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Review of  Style and Emotion in Comic Novels and Short Stories

Reviewer: Kimberley Pager-McClymont
Book Title: Style and Emotion in Comic Novels and Short Stories
Book Author: Agnes Marszalek
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 32.1916

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Agnes Marszalek’s Style and Emotion in Comic Novels and Short Stories offers a stylistic approach to comedy by discussing the linguistic cues of humour and the emotions they can trigger.

Chapter 1 introduces the key concepts used throughout the monograph and its relevance by situating humour experiences in relation to text-worlds. The two main cues (that is to say stylistic features of comic narrative) used throughout are defined: stabilizing cues “signal amusement and stabilize our experience of comedy” and they “distance us from the narrative world to encourage a detached, playful, sometimes mocking towards the world” (Marszalek, p.6). On the other hand, destabilizing cues “signal non-humorous emotions that destabilize our experience of comedy” and they “lead us to immerse ourselves in the narrative world and form feelings and attachments for entities” (Marszalek, p.7). Those cues are discussed in terms of modes and moods, characterization, and structure. Comic novels and short stories are used to illustrate each of the linguistic cues of comedy analysed.

In Chapter 2, Marszalek reviews existing literature drawn on in the analysis chapters of the book (Chapters 3, 4 and 5). First, cognitive and emotional responses to reading are discussed using text-world theory (Werth 1999, Gavins, 2007). The aim is to show how worlds are built for readers to experience humour expressed through a variety of language devices. Three main schools of humour are then presented: superiority theories (humour as a means denigrating other individuals and the feeling of superiority that comes with this mockery), release theories (humour as psychological relief for some form of tension through laughter), and incongruity theories (view discordance as a humorous stimulus for the receiver, and view laughter as a response to unexpected combination of contrasting features). Marszalek concludes by pointing out that although she is concerned with humour, she views it as “one of the emotional reactions cued by the stylistics techniques that shape our experience of humorous novels and short stories” (Marszalek,, p.26).

In Chapter 3, Marszalek explores the modes and moods of humour, using psychology, literary and film studies before a direct application of those concepts is applied onto stabilizing and destabilizing cues. Mood is described as an “affective state” or “emotion” in psychology, whereas in literary and film studies the idea of “atmosphere” or “tone” seems more suited to define it. Stockwell’s cognitive stylistic term of “ambience” (Stockwell, 2014, p.365) which combines the two is preferred by Marszalek for its precision. Humorous mode is defined as “the larger comic frame of discourse that is communicated by the sender of the text, and which evokes a playful cognitive state that facilitates a humorous interpretation” and it generates a “cognitive expectation of comedy” (Marszalek, p.33). Humorous mood is described as “the pleasurable, low-intensity affective state that predisposes us towards experiencing the emotion of amusement” and it “creates an affective expectation of comedy” (Marszalek, p.33). Both the mode and the mood of comic narratives should be used for comic narratives to be successful.

Other situational stabilizing cues are discussed, such as paratexts and openings. Genette’s definition of paratexts is put forward: “the mediation between the reader, author, publisher and the book itself” (Genette, 1997). In other words, they are elements that situate the text but are not part of the text itself. For instance, Marszalek illustrates how paratexts can contribute to the expectation of humour through blurbs and reviews on book covers describing a text as “funny”, titles or authors’ names, which can prime readers to expect humour from a text and the creation of a mood. Openings are also discussed as situational stabilizing cues, and they are divided into two categories: “humorous” and “non-humorous” humorous cues. “Humorous” humorous cues are explicit and deliberate cues of amusement, such as jokes or incongruous situations in openings. “Non-humorous” cues are implicit and not humorous in themselves but can help to trigger amusement in the reader. Two techniques in particular achieve this trigger: distancing and downgrading. Distancing aims to “distance the reader’s detachment from the narrative world” and downgrading is used to “reduce the value of the narrative world” (Marszalek, p.42). The theory of defamiliarization and foregrounding (Shklovsky, 1965) is used to analyse and explain distancing cues: it draws the readers’ attention to a layer of the work and has for effect to alienate the reader from the narrative.

