“My quite the opposite. The narrative is a

“My Life and Hard Times” is an autobiographical
novel written by humorist James Thurber. Although, the title seems to lend the
impression that the life of the novelist was probably filled with tragic and
trying events, the novel can be initially regarded as quite the opposite. The
narrative is a string of seemingly unrelated events that take place in
Thurber’s youth, against the backdrop of Columbus, Ohio  at the turn of the twentieth century.
Thurber’s use of humour throughout the text can be interpreted in many
different ways. It has the effect of assuaging the severity of the situations
he describes, or it could be to elevate the drama and action of quirky but
harmless situations, that almost everyone experiences and something that most
renowned autobiographers do not emphasize on. 
In order to implement this, he uses an array of techniques: similes,
metaphors; exaggerated diction and the recurring idea of blindness.
Furthermore, certain theories of humour designed by figures such as Sigmund
Freud can also be applied to his work.

 

Some of the many assumptions behind what makes
people laugh are the “Incongruity theory”, “Superiority theory” and “Relief
theory”. In Chapter 1, which Thurber names after what his mother describes the
situation as “The Night The Bed Fell” , the incongruity theory is at play. The
incongruity theory claims that people tend to find it humorous when their
expectations are dodged, especially if it the outcome is not so severe as they
had imagined previously. In the case of the night described by Thurber, which
is full of selfish misconception by each of the family members, the outcome is
not like what they may have imagined. As Thurber’s father makes the untimely
decision to sleep on the old,precarious bed in the attic room, Thurber’s paranoid
mother warns him against it, fearing he will die. In the interim, Thurber is
also accompanied that night with a cousin who has a fear of dying in his sleep
due to ceasing to breathe, a jumpy dog, and his brothers Roy and Herman. Total
chaos ensues when Thurber is the one who falls down off of his flimsy cot and
each member of the family interprets the sound produced in their own way,
aligning with their own fears, before they finally are calm enough to learn the
truth. In retrospection, this incident itself is quite humorous. A second
instance where this theory of humour can be applied is in Chapter 3, when the
entire East side of Colombus is under the impression that a dam in their city
has broken and they were all doomed to be engulfed in its water. The most
hilarious incident is perhaps the one concerning the doctor, Mr.Mallory, as he
runs against what he imagines to be the flood (but in reality is a young boy on
roller skates) due to a swishing sound he hears behind him. This also complies
with the “Relief theory” as , of course, the dam had not actually broken or
overflooded, which is why some people find the affair funny years later.
Another theory that can be applied in Chapters 8 and 9, which are titled
“University Days” and “Draft Board Nights” respectively, is the ‘Superiority
Theory’. This can be extracted in a situation where a person finds humour in
being superior to another person, which is evident in the doctors, botany
teacher, commandant and even Thurber himself. In chapter 8, Thurber first
describes the botany teachers unwillingness to believe he had an issue with his
eyesight. Following that, he speaks of two other students and their failings,
possibly to highlight he was not the only one who had weaknesses or failed in a
laughable manner. In chapter 9, the army, who has a considerable amount of
power over the commoners, sends Thurber summonses for about four months despite
the fact that his checkup was complete and he would ideally have been exempted
from military service. The humour technique is a very important one in ‘My Life
and Hard Times’ as it makes the situations more relatable and accessible to the
reader.

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Thurber’s use of similes and metaphors further
contribute to the hilarity of his vignettes because of the nature of the objects,
situations and people he utilizes for his comparisons. In chapter 1, he
describes his cousin to be “…like a drowning man” when he accidentally spills
camphor on his face and begins to choke slightly. In chapter 3, he likens the
dispersal of the dam breaking to a cry that “…spread like grassfire”. He also
imagines that any far-off speculators would compare the event to the sighting
of the mysteriously abandoned ship, Marie Celeste. In addition, he compares the
outraged quivering of his professor to the prominent American actor-director
Lionel Barrymore. It can be noted that he compares his situations to ones that
are relatively more intense, famed, important or ‘serious’ in nature. This
reiterates how the situations described were not that ‘hard’ in a macrocosmic
perspective ; however, for him, they were one of the most tragic or challenging
affairs of his life. The moment the comparison is made in the readers’ minds,
they envision it in the same way Thurber experienced it. The comparisons themselves
are exceedingly witty and well-known, once again, aiding the readers to
comprehend the situation better and gain a different perspective on the
situations, which are all seemingly harmless.

