Elements of Humor in Literature | 6 Examples From Literature

Humor is a universal language that transcends cultural boundaries. It brings joy and levity to our lives. It is an intrinsic part of the human experience. Humor is considered a potent force that can uplift spirits, ease tensions and foster connections.

Definition of Humor

Humor is a multifaceted concept that encompasses a wide range of experiences from subtle witticisms to raucous belly laughs. At its core, humor involves the perception of something amusing, incongruous and absurd. It elicits a psychological and physiological response often manifests as laughter or a smile. It is a complex interplay between cognitive processes, emotional responses and cultural contexts.

Common Examples of Humor

Humor can take many forms, each with its own unique flavor and appeal. Here are a few common examples:

  1. Wordplay: It contains puns, double entendres and clever plays on words. It creates humorous twists and unexpected meanings.
  2. Situational Comedy: Humorous scenarios that arise from everyday situations often highlights the absurdities andironies of life.
  3. Observational Humor: Comedic insights derived from keen observations of human behavior, societal norms and cultural quirks.
  4. Slapstick: Physical comedy that relies on exaggerated and often over the top actions and pratfalls for comedic effect.
  5. Satire: The use of humor, irony and wit to expose and critique societal flaws, political issues and human foibles.

Examples of Humor in Literature

Example 1:

“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.”

In this witty remark, the author playfully satirizes the Victorian obsession with morality and propriety. The juxtaposition of “pure” and “simple” with the complexities of “modern life” and “modern literature” creates a delightful irony. Wilde subtly mocks the notion of absolute truth. He suggests that life’s richness stems from its intricate nuances. The humor lies in the biting yet elegant critique of societal conventions delivered with Wilde’s trademark verbal dexterity.

Example 2:

“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller

“He was going to live forever or die in the attempt.”

This paradoxical statement encapsulates the absurdist humor that permeates Heller’s novel. The inherent contradiction in the phrase “live forever or die in the attempt” highlights the illogical and circular reasoning that characterizes the bureaucratic military system portrayed in the book. The writer employs this humorous oxymoron to emphasize the nonsensical nature of war and the absurdities of human behavior in extreme situations. The humor arises from the juxtaposition of life and death, forever and finality in a single phrase that defies rational understanding.

Example 3:

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

In the excerpt, the writer deftly employs humor to satirize the societal pressures and familial expectations surrounding marriage during her era. The humorous tone arises from the exaggerated ultimatum presented by Mr. Bennet, where Elizabeth must choose between displeasing her mother or her father – a comically hyperbolic scenario. Austen’s subtle wit and clever observation of societal norms allow her to infuse humor into a potentially serious situation, highlighting the ridiculousness of the expectations placed on women at the time. The humor lies in the sharp yet light-hearted social commentary. The author crafts these explanations in a straightforward and accessible manner.

Example 4:

“The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” by Edward Lear

“They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.”

Lear’s nonsense poetry is a delightful celebration of absurdity and whimsy. The humor arises from the juxtaposition of the seemingly ordinary (dining on mince and quince) with the utterly bizarre (using a “runcible spoon”). The image of an owl and a cat dancing hand-in-hand on the beach by the light of the moon, is both endearing and comically surreal. Lear’s playful language and inventive wordplay (“runcible”) contribute to the overall sense of jovial nonsense, which invites the readers to embrace the silliness and revel in the pure joy of imaginative silliness.

Example 5:

“Slam, Bang, Winedrop!” by John Agard

“Metaphor is freezing to death
personification plucks its feathers one by one
as simile flies a kite without a string.”

Agard’s poem is a witty exploration of poetic devices, which employs humor to breathe new life into familiar literary concepts. The personification of metaphor and simile as tangible beings engaged in quirky activities infuses a sense of playfulness and whimsy into the verse. The juxtaposition of abstract poetic terms with concrete, physical actions (freezing to death, plucking feathers, flying a kite) creates an amusing incongruity that challenges the reader’s expectations. Agard’s humorous approach to poetic devices encourages a fresh perspective on language and invites readers to appreciate the inherent absurdity and joy in wordplay.

Example 6:

“Delirium Tremens” by Ogden Nash

“The clinking, tinkling clink-clink-clink
Struck poets dumb and muddled monks,
And rendered rational ravens raucously irrational.”

Nash’s wit and wordplay shine through in this humorous excerpt. The alliterative phrase “clinking, tinkling cink-cink-cink” creates a playful rhythm that mimics the sound it describes, which draws the reader into the whimsical scene. The juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated elements, such as “poets dumb” “muddled monks” and “rational ravens” adds to the absurdist humor. The idea of rational ravens being rendered “raucously irrational” by the clinking sound is both delightfully nonsensical and imaginative. The writer cleverly uses the language and his ability to craft amusing visual images contribute to the overall humorous effect. He invites the readers to revel in the sheer delight of linguistic mischief.

The Function of Humor

Humor serves a multitude of purposes, both on a personal and societal level. Here are some of its key functions:

  1. Stress Relief: Laughter has been shown to have therapeutic effects, reducing stress and anxiety levels while promoting physical and mental well-being.
  2. Social Bonding: Humor can act as a shared experience, fostering connections and camaraderie among individuals and groups.
  3. Coping Mechanism: In times of adversity or discomfort, humor can provide a means of coping, offering a reprieve from difficult situations.
  4. Criticism and Social Commentary: Through satire and parody, humor can be a powerful tool for addressing and critiquing societal issues and injustices.
  5. Cognitive Benefits: Engaging with humor can enhance creativity, problem-solving abilities, and cognitive flexibility.

Literary Terms Related to Humor

In the realm of literature, humor often finds expression through various literary devices and techniques. Two notable terms related to humor are:

  1. Irony: A literary device that involves a contrast or discrepancy between what is stated and what is meant or expected. Irony takes various forms, such as verbal irony (saying the opposite of what is meant), situational irony (when events unfold in a way that defies expectations) and dramatic irony (when the audience is aware of something that the characters are not).
  2. Satire: A literary technique that employs humor, wit and irony to expose and critique societal flaws, human vices and political issues. Satire can be biting, bitterly amusing and often serves as a form of social commentary or criticism. Examples of satire can be found in works by authors like Jonathan Swift, Voltaire and Mark Twain.


Humor is a quintessential part of the human experience, a potent force that has the power to uplift, unite and provoke thought provoking reflections. Whether through witty wordplay, situational comedy and biting satire, humor offers a lens through which we can perceive the world in all its absurdities and contradictions. It is a universal language that transcends barriers. It reminds of our shared humanity and the importance of finding joy in the midst of life’s challenges.

Examples of Humor in Literature
Examples of Humor in Literature

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