Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Twain, Pain, and Spiritual Gain

Eat, Pray, Love is not a funny book. Or more accurately, it does not have a funny plot. On the surface, there is little to laugh about at the story of a recent divorcĂ©e who embarks upon a spiritual journey across Italy, India, and Indonesia. However, as Mark Twain emphasized in “How to Tell a Story,” “The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it” (239). As we have often discussed in class, there are certainly points in life when all you can do is laugh. The events in Eat, Pray, Love are a prime example. What more could Gilbert do after she hit the self-destruct button on the perfect life that she spent years trying to cultivate because she thought it was exactly what she wanted?

The narrative of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love “bubbles gently along,” as Twain says, which is partially due to its medium – the full-length novel lends itself much more to a serious tale peppered with side jokes than one that demands raucous laughter from start to finish. Similarly to Amy Sedaris in I Like You, Gilbert simply glazes over her jokes and witty comments and moves on, rather than continually reminding the reader, “Hey! This was funny! You should be laughing right now!” There is a subtlety and sophistication to Gilbert’s writing that stems from her understanding that while her situation is not hilarious by any means, there is still some humor that can be found no matter how desperate a situation may seem.

Gilbert frequently inserts these jokes, which are often snarky, sarcastic, or self-deprecating, in between some of the most somber portions of the novel. When she recounts her tumultuous relationship with David, she says that her toxic cycle of “neediness” facilitated his pulling away from her, and that “soon he was retreating under fire of my weeping pleas of, ‘Where are you going? What happened to us?’” (20). If one can consider written version of Twain’s pauses in storytelling to be a paragraph break, Gilbert masters this art that Twain refers to as “the most troublesome and aggravating and uncertain thing you ever undertook” (243). The relationship that she and David have is full of pain and anguish, and is hardly humorous in and of itself, but as Gilbert employs what Herbert Spencer describes in his writings about Relief Theory, “the sardonic laughter...which result[s] from mental distress” (104). The following line of text reads, “(Dating tip: Men LOVE this.)” The juxtaposition of Gilbert’s troubles and the idea that she is in any place to dole out relationship advice at that point serves as both a way for her to release herself from the painful difficulty of her situation as well as for the audience to laugh along with her.

By using these tactics of self-deprecation to laugh at herself throughout her spiritual journey, Gilbert teaches herself to laugh at and love the world again.

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