Sherwood Anderson’s Dark Laughter is a serious novel that emerged from the aftermath of World War I and reflects the literary and stylistic devices pioneered in that era. For writers, artists, and thinkers, World War I represented the end of intellectual, scientific, political, moral, and psychological certainties. Before the war, intellectuals considered Western culture to be the finest flowering and the highest expression of human civilization. In its barbarism and in the duration and intensity of its savagery, unprecedented in human history, the war shattered that belief. Scientific discoveries shook hitherto unquestioned assumptions about the Newtonian universe. Karl Marx’s theories and the Russian Revolution undermined confidence in social classes and political systems. Sigmund Freud, by elaborating a theory of an active unconscious and an unconscious life, destroyed the idea that human beings were a given, known quantity.
All of these developments form the context for the movement in literature in which accepted patterns of characterization, sequence, and symbols were radically altered. It is in this context that Anderson’s Dark Laughter can be understood best. In the novel. Anderson tries both to formulate a criticism of the old values made disreputable by the war and to set forth new values by which people could live.
Anderson establishes two dramatic poles in the novel: One embodies a natural, honest, sincere relationship to life; the other (embodying the old, prewar values) represents an artificial, mechanical, and dishonest approach. Fred Grey and Bernice Stockton are characters who lead superficial and distant lives. Fred imagines himself to be sensitive, cultured, and generous, but he is actually morally coarse, suspicious, and tightfisted. Above all, he is separated from the realities of life by his economic position and inner sterility.
Bernice, the wife from whom Bruce Dudley fled, is a variation of the same type. Her specialty is literature, but from hints of the...
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