 

Another aspect of his style of writing is very
wisecracking: Thurber’s use of exaggerated diction. As mentioned above, Thurber
did not experience what is conventionally regarded as a ‘traumatic experience’.
However, his diction paints an entirely antithetical picture. He describes the
foibles of his family in chapter 1 as an “incredible tale” as well as an
“unheard-of and perilous situation” . He also claims that he was both
“ennobled” and “demoralised” by the events that took place on the ‘day the dam
broke’. This statement is antithetical and perplexing, especially as the
readers ponder the reason behind his pride. (he later claims that most people
involved in the incident “shut up like a clam” when it is brought up). This
provides an insight into how he elevates the importance of the experience,
giving it a hint of mystery and complexity. Another instance that occurs in
chapter 8 goes along the same line of elevating an incidents importance in
one’s own mind, as compared to what it actually could be in reality. While
glancing into a microscope he could not see into, much to the dismay of his
teacher in botany class, he claims he sees a “nebulous milky substance” while
voices only the words “I see what looks like a lot of milk” to his professor.
He states he went through “anguish” in both his botany and economics classes.
It can be argued that the sophistication of his descriptions are a bit
exaggerated. Once again, the superiority theory comes to play as the readers
may find the small failings of Thurber funny when they compare their lives to
his, whether they relate to it or not.

 

Thurber sustained an injury in his early
childhood which caused some problems in his vision. This later gave way to
almost complete blindness. This is not mentioned in this novel in great detail,
but it is clear that his eyesight was in the early stages of deterioration.
This can be seen as one of the factors of his life that had the power of
obtrusively impacting its progression the most and yet he makes only fleeting
mentions of it. However, the concept of blindness can be found in many of the
characters and situations  of Thurber’s
novel. In chapters 1 and 3, it is quite clear that the characters are blind to
reality (or at least pretend to be) and hence act and make certain decisions.
Each of the family members in chapter 1 make their own assumptions about the
situation in an almost self-serving manner : Briggs Beall immediately assumes
that everyone is trying to “bring him out” and that he has stopped breathing,
Thurber’s mother sticks to her assumption that her husband will die due to an
old bed crashing down with him, Thurber assumes he is entombed like a mummy and
his father “decided” that the house was on fire. It was after minutes of
unthinking commotion that the situation was revisited in a more considerate
manner. And yet, Thurber’s mother chose to refer to it as “The Night The Bed
Fell on your Father” even after knowing what truly happened . In chapter 3,
when chaos was unleashed at the thought of the dam breaking, a woman who was in
a cinema hall with his aunt immediately assumed it was a fire that caused the
commotion, because she was convinced she would probably die in one. Similar
superstitions are held by other characters in the novel and are not necessarily
backed by reason or logic. However, Thurber also makes a comment on how this
attitude may have serious repercussions. In chapter 9, the doctors who are
responsible for whether the potential soldiers of the country were healthy
enough, they do so with no consideration of the fact that they could be sending
unfit or incapable people against their will. Also, they show no concern about
Thurber’s unprofessional techniques or even his recurring appearance at the
centre, as both a pretend doctor and a patient. Technically, it is Thurber who
is blind but he gives readers a glimpse into the shortcomings and robotic
self-centeredness of the human condition and institutions, which is an amusing
and ironic thing to do. At the same time, he is also equalizing himself with
the rest of society and comparing the gravity and significance of his problems
to those faced by society as a whole.

 

In the preface of his novel, Thurber states “I
myself have accomplished nothing of excellence except a remarkable and , to
some of my friends, unaccountable expertness in hitting empty ginger ale
bottles with small rocks at the distance of thirty paces…” Unlike most of the
prominent autobiographers, he breaks certain conventions and stereotypes by
immortalizing his comical and unique experiences, that, although intrinsic to
him, are similar in nature to commoners like himself. This could draw to the
conclusion that it is not the intensity of the situations faced that make a
person’s life ‘hard’, but it is the way the experience it emotionally, which is
clear in Thurber’s descriptions and thoughts. His rendition of times that were
extremely chaotic emotionally to comical instances, coupled with his calm and
settled tone, reinforces the idea that even he may be laughing at his own
foibles and eccentricities while reminiscing about them.

 

 

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