What does humour mean and how is this applied to Emma by Jane Austen?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Humour (humor US) is

  • (1) the quality of being amusing or laughable.
  • (2) a temperament or disposition given to caprice, or unexplained impulsiveness.
  • (3) to try to gratify or indulge someone eles's wishes.
  • (4) an emotional, psychological state (Collins Dictionary).

(1) When applied to Emma, the first meaning of humour applies to the amusement derived from Austen's narrator's understated ironic wit along with ironic dialogue between characters, which, when understood properly, is humourously laughable and amusing.

The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; (narrator)

(2) Jane Fairfax defines the humour associated with caprice and inexplicable impulsiveness perfectly well when she covertly describes Frank Churchill at the Box Hill outing. Her comments are not complimentary of Frank because caprice is not an admirable quality: Mrs. Churchill, who rules "with an irony hand," is said to have caprice.   

"it can be only weak, irresolute characters, (whose happiness must be always at the mercy of chance,) ..." (Jane to Frank)

(3) Mr. Knightley does not like Mrs. Elton, thinking her coarse and pushy, yet, ever the gentleman, he seeks to arrange events to her liking whenever her events have anything to do with him. In other words, he humours her by trying to gratify her wishes. She notes this herself when they are discussing arrangements for the Strawberry Party at Donwell Abbey:

"you are a thorough humourist.— ... I am fully sensible of your attention to me in the whole of this scheme ... the very thing to please me." (Mrs. Elton to Knightley)

(4) Austen's characters often speak or think of the emotional or psychological state of those around them or of their own. Emma thinks about other's being in "ill-humour," "good-humor," "the best humour," "a humour to please" or not to "please." Of Frank Churchill's psychological state, she says he is in an "odd" humour at the commencement of the ball (we learn that it is because he is being delayed from dancing with Jane Fairfax), while at the Strawberry Party, she describes him as agitated, or "out of humour":

Emma could hardly understand him; [Frank] seemed in an odd humour.

Emma listened, and looked, and soon perceived that Some people were always cross when they were hot.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Humor is the term used to refer to what is funny, that which makes us smile or laugh. In literature, it often is shown in exaggeration or hyperbole. Some situations are so outrageous or over-the-top that we can't help laughing. Humor also often relies on defying our expectations. When we are surprised, we often chuckle. Irony is also a form of humor and is often a way to comment on the weaknesses of people or society.

Emma is abound with humor. The entire plot of the novel hinges on tricking the reader into believing the clueless Emma Woodhouse's wrong interpretation of events. At the end, when we realize with surprise how we as readers have fallen for Jane Austen's ploy, we tend to laugh—or at least smile. 

Within this larger structure, Austen develops shorter gags. The novel opens with an over-the-top joke: Mr. Woodhouse's lament that Emma's former governess, Miss Taylor, has gotten married. In our day, we can lose the impact of this, but it is the equivalent of someone pitying a friend who has won the lottery after having slaved for years as an underpaid administrative assistant. 

In another scene, Austen illustrates a maxim that she puts into Emma's mouth: that half the world doesn't understand the pleasures of the other half. On Christmas Eve, Emma's brother-in-law does nothing but complain about the inconvenience of having to go out and socialize, while Emma's suitor, Mr. Elton, does nothing but sing the praises of the same socializing.

On the way home from the Christmas outing, there's ironic humor in how Emma is surprised, angered, and mortified that someone as lowly (to her mind) as Mr. Elton would dare to propose to her while Mr. Elton is equally surprised, angered, and mortified that Emma would think he would ever stoop to marry the lowly Harriet Smith.

Near the end of the novel, Mrs. Elton harbors romantic fantasies about riding to Mr. Knightley's estate on a donkey and enjoying the simple, bucolic joys of picking strawberries. The irony is that Mrs. Elton hardly lasts half an hour before her pretentious fantasies about the so-called simple life are punctured. She quickly grows irritated at the real labor of stooping in the heat. She ends her task almost as soon as she has begun.

Austen is relentless in deflating her characters, but she does this in a way that makes us laugh.