The Hilarity of Tragedy

Ian McEwan’s Solar is a sordid tale.  The protagonist (in the strictly literary sense of the word) is the self-centered physicist Michael Beard. As a young man, Beard won a Nobel Prize, after which he cruised on auto-pilot until middle age found him washed up and largely useless for anything scientifically substantial.  He’s a shameless womanizer, a plagiarizer, a thief, and a coward.  His only redeeming quality, his intelligence, has been dulled by years of alcohol and disuse.  Anyone who touches his life – co-workers, girlfriends, children – is inevitably burned while Beard obliviously plows forward in an elaborate fantasy world where he is still a respected and relevant scientist.  The fact that he’s able to convince others of this fantasy says nothing positive about Beard – it only reflects on the stupidity and gullibility of those around him.

The book is a portrait of dysfunction, lust, selfishness, and tragedy.  When the world comes crashing down upon Michael Beard’s head at the end of the novel, his final thoughts of redemption (if that’s truly what they are) only serve to highlight what an incredibly pathetic person he really is.

Did I mention it’s also hilarious?  One of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time and would certainly make it onto a “Top Ten Funniest Books I’ve Ever Read” list (if I ever got around to making one).

It got me thinking : What is it about other people’s tragedy that’s so damn amusing?  Because there’s no doubt that we laugh at others’ misfortunes, character flaws, and unravellings.

Think of Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy  Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.  He’s a fat, arrogant, man-child still attached to his overbearing mother.  He can’t hold down a job and his existence is defined by exquisitely crafted delusions which distort the world around him beyond recognition. A Confederacy of Dunces is tragedy defined – and it’s generally considered one of, if not the, funniest book of the past century.

Like Michael Beard, Ignatius Reilly is a case study of a hilarious character who, by all rights shouldn’t be.  On paper, they’re both sad, tragic characters both in regards to themselves and their effect on others.  Yet, we still laugh.

Case in point from Solar.  Michael Beard comes home early so that, in his cowardly way, he doesn’t have to deal with his wife who is sleeping with the electrician.  Rather than finding the electrician, he finds one of his own underlings drinking coffee on the couch.  A passive-aggressive confrontation ensues which leaves the young scientist dead on the floor.  It isn’t beard who kills him – that would take some measure of emotion and courage – but is rather the result of a mishap with a ridiculous bearskin rug and a pointy coffee table.  Beard thinks about calling the police….and then frames the electrician.

It’s a horrible scene.  A young life is snuffed out, an innocent man is implicated in a heinous crime.  Yet, going through Beard’s thought processes  and justifications- I shouldn’t have bought that rug…I’ll call the police in a few minutes…the electrician would have killed him if he had the chance, so… – makes it incredibly amusing.

The question of why we laugh at other’s misfortune’s could probably best be answered by an evolutionary psychologist.  There has to be some advantageous evolutionary mechanism in there somewhere.  Perhaps it’s an affirmation of our own superiority and our confidence that we will never be in that particular situation.  Maybe we’re made nervous by horrible situations which, in turn, makes us more susceptible to laughter.

What ever the reason, the eminent sage Homer Simpson seems to have summed it up best –


“It’s funny cause it’s not me!”





  1. This book is on my wishlist already and with your review (and that beautiful cover that I haven’t seen before) it firmly stays there.

    I like that question, why people laugh about misfortune? Maybe because crying would make us all depressed? Or because we like to tell other people funny stories so they all learn about what not to do: “putting your hand in the fire is not a good idea, because when Noby did that it burned badly. (And we had such a laugh about it!!)”. If it wasn’t funny we wouldn’t pass on the tale so fewer people would learn about it. Who knows?

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