Annie Tvetenstrand, English Literature & Classical Studies

Agee’s Chaplin and the Universality of Humor

Humor and tragedy are not as incompatible as they may seem to be. The tensions between the two subjects are illustrated in the relationship between the work of writer James Agee and silent film star Charlie Chaplin. Influenced by Chaplin from a young age, Agee used comedy in the bleakest scene of his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), demonstrating an adept understanding of comedy’s purpose. Humor allows the characters to face disturbing situations: while alcohol is an unspoken potential factor in the novel’s titular death, the grieving family finds levity in alcohol­based humor. Agee’s work demonstrates that while humor has the power to bring people together to bond and heal, it often accomplishes this by intentionally excluding members from its balming effect.