Laughter in Crime and Punishment, the Invisble Man and Catch 22

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Laughter in Crime and Punishment, the Invisble Man and Catch 22

By | September 2008
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In "An Extravagance of Laughter" Ralph Ellison looks back at the chilling effects his very loud and very disruptive laugh had during a theater performance of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road. As he lost control to his growing laughter, everyone's attention was directed at him. Soon what began as a natural response to a comedic moment, grew heavy with the weight of racial prejudice. The laugh concerned Ellison, who felt that by laughing so ridiculously loud he was confirming the black stereotype of acting like a fool. More importantly though, the laughter caused a disturbance within the predominantly white crowd who began to "hoot and holler" and, Ellison speculates, probably began to think of his laughter as "a peculiar form of insanity suffered exclusively by Negroes, who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter" (Ellison, Extravagance 652). The myth of white superiority was kept alive symbolically through these anti-Negro stereotypes because of their capability to emotionally enslave the African Americans--- as laughter and skin color could create feelings of guilt. So, such unrestricted and rather inappropriate laughter thus became somewhat of a rebellious act as it was a clear demonstration of Ellison's acknowledgment of the racial tensions and furthermore, his refusal to "stay in his place" (Huang).

Essentially, he was laughing at racism and mocking the structure of society. And, by doing so, he was able to transcend having to watch and analyze his every move, as to not offend the whites and as to not perpetuate the black stereotypes. Ellison argues that this explosive laughter played a big part in his emotional and intellectual development as he was no longer struggling with the burden of his Southern experience and was able to become a "more tolerant American" (Ellison, Extravagance 662). This suggests that laughter...
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