Destabilizing cues are also reviewed, as they can disrupt positive mood in narratives through what Marszalek refers to as “dark elements”, meaning serious subjects in comic narratives. Schema theory (Bartlett, 1995) is employed to analyse and explain this phenomenon: schematas are mental stores of information which create the background knowledge about the world we use when we process discourse. Emotional states (positive or negative) can be associated with our world-knowledge, thus triggering a reaction. Another destabilizing cue is the switch between humorous and non-humorous moods. Marszalek further draws on text-world theory (Werth, 1999; Gavins, 2007) and the concept of “world-switches” which forces readers to construct new text-worlds due to a temporal or spatial switch. Marszalek builds on Gavins’s point to provide evidence that this switch is not only temporal or spatial but also emotional.

The enhancement of humorous mood through the use of a dark element is also a destabilizing cue explored, referred to as dark or black humour which leads readers to shift their mental sets from an innocuous script to an unpleasant one. Finally, the blending of humorous and non-humorous mood can occur when destabilizing cues and dark elements occur in an otherwise positive ambience.

In Chapter 4, Marszalek focuses on stabilizing and destabilizing cues of humour that allow engagement with characters. Those cues contribute to representing laughable characters and create funny interactions. Marszalek draws on Culpeper’s (2001) approach to characterization which suggests that our perception of characters is guided by our perception of real people. Our engagement with characters in narratives can trigger affective responses such as empathy, sympathy or identification, which can be explained by the metaphor READING IS INVESTMENT (Stockwell, 2009).

Stabilizing cues of comic narrative can be found in stereotypes, that is to say classifying people based on social categories such as ethnicity. This classification allows for a recurring mental representation of characters based on cues in the text. Another stabilizing cue of comic narratives are the roles played by characters, such as hero or villain. Marszalek discusses “misfit” characters: eccentric characters who stand out humorously and disrupt a situation, often have roles of impostor, buffoon or churl. Finally, stabilizing cues of humorous interactions are explored. Interactions are divided into two categories: interactions which cause miscommunication and interactions which produce impoliteness.

Destabilizing cues of engagement with characters in comic narratives are also reviewed. The misfit character is often presented from the “everymen/everywoman”, which stands as an average narrator. The contrast between the two types of characters often leads to humorous interactions. The protagonist can be perceived by readers as “one of us”, which triggers emotional affect for this character. On the other hand, protagonists can also be misfit characters with narcissist tendencies. Another source of character humour is observing protagonists unsuccessfully navigating social situations. Two reader reactions are possible: the comedy grants us protection from feeling embarrassed for the character in question or feeling a negative emotion at the embarrassment stemming from the amusement (cringe humour).

Chapter 5 explores the role story structures play in the perception of humour in comic narratives. Marszalek explains that the ordering and structuring of events in comic narrative can contribute to amusement and destabilize comedy by cueing responses unrelated to amusement (Marszalek, p.113). Certain comic situations such as jokes, or gags can trigger amusement due to their recognizable humour implications. One factor that contributes to amusement is the concept of recurrence, which is seen as a “humour enhancer”. Stabilizing cues of humour in the ordering of comic narratives are foreshadowing, complications and resolutions of situations. Foreshadowing means that elements of the narratives are scattered to help the reader infer how a narrative can develop, thus creating a certain repetition. Humorous complications are surprising negative events which are presented as humorous to the reader due to their incongruous qualities. Humorous resolutions occur once the reader has distanced themselves from the problem and the humorous problem is resolved.

Destabilizing cues of humour in the structure and ordering of comic novels and short stories aim to enhance the reader’s involvement in the story. They transform problems in plots into a source of amusement. Suspense and comic suspense are the first destabilising cues explored by Marszalek due to the element of surprise they bring to the narrative. Comic suspense involves predictability and delay, thus creating a situation with a predictable situation but delaying its revelation. Other destabilizing cues manipulate the degree of knowledge and amount of information the reader has, by using dramatic irony (the reader knows information certain characters ignore) and by using recurrence. Recurrence is the repetition of humorous situation such as running jokes. Marszalek gives the example of Warner Bros’s Road Runner cartoons, in which the Coyote will systematically fail to catch the Road Runner.

