The Incongruous Nature of Humor in Russian Literature: Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Gogol’s The Nose
by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
Many theories have tried to explain what makes fiction, or indeed anything, humorous. Some of the most prominent theories include the ‘Superiority Theory,’ which posits that mockery is the root of humor; the ‘Incongruity Theory,’ which suggests that incongruity results in humor; and the ‘Relief Theory,’ which asserts that humor results from excessive nervous energy. In this article I will focus on the Incongruity Theory to explain how humor is created in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904) and Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose (1836).
Before we proceed, it would be useful to give a brief explanation of the Incongruity Theory. For something to be incongruous, it must be out of harmony with its surroundings. Thus, incongruity can be defined as the unexpected, or the surprising. The Incongruity Theory came to prominence in the eighteenth century with such philosophers as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Kirkegaard as advocates for the theory as a means to explain why humor is aroused in certain situations. However, the roots of the theory can be traced back to Aristotle, who proposed in his Rhetoric that
‘Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more…[this] effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise.’
Aristotle suggests that by flouting the expectations of his listeners or readers, a speaker can evoke laughter. Cicero furthers this concept in On Oratory And Orators where he propounds that ‘the most common kind of joke [is] when we expect one thing and another is said; in which case our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh’ and that ‘[t]he ambiguous gains great admiration…from its nature…[which is turning] the force of a word to quite another sense than that in which other people take it’. With the basis of these explanations on the nature of incongruity as a way to create humor, we can turn to Chekhov and Gogol’s texts and interpret them within this theory.
Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard follows a group of wealthy landowners struggling to solve the enormous debt of Madame Ranevskaya (Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya), owner of the cherry orchard. The play is underlain with the theme of the liberation of the serfs, which occurred five years before the action of the play. The character of serf-born landowner and businessman Lophakin, whose father and grandfather were laborers on Lyubov’s estate, eventually purchases the cherry orchard for himself. This is symbolic of the possibilities for the freed serfs of Russia. Chekhov critiques Russian society by depicting all characters in absurd dichotomy to their titles or life purpose, and this is where the comedy of incongruity is most prominent. Jacqueline E. M. Latham suggests thus that ‘[a]ll classes of men were for Chekhov subjects of comedy’ and that ‘[i]t is because he shows “divergence from the norms” that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy. These abnormalities of character are seen in the wealthy as well as in their servants.
An example of the incongruity of character that Latham propounds is key to the play’s humor is the figure of Lophakin. Lophakin is a talented businessman – recognizable in his measured consideration of how to make money for the debt-ridden Ranevskaya family: ‘Please listen carefully…if your cherry orchard and land along the river are divided into plots and leased out…you’ll have a yearly income of at least twenty-five thousand rubles’. However, the qualities of Lophakin’s personality seem incongruous beside his humble history. He is obsessed with monetary success, a fixation exposed at the beginning of the play: ‘here I am – all dressed up in a white waistcoat and brown shoes. But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I am rich; I’ve got a lot of money. But anyone can see I’m just a peasant.’
Despite his respectable status as a businessman and his smart outward appearance, Lophakin lacks the cultural capital required to enable him to wholly move upwards in class from his historic serfdom. He is certainly aware of these disabilities, stating in Act II: ‘As a matter of fact, I’m just as much of a fool and half-wit myself [as his father was]. No one taught me anything. My writing is awful; I’m ashamed to show it to people: it’s just like a pig’s’. Chekhov’s emphasis on the incongruous aspects of Lophakin’s existence that mark him apart from the upper classes he associates with suggest that the author is satirizing class itself.
The incongruity between the language of the characters in The Cherry Orchard and their class is arguably that which brings the most humor to the play. Manservant Yasha is described in Chekhov’s stage directions as speaking ‘[in an affectedly genteel voice]’, and consistently berates Firs, the older manservant, with regards to his age: ‘How you weary me, Grandad! [yawns] I wish you’d go away and die soon.’ Through his stage directions, Chekhov implicates Yasha as attempting to elevate his social status by employing a tone of superiority in his vernacular, yet his vices show his true character to the audience; he uses Dunyasha for his own carnal pleasure: ‘Hm! Quite a little peach! [looks around, puts his arms around her. She cries out and drops a saucer. Yasha goes out quickly]’, as well as ceaselessly insulting the senile Firs. The contention of Yasha’s language and practice is similar to Tigellius in Horace’s Satire 1.3, whose apparent flux in intention makes his person laughably contradictory:
One day it was tetrarchs and kings
And everything royal, the next: ‘All I ask is salt in a shell,
A three-legged table, a coat that however ill-made
Will keep out the cold.’—
Just like Tigellius, Yasha’s presentation becomes ridiculous. We can observe similar contradictions of class and language in Lyubov Andreyevna’s dialogue. Despite her being a lady of high status and heritage, Lyubov acts and speaks erratically, and is notorious for her inability to manage her finances, this being the primary cause for her increasing debt. In Act II, when Lophakin presents Lyubov with sound reasoning for why she should lease the cherry orchard, Lyubov exclaims: ‘Villas and summer visitors! Forgive me, but it’s so vulgar.’ Here, Lyubov presents an absurd dichotomy in her dialogue, which is humorous due to the incongruity of her comment when compared to her own financial situation. While almost penniless, Lyubov clings onto her high-class status by exposing her own prejudices towards the lower classes, even though they could save her from bankruptcy.
