Black humor is a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
In doing so, it makes it easier for the reader to digest such subjects. Writers employ humor and outrageous examples of the taboos so that they become less disturbing or bothersome and more amusing. When writers use black humor they are treating something serious in a lighthearted manner.
The device, in literature, is often connected to the genre of tragedy. It allows a very serious turn of events to feel less so and even cause the audience to laugh. The technique is also known as black comedy and gallows humor.
Purpose of Black Humor
While this device is surely used to entertain, outrage, and capture a reader’s attention, it is also used to inform. If a reader can fully engage with a topic they might otherwise back away from, the writer has the ability to provide them with the information they wouldn’t otherwise get.
The device also serves as a way to give the audience a break from the serious subject matter. It is similar to comic relief in which everyone is allowed to take a breather and relax their minds away from the subject of a tragedy. Some examples include a person or group of people laughing about the absurdity of an accident, the likelihood of something terrible befalling them, or even discussing death in a humorous and outrageous way.
Examples of Black Humor in Literature
Example #1 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is the source of numerous examples of gallows humor, or black humor. Take a look at this quote from Catch-22 in which John Yossarian is speaking. He says:
Insanity is contagious. This is the only sane ward in the whole hospital. Everybody is crazy but us. This is probably the only sane ward in the whole world, for that matter.
In these lines, Yossarian is speaking to Chaplain Tappman. he’s explaining the insanity of the hospital and in effect the insanity of the war that put them all there. The theme of “insanity” is one of the more present in the various chapters of Catch-22. Another good example comes from Chapter 22 and an exchange held between Yossarian and Clevinger. Here is the exchange of dialogue:
They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?
Here, Yossarian is expressing his fears about losing his life. But, rather than address them head-on, Clevenger uses humor in order to lighten the situation. He informs his friend through these lines that death is not personal. Everyone is at risk of being killed in war. No one is out to get Yossarian directly.
Example #2 The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
In this short and haunting novel, Kafka uses black humor several times. Take a look at these lines from the beginning of the novel:
He had completely forgotten the chief clerk for the moment, but could not help himself snapping in the air with his jaws at the sight of the flow of coffee. That set his mother screaming anew, she fled from the table and into the arms of his father as he rushed towards her.’
Here, Gregor Samsa has recently discovered that he’s been transformed into a giant bug. But, despite this, he tries to go about his life as he would any other day. The first pages are filled with Gregor unable to come to terms with the fact that he’s not going to be able to pick up his briefcase and go out to work. The comedy of this specific moment is contained in Gregor’s instinctual desire to drink the coffee that he sees flowing. It results in another chaotic moment where everyone is more scattered and upset than he is.
Another interesting but also somewhat depressing example comes at the end of the novel when the family discovers, much o their relief, that Gregor is dead. The following lines describe the charwoman:
Since she happened to be clutching the long broom, she tried to tickle him from the doorway. This had no effect, and so she grew annoyed and began poking Gregor. It was only upon shoving him from his place but meeting no resistance that she became alert. […] She yanked the bedroom door open and hollered into the darkness: “Go and look, it’s croaked; it’s lying there, absolutely croaked!”
The use of the word “croaked” in this passage is a colloquial and funny way to describe something that’s quite serious. Although he may not have looked it in the end, he was still a member of the family. his death brings his family nothing but happiness in the end and they are unable to express an ounce of gratitude for what Gregor did for them before his transformation.