Chapter 6 concludes the monograph by condensing the key findings of each chapter in a clear and efficient way. A table is provided (Marszalek, pp. 148-150) to summarise and cross-reference the narrative world components, the quality of the cues (stabilizing or destabilizing), the cues themselves, a brief description of the technique and the effects on the narratives. This table is a visual summary of the book itself and a good way to visually represent the findings discussed, in a pedagogical, systematic way.


The book is written clearly and is organised logically. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are the main contribution to knowledge within the book as they discuss the varied cues of humour. Those chapters are organised thematically (modes and moods of humour, humour and characters, humorous structures) as opposed to simply listing the stabilising and destabilizing cues of humour. This allows for a contrast to be made between the cues and thus provides a clear picture of how those cues can work together in narratives to generate comedy.

In the introductory chapter, Marszalek announces that the overall aim of the book is to explore how the language of humour in novels and short stories shapes our emotional reactions when reading. This goal is achieved in two ways: through the approach to analysis and through the wide range of examples used throughout the book.

The approach put forward in Style and Emotion in Comic Novels and Short Stories is systematic, rigorous, and inclusive of different scenarios. The strength of Marszalek’s approach to comic language resides in its interdisciplinary nature: it draws not only on humour theories, but also on linguistics, cognitive stylistics, psychology, and literary and film studies, amongst others. Varied linguistic tools and theories are used throughout the book, such as the theory of foregrounding, text world theory, schema theory, amongst others, thus resulting in a comprehensive and qualitative analysis of the cues put forward. This makes the approach applicable to literary instances of humour, but also to films and plays.

Additionally, the explanations provided are equally systematic, rigorous and inclusive as the author provides a wide range of example for each point made. The cues analysed are applicable to a wide range of texts and account for a variety of humorous scenarios and cues. The monograph counts thirty-six examples of analysis, and many more explanatory examples from varied sources to support the author’s stance for each language cue analysed, thus showing the versatile nature of the approach. For instance, Marszalek uses seven novels and short stories selected for the analysis, such as Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1998). Reader-responses such as comments on Goodreads are also used, as well as other alternative examples, such as Warner Bros’s Road Runner.

Overall, Marszalek’s “Style and Emotion in Comic Novels and Short Stories” expertly contributes to knowledge by shedding light on how language triggers readers’ reaction to humour in comic narratives. The systematic and versatile approach combined with the variety of example makes this monograph accessible to students or anyone interested in the stylistics of humour, thus achieving the goal set by Marszalek in Chapter 1.


Bartlett, Frederic C. 1995. Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Culpeper, Jonathan. 2001Language and characterisation: People in plays and other texts. Harlow: Pearson.

Fielding, Helen. 1998. Bridget Jones’s Diary. London: Routledge.

Gavins, Joanna. 2007. Text World Theory: An Introduction: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Genette, Gérard. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation. No. 20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shklovsky, Victor, Lemon, L. T., and Reis, M. J. 1965. ''Art as technique. Russian Formalist criticism: four essays.'' Trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Stockwell, Peter. 2009. Texture: A cognitive aesthetics of reading. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Stockwell, Peter. 2014. ''Atmosphere and tone.'' The Cambridge handbook of stylistics 360-374. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Werth, Paul. 1999. Text worlds: Representing conceptual space in discourse. Harlow: Longman.
Kimberley Pager-McClymont is a PhD researcher in Stylistics at the University of Huddersfield. She teaches Academic English Skills for the International Study Centre at the University of Huddersfield. Her research interests are on the communication of emotions and figurative language, particularly the impact it has on readers and the process of characterisation. Her PhD aims to provide an updated model of pathetic fallacy using a stylistic approach and Conceptual Metaphor Theory.

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