A Gothic Understanding of Samuel Beckett’s Unsettling Laughter: A Closer Look at JML 40.4

JML_v40n4_CL#2This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship behind IU Press Journals. Primarily written by journal editors and contributors, posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article. 

Hannah Simpson’s article, “Strange laughter”: Post-Gothic Questions of Laughter and the Human in Samuel Beckett's Work,” from the Journal of Modern Literature’s newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, Hannah elaborates on the unpredictable laughter found in Beckett's characters and the surprising responses to our own laughter.

My article was born from an initial study of how certain Gothic tropes survived and mutated in modernist literature. I remember this as being an oddly quite literally dark period of study: I was working with a professor who refused to use the electric lights in his room all through a bleak Boston winter, and living in a kind friend’s windowless closet as a result of a housing crisis. In these various dark locales, I was also reading and watching Endgame more repeatedly than your average doctor would probably recommend.

I became increasingly fixated on the dark laughter in this play, its unsettling, faintly menacing quality that I was also seeing again and again in the Gothic literature I was reading. I’d long been interested in how Beckett uses the human body and its responses to disconcert his readers and spectators. Now I began to consider reading Beckett’s unsettling bodies — and here, specifically, the corporeal act of laughing — as a continuance of the earlier Gothic body and how this approach might allow space to acknowledge the reader or spectator’s affective response to these bodies, such as my reflexive shudder every time Clov laughed at Hamm’s bloodstained face.

“Strange Laughter: Post-Gothic Questions of Laughter and the Human in Samuel Beckett’s Work” thus seeks to understand what precisely we find so disconcerting — “so creepy,” as one of my undergraduate students neatly put it — about Beckett’s laughing characters, by way of comparison with the similar unsettlingly laughing creature that populates earlier Gothic fiction. The unsettling quality of such laughter, I argue, is provoked by our narrow understanding of when and why human beings should laugh. Laughter theory, from Plato to the present day, recurrently defines laughter as a uniquely human trait. Theorists have filled volumes with attempts to explain exactly what it is that moves a human being to laugh. Having come to conceptualize laughter as a universally predictable, neat cause-and-effect response, we are now shocked when someone laughs unexpectedly, for the “wrong” reasons.

Gothic literature has exploited this assumption so repeatedly that the maniacally or cruelly laughing figure became a near-clichéd trope of the genre. I compare examples of monstrous characters laughing inexplicably or at the “wrong” thing, in texts such as Frankenstein, Melmoth the Wanderer, and Dracula, with near-identical instances in Beckett’s prose and plays. The laughing Gothic and Beckettian figure indulges in an activity that we have been trained to recognize as definitively human, yet does so incorrectly and thus inhumanly. By laughing so unexpectedly, so unfamiliarly, these characters contravene our idea of what it is to recognize another being as human.

I’m currently working on another instantiation of the unsettling body, researching the representation of physical pain and disability on the European stage following World War II. As my writing becomes more deeply informed by disability theory, I’m increasingly intrigued by how we can use this acknowledgement of our reactions to the unexpected, unpredictable, or unfamiliar body to explore the representation of and response to the injured or disabled body. The Gothic mode frequently uses the scarred, impaired, or otherwise “incorrect” body to denote monstrosity or evil, and this is a trend we still see replicated in multiple literature and film genres today. From the hunchback king in Shakespeare’s Richard III, to Captain Hook in Peter Pan, to the Wheelchair Assassins of Infinite Jest, to the limb-twisted, jerkily crawling Kayako Saeki in The Grudge, to the facially scarred Two-Face in The Dark Knight and Doctor Poison in the recent Wonder Woman blockbuster, physical difference is still routinely used today as a quick-and-dirty signal of monstrous villainy.

Given that so much of Beckett’s theatre work was written in the aftermath of German and French fascist persecution of the “incorrect” or “incorrectly functioning” body, I’ve come more and more to identify a form of resistance in the moment when Beckett puts these bodies front and center on his stage. The body that doesn’t do what we expect it to do, that contravenes the rules of what it “should” do, holds both affective and political resonances in Beckett’s work.

Hannah Simpson is an AHRC DPhil candidate in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford, supervised by Professor Susan Jones.

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More from the Journal of Modern Literature 40.4


“Strange laughter”: Post-Gothic Questions of Laughter and the Human in Samuel Beckett's Work
Hannah Simpson

“Sound as a Bell”: Samuel Beckett's Musical Destruction of Aristotelian Tragic Drama
François-Nicolas Vozel

Nothing is Impossible: Bergson, Beckett, and the Pursuit of the Naught
Jeremy Colangelo

Beckett, Proust, and the Darkroom
Ira Nadel

Samuel Beckett's Murphy, Work, and Astrology
Robert Kiely

Beckett's Vessels and the Animation of Containers
Hunter Dukes

“‘Tis my muse will have it so”: Four Dimensions of Scatology in Molloy
Andrew G. Christensen

Who Hobbles after the Subject: Parables of Writing in The Third Policeman and Molloy
Yael Levin

Ritual, Code, and Matheme in Samuel Beckett's Quad
Baylee Brits

A Theater of the Nerves: Samuel Beckett's Non-Representational Art
The Edinburgh Companion to Samuel Beckett and the Arts by S.E. Gontarski
Review by Amanda Dennis

Confinement and Limits of the Human: Reviews of Undoing Time and Think, Pig!
Undoing Time: The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett by Jennifer Birkett
Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human by Jean-Michel Rabaté
Review by H.L. Michelle Chiang


Djuna Barnes and The Antiphon: From State Politics to Theatre of Ideas
Pavlina Radia

Acts of Revision: Bernard Shaw, Noël Coward, and “Born Bosses”
Christopher Wixson

Forestalled Efforts: A Review of Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life
Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life by John S. Bak
Review by: Gina Masucci MacKenzie

The Reality of Vagueness
Modernist Fiction and Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, and Language by Megan Quigley
Review by: Luke Mueller