his love of words and his talent for avoiding monotonous, repetitious phrasing.
- A similar love of clever phrasing is revealed in his description of the botanist’s “eyebrows high in hope,” which effectively uses the alliteration of h’s and the assonance of long i and long o sounds, implying the narrator’s comic playfulness and suggesting that half the fun of reading this chapter will be seeing not only what the narrator describes but how he describes things, people, and events.
- The persona also shows his ability to create amusing stories, as in the anecdote about the football player who cannot think of the word “train” despite numerous obvious hints. Here as before, the humor is understated and restrained; half the fun, in fact, lies in the fact that the narrator is not obviously straining to be funny. He pretends, instead, simply to report what happens. Every so often, however, he will slip in a sarcastic evaluation of his own, as when he says of the football player,
While he was not dumber than an ox, he was not any smarter.
- As in the example just quoted, the narrator will sometimes take a familiar phrase and have some fun with it. Another example of this technique occurs when he says, concerning his habit of bumping into things in the gymnasium:
I could take it, but I couldn’t dish it out.
By making himself the butt of so much of his humor, the narrator quickly wins our affection. He is not a pretentious snob only capable of mocking others; he is perfectly at ease in mocking himself.
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