While Chekhov certainly depicts the aristocracy of The Cherry Orchard quite tragically, indicative of the concept in Russian literature of ‘laughter through tears’ – comedy that works within the boundaries of tragic circumstances – the humor of the play is found in his emphasis of the superfluousness of rank or class in the context of a ‘New’ Russia, where class was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Latham suggests that Chekhov ‘did not see the passing of the old order as tragic, and, in emphasizing the social uselessness of the aristocratic family, he treats the subject from a comic viewpoint’. Thus, one might consider the elements of tragedy in the play to be principally aimed at satirizing the problems of the rich and their inability to connect with their changing Russia.
Gogol also uses ‘laughter through tears’ in his satire The Nose. The Nose is a short story whereupon barber Ivan Yakovlevich discovers a nose in a loaf of bread in the morning of the 25th of March, which he realizes belongs to Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. Kovalyov, a man of relatively high standing in Russian society (he refers to himself as ‘Major’), wakes up the same morning and finds his nose has disappeared. The narrative then follows Kovalyov as he attempts to recover his nose; at one point, he meets the nose itself, but loses sight of it, so he goes to report the runaway nose to the police department of St Petersburg. He proceeds, unsuccessfully, to file a notice about his lost nose at the newspaper office. In the end, Kovalyov wakes up the next morning to find his nose has returned and is overjoyed.
Incongruity can be recognized in The Nose through the absurd juxtaposition of the supernatural – the nose having seamlessly disappeared from Kovalyov’s face – with the actions and dialogue of the characters in the text. Maksym Klymentiev comments that ‘The artificial answer to Gogol’s story can be seen as marking the moment during which the traditional olfactory-rich values of Russian culture gave way to a more vision-oriented Western sensory paradigm that tended to denigrate the sense of smell and its cognitive perception.’ We can therefore consider The Nose as a satire that mocks the fixation that Kovalyov has on appearance as opposed to sensory perception, and thereby consider Gogol’s derision of Kovalyov’s vanity as indicative of his opinions on the trajectory of Russian society and culture.
We encounter Kovalyov’s vanity when he enters a coffee shop to utilize its mirror: ‘“Damnation! How disgusting!” he exclaimed after spitting. “If at least there were something in place of the nose, but there’s nothing!”’ Notable here is Kovalyov’s complete disregard of the sensory capacity he has lost. A nose is used for taste, recognition of spaces, and for avoiding danger in some instances, but, most importantly, it is a vital part of the respiratory system. Gogol’s omission of the loss of smell and breath that Kovalyov must be experiencing is indicative of his derision of the western preoccupation with appearance. We are humored by the incongruity of a man so obsessed with his appearance that he seems not to notice that he has been sensorily disabled. Gogol’s damning of Kovalyov’s narcissism is most palpable upon his meeting with the Nose:
‘Two minutes later the Nose indeed came out. He was wearing a gold-embroidered uniform with a big stand-up collar and doeskin breeches […] From his plumed hat one could infer that he held the rank of a state counsillor.’
Kovalyov’s rank, which is lower than his anthropomorphized nose, is described as having been lowered further as a result of his loss in the Inspector’s comment: ‘no real gentleman would allow his nose to be pulled off.’ While the implication that Kovalyov is no longer a ‘real gentleman’ for having allowed his nose to be taken is humorous in its bizarre logic, Gogol appears to be making a more astute point about the reverence of appearance itself. Ivan Yakovlevich, the barber, is described as clothing himself minimally and being ‘a great cynic’, who starts his morning by smelling fresh bread. This is contrasted to Kovalyov who wakes and immediately asks ‘for the small mirror standing on the table.’ In these descriptions, Yakovlevich acts as the aesthetic antithesis to Kovalyov. Similar to how we laugh at Lyubov’s vanity of status, we are encouraged to laugh at Kovalyov’s vanity and ill-considered reactionary measures to the loss of his nose. Important to note here is that Gogol’s comment on Yakovlevich’s cynicism is not negative; rather, as Klymentiev proposes, considering ‘cynicism was defined in Gogol’s time mainly as the doctrine of Ancient Greek cynics’, Gogol may be ‘relating the barber to the great school of ancient Greek philosophy that prided itself on being free from social and cultural constraints.’ Yakovlevich can therefore be seen to embody the idea of the ‘Russian Soul’ which reflects traditional Slavophile values of toil and community, as opposed to the values of the Westernizer – embodied in Kovalyov and Lophakin, the latter of which represents the new Russian middle class – who is influenced by the social and cultural changes of the west. The Westernisers are a legacy from the reforms of Peter the Great, who introduced the Table of Ranks (1722), which Gogol satirizes through Kovalyov’s preoccupation with promotion and the high rank of the anthropomorphized Nose.
