Arts and Culture

Comedy, Depth and a Catholic Novel

Faith & Thought

When I was a student in the major seminary many years ago, I read Edwin O’Connor’s novel, “The Last Hurrah,” which years later was made into a film that was directed by John Ford. The film was good, but the novel is much better.

I read the novel in my room, and at that time, there was a strict rule of silence in the residential areas of the seminary. I found parts of the novel absolutely hilarious, and reading them, I laughed out loud. I recall wondering what someone might think who was walking in the corridor outside my room while I, alone inside, was almost screaming with laughter.

This experience came back to me while I was reading O’Connor’s “The Edge of Sadness.” I became fascinated by O’Connor’s skill at inserting funny scenes in this profoundly moving novel, one of the best I have ever read.

I have never tried to write comedy. I would not know how. In trying to understand how O’Connor did it, I looked at a wonderful book by sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, “A Rumour of Angels.” Berger suggests that some experiences are signals of transcendence, pointing beyond the limits of this world. One of those signals is humor or the comic.

Berger argues that what is essential to the comic is discrepancy, incongruity, incommensurability. The human person does not quite fit in the world. There must be some other home for us. Agreeing with philosopher Henri Bergson’s view that a situation is comic when it belongs to two altogether independent series of events and can be interpreted in two different ways, Berger insists that discrepancy is part of every joke and often it is the punch line that reveals the entirely different meaning.

The very fact that we can laugh when in a movie a person slips on a banana peel suggests that the fall is not the final word. If it were, then we should cry instead of laugh. The fall would be tragic rather than comic.

O’Connor uses discrepancy throughout his story in the comic character, Charlie Carmody. Throughout the novel, Charlie claims to be a generous, loving, unselfish person, but each time he praises himself, he almost immediately, apparently without realizing it, reveals himself to be the opposite of what he claims to be. One character describes Charlie as “the finest man who ever took advantage of the helpless.” The discrepancy is captured in that statement. Charlie is funny because of the discrepancy between the person he claims to be and his actions which reveal who he really is.

I don’t recall reading a novel that was both profoundly moving and yet also humorous, at least in some sections. I think that speaks to the enormous talent of O’Connor.

Born in 1918, O’Connor attended the University of Notre Dame, where he majored in English. At Notre Dame, O’Connor was greatly influenced by the legendary Professor Frank O’Malley to whom “The Edge of Sadness” is dedicated. Apparently O’Malley was one of those teachers who profoundly influence students, teachers who change people for life.

While reflecting on how O’Connor used humor in his novel, I read a comment by another great writer, Flannery O’Connor, who also uses humor in her writing, Flannery’s comment is not about humor but about the nature of drama. She writes the following in “Mystery and Manners” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962):

“Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.” (p. 167)

Edwin O’Connor was serious about salvation.

Father Lauder presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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