The Hidden Hilarity of Your English Courses

From Frankenstein to The Odyssey, there’s a hidden jewel of comedy usually only apparent in hindsight. Literary classics are full of little bits that may have made sense at the time but now sound ludicrous (or just go over the reader’s head all together). It’s these little nuggets of humor that make English courses worth sitting through. A world of literary enjoyment is waiting out there - so here are some of the best pieces to get you started.

Frankenstein (An Absent Father)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is one of the most famous novels in history and one of the first science fiction novels. The novel, about the life and failures of Victor Frankenstein in his quest to conquer life, features stories within stories within stories and a whole boatload of characters making idiotic decisions. The first one being Victor Frankenstein being a terrible father to his affront to the laws of nature.

The whole of the novel gains a note of humor, at least in my opinion, when you read it with the idea of this being a terrible father-son relationship that ended with a handful of murders. I mean, of course the creature was going to act out when Frankenstein abandoned him while the creature had the mentality of an infant. Throughout the novel, it’s easy to see how everything would have been solved if Frankenstein just took responsibility for the creature and raised him. Maybe then he could’ve convinced him that maybe he shouldn’t kill people.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (The Tiny Gremlin Man)

My favorite literary classic is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Stevenson. It details the adventures of Dr. Henry Jekyll who, armed with at least four PhDs, decides it’s a good idea to create a serum to separate his dueling identities, which manifests in the form of Mr. Edward Hyde. This, of course, ends in death and murder because, as Frankenstein also shows, literary scientists are lacking in common sense these days.

The joke lies in the description of Mr. Hyde himself. Mr. Hyde is described not so much as ugly but unsettling, and small. Mr. Hyde is short. It’s important to remember throughout all of Hyde’s horrible acts that he is the shortest person in any given scene. Modern adaptations tend to make Hyde a large figure, reminiscent of the Hulk whom he inspired. This makes him seem like a terrifying, monstrous figure when really if you saw him in real life at most he would simply give you the heebie-jeebies.

Dracula (Drama Queen)

One of the most famous literary works in history is Dracula by Bram Stoker. It created the form of the modern vampire and, along with Frankenstein, defined the genre of gothic fiction. So it’s a real shame that the very title is a big spoiler.

Throughout Dracula, Stoker is building the mystery and horror of what Dracula is. Of course, a modern audience already knows that he’s the most famous vampire in history. However, it would’ve been a mystery to the contemporary audience that hadn’t been spoiled by decades of adaptations and large cultural impact. But it does make it funny when one of the protagonists, Jonathan Harker, wonders why the villagers are so panicked while he’s on his way to see the quirky but clearly normal human person, Count Dracula.

Lord of the Flies (Useless Ten-Year-Olds)

The Lord of the Flies is not a story people would find funny. The novel, written by William Golding, tells the tale of a group of schoolboys getting stranded on a deserted island and their consequent actions. Its humor isn’t so much an element of the story as the origins of the story in the mind of Golding.

Golding was a teacher of young boys in Britain and his experiences would help inspire the later book. With this knowledge of how terrible young boys could be, he took The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne as only one side of an impossible story. The book had portrayed young British boys as perfectly capable of running an island paradise should the need arise. Golding saw that reality for the lie that it was and wrote how he thought boys would really act in that situation. Golding’s book became a classic, far overshadowing Ballantyne’s.

The Odyssey (The Not-So-Wise Man)

An oldie but a goodie, Homer’s epic The Odyssey recalls the tale of the Trojan War hero, Odysseus, and his crew on their ten-year-long trip home. Odysseus has many traits that one would attribute to a Greek hero - he was physically strong and a good strategist, favored by Athena. So it would seem obvious that a hero guided by Athena would make only smart decisions, right?

Here are just a few items on Odysseus’s long list of decisions: mockingly telling the Cyclops Polyphemus his real name thus drawing the wrath of Poseidon on him and his crew, deciding to risk his life (and the lives of his crew) by listening to the Sirens while tied to his ship’s mast, and waiting around on the island of Aiolia for a year instead of going home. The first of these choices is one of the many mistakes that led to his adventure lasting ten years and resulting in the death of his entire crew. A modern audience can see the humor in Homer creating a character known for strategy make incredibly stupid and impulsive decisions.

Literature can be long. Literature can be boring. But little facts and details can change the entire experience of reading a book. By looking at it from a different angle, any novel can become humorous and far more enjoyable. I always found that a running commentary on what I was reading made the story far more entertaining and easier to get through. It may not help you pass a class, but it’s a strategy that can at least make the classics a little more bearable.