Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833

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.

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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 story she is writing—a precious, unreal thing—it becomes clear that her characters and plot reflect her own superficial romanticism rather than the actual conditions of life. She is a member of an “in group” of writers and intellectuals, and Anderson indicates that this membership is more important to her than infusing her art with truth.

In contrast to these characters are Bruce Dudley, Sponge Martin, and, to some extent, Aline Grey. Anderson casts these people as representatives of the new, hopeful values that have come to life after the trauma of war. Sponge and his wife, for example, have a genuine connection to real life. Their sexual life is natural and unaffected, they have few pretensions; and they are generous and simple. Bruce, the central character in the novel, is a writer more interested in the truth than in “word slinging.” Leaving Bernice is a rejection of her literary pretensions. In falling in love with Aline and fathering her child, he is answering the deeper, underlying currents in life.

For Aline, who vacillates between these poles, the marriage to Fred represents a confused surrender to the conventional life. Running away with Bruce means coming to terms with life as it is, not as it exists in the decadent literary circles of postwar France, in the romantic fantasies of her adolescence, or in the expected routines of upper-middle-class life in the United States.

It is clear that, just as Anderson is criticizing an outworn and mechanical value system, he is also criticizing an earlier literary tradition, which did not come to terms with the natural, primitive side of life or seek out and explore the unconscious. If literary tradition discusses only the superficial and agreeable aspects of life, then Anderson heartily disapproved of it. He hoped that Dark Laughter would support and represent a new literary tradition to correspond to the new postwar values.

Anderson admitted that Dark Laughter was influenced by James Joyce, for he used such modernist techniques as breaking sections of narrative into fragments, scattering parts of poems throughout the text, using subjective, semi-stream-of-consciousness narration, and switching points of view. As a matter of fact, the techniques employed in Dark Laughter probably reflect more generally the literary climate of the 1920’s rather than a specifically Joycean influence.

Dark Laughter also displays certain negative features of the American literary climate of the 1920’s, perhaps most visible among them a racist component in many passages. With his title Dark Laughter, Anderson refers to the natural, honest pole of human behavior that he espouses. Associated with this naturalness are “primitive,” “uncivilized,” and “amoral” qualities that Anderson links to black people. In fact, Dark Laughter refers to the laughter of black maids in the Grey household when they learn of Aline’s adultery. Such prejudices, commonplace in the era in which Dark Laughter was written, need not overshadow the major intent of the book. Dark Laughter expresses an important opposition of ideas in mid-twentieth century literary terms: The reader is asked to choose between real life and superficial life; and, in that sense, Anderson has presented the reader with a profound moral choice.

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