The Nose is depicted as a more respectable citizen than Kovalyov, both in status and action – ‘The Nose…was praying in an attitude of utmost piety’ – and the absurdity of this concept is humorous for the audience. Kovalyov’s frenzied proclaiming of his ownership of the Nose – ‘After all, you are my own nose!”’ – further stresses the discrepancy that Gogol depicts of private interest against social duty; Kovalyov is never described as having any regard for anyone other than himself. We can attribute this self-interest as indicate of Gogol’s perception of the disappearance of the ‘Russian Soul’. The idea that the Nose is both gifted with a high rank and existentialist capacity, then stripped of these so quickly, parodies the concept of class, thus dislocates the Russian rank system. We can compare this to Lophakin’s ability to elevate his status merely through wealth, despite his intellectual shortcomings. We are humoured by the Nose’s high rank as it embodies all that Kovalyov deems important – the physical and material, as shown in his cry “without a nose a man is goodness knows what; he’s not a bird, he’s not a human being; in fact, just take him and throw him out the window!”. Yet, when the Nose is returned to him, he cannot attach it. Here we once more find the Russian concept of ‘laughter through tears’. R. W Hallett comments on this in his essay The Laughter of Gogol: ‘The often merciless and cynical observation of the oddities of human behavior was at heart a pathetically vulnerable Russia.’ While there is humour in the inability for Kovalyov to reattach his nose, we are also confronted with Kovalyov’s despair: ‘How am I to remain without a nose?’. This is comparable to the humour found in Lyubov’s stoic detachment which is juxtaposed to the tragedy of losing the orchard.
Gogol’s critique can also be seen in the ‘soullessness’ of other characters in the novel. Just as Chekhov satirises all classes in Russian society, Gogol aims his own critiques on the corruption of all areas of Russian society. This can be seen in the comment by the doctor, who cannot reattach Kovalyov’s nose – ‘I advise you to put the nose in a jar with alcohol […] and then you can get good money for it’. The doctor is depicted as lacking compassion and virtue; he is blasé and uncaring about Kovalyov’s fate, essentially lacking the ‘Russian Soul’, and this is disparate to his job title. We also see this lack of empathy in the statement of the Clerk at the newspaper office whom Kovalyov requests prints a ‘lost’ notice for his nose: ‘As it is, people say that too many absurd stories and false rumors are printed.’ The Clerk’s comment demands we ask the question: which aspects of The Nose are real, and which are ‘absurd stories’ or ‘false rumors’? We are never offered one absolute truth or reality, thus we are at the mercy of the narrator, who himself propounds ‘‘That is the kind of affair that happened in the northern capital of our vast empire. Only now, on second thoughts, can we see that there is much that is improbable in it.’ The juxtaposition of these two sentences opposes any logic, and the entire statement becomes incongruous. The narrator proposes that such occurrences as the detachment of a nose do indeed happen, yet the occurrence itself is improbable. This humor in this statement is furthered in the proceeding comment: ‘Without speaking of the supernatural detachment of the nose […] how is it that Kovalyov did not realize that one does not advertise for one’s nose through the newspaper office?’ This passage is humorous as it implies that the most ridiculous aspect of the narrative is not the ‘supernatural detachment of the nose’ but in fact Kovalyov’s own laughable reactions to this event.
Chekhov and Gogol both use incongruity to create humor in their texts, but what is palpable in The Cherry Orchard and The Nose is how this humor is starkly juxtaposed to the tragedy of the circumstances of their characters. ‘Laughter through tears’ resounds through both works, and we almost feel guilt as we laugh at the humiliating events that befall the characters of these texts. As Freud notes, ‘man adopts a humorous attitude […] in order to ward off  suffering’; this is the essence of Russian humour, the ability to laugh in the darkest of times.
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Other articles by Hazel include one on Poetry, On Being Lonely, Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, Ham Acting, and Jellyfish.
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One thought on “What Makes Something Humorous?”
Why only have one theory on humor? All of the other ones feel useful and valid.