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Humor and Its Purposes in Literature


Humor in literature and art can be characterized as a kind of tendency, the desire to evoke a laughing reaction from the audience. Initially, it seems that the humorous presentation of information, the description of comic situations, is aimed at entertaining the audience, arousing positive emotions in it, and raising its mood. However, often the task of humor is not limited to this. Humor can only turn out to be a disguise, a laughing technique that covertly communicates other information to the reader.

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Humor as a Means to Evoke Emotions

Humor can be more than just a means of entertainment, like any other technique that seeks to evoke an emotional reaction in a person. There are times when a humorous situation is just a starting point for further reflection. Taking the story “Ms. Julianne” by Karen Lenar as an example, it makes sense to consider how humor serves different functions beyond just pleasing the audience. The humor of this story seems to be its distinctive and expressive feature. However, behind the veil of a humorous story lies a rather deep and philosophical story. It is required to consider the plot of the story in order to subsequently show with examples what functions are performed by humorous moments in the story.

The Plot of “Ms. Julianne”

Miss Julianne, after whom the analyzed story is named, lives in a nursing home and is an extremely elderly woman. She is described in rather morbid colors, like a dry and bony woman. First of all, the author focuses the reader’s attention on the behavior of Miss Julianne, which causes inconvenience to the workers of the nursing home. The story is written from the perspective of an employee of this institution who has to endure the antics of an elderly patient. Miss Julianne has rather erratic and sometimes even aggressive behavior. She is suspicious and distrustful, which is primarily expressed in a negative attitude towards the staff of the nursing home. Miss Julianne is quite capricious and refuses to do anything to meet the unlucky worker of care, to facilitate the work of their constant care for her. The plot of this story is based on the awkward and uncomfortable interaction between the nursing home staff and Ms. Julianne.

Types of Humor of the Story

The humorous aspect of this story is based on the feeling of inconvenience that is transmitted to the reader when they observe the freaky behavior of the main character. The inconsistency of human behavior with social norms and a rebellion against these norms is the basis of many comic moments in this story. In particular, it is worth noting the moment when the heroine throws out her puree food directly at the storyteller. Such episodes can be described as situational humor when an unenviable incident in life is a reason for laughing (Muela Bermejo, 2021). The way Ms. Julianne is aggressive towards the home workers is one of the humorous aspects of the story.

The humor of the situation is that the workers cannot do anything with the patient and are forced to endure her quirks and negative attitudes towards them. The main character’s detachment from reality and a semi-clouded state of mind are the reason for her inappropriate behavior. The constant suspicion of the heroine associated with senile manifestations of dementia is expressed in the accusations that she brings against the care workers. The accusation that nursing home staff stole her dentures is also a comic element of this story (Lenar). The reader understands that the heroine’s accusations are groundless and absurd, but this discrepancy between ideas and objective reality is the humor of the whole situation.

Humorous scenes in literature and cinema can be built through gags, that is, humor that makes a figurative impression. The comic gag is not about a witty joke but about a situation that automatically triggers a laughing reaction. Miss Julianne’s description of her lipstick irregularly is an example of this kind of humor. The reader imagines how ridiculous the heroine of the story looks, which makes them smile. Humor often consists in describing certain uncomfortable moments, awkward situations that are clearly different from the normal, familiar reality (Sabato, 2019). Ms. Julianne embodies this kind of comedy in a way since her whole behavior is not adapted to reality. People forced to look after her try to adapt themselves to the behavior of the heroine, and their unsuccessful attempts also present humorous situations.

The Real Goal of Humor in the Story

However, it becomes apparent that the humorous aspect of the story is only superficial. The comic situations that the main character creates around herself are just the basis for the story, a way to grab the reader’s attention. The audience’s perceptions are gradually transformed when reading the story, and the attitude towards the heroine and her state is changing. Those details that at first seem comic, on another consideration, do not seem so funny. The author makes us laugh at the heroine, but as a result, we understand that Miss Julianne’s position is clearly not an enviable one. She is clearly in a very vulnerable state, her health is failing her, and she is completely unable to take care of herself, which is why she ended up in a nursing home.

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Probably the most controversial detail in the story is Miss Julianne’s prosthetic leg. One could evaluate the description of how she does not even allow anyone to clean this prosthesis as comic, causing a laughing reaction through dislike and rejection (Lenar). But in fact, this scene with the prosthesis gives the reader an opportunity to appreciate how sad and even tragic the story of this patient really is. In reality, humor turns out to be just a cover in order to demonstrate the real suffering of the heroine and the tragedy of the loss of her youth and rationality.

Humor as a Defensive Reaction

However, nursing home workers’ approach to their work and their reactions to Ms. Julian’s behavior are also humorous. The additional complexity with this story is that caregivers themselves seek to find humor in order not to perceive the problem of old age and helplessness as too overwhelming. Scientists argue that humor in medical practice can significantly reduce psychological stress, in particular, help victims of aggression (Cheng et al., 2019). The way the storyteller fiddles with Miss Juliane shows endless patience and care, shows that they are capable of treating the heroine with a smile and showing understanding.


Thus, humor turns out to be not only a comic reaction to sad life events but also a kind of protection from their negative impact. The author evokes pity and empathy for the heroine in the reader, despite all her unpleasantness and aggressive behavior. Humor is not only a mockery of the heroine but also an attempt to endure an overwhelming depressive feeling through it. So, through humor, extremely important ideas can be conveyed to the reader, which goes beyond provoking a laughing reaction. Through humor, in particular, one can express the idea of ​​patience and empathy for weaker people, evoke humane feelings and aspirations in a person.


Cheng, D., Amarnani, R., Le, T., & Restubog, S. (2019). Laughter is (powerful) medicine: The effects of humor exposure on the well-being of victims of aggression. Journal of Business and Psychology, 34, 389–402. Web.

Muela Bermejo, D. (2021). Humour in children’s and young adult literature: The work of Gilles Bachelet. Children’s Literature in Education, 403. Web.

Sabato, G. (2019). What’s so funny? The science of why we laugh. Scientific American. Web.

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