Reflecting Back, or What Can the French Tell the English About Humour?


  • Will Noonan


This paper explores the conceptual and historical differences between Francophone and Anglophone understandings of humour. While successive attempts by French scholars to classify and define the imported concept of humour offer a basis for a ‘reciprocal definition’ of the French scholarly mind, this essay aims in a different direction, seeking to show how the more specific French understanding of humour offers a useful foil for thinking about the broader English concept, and particularly how the reflexive dimension associated with ‘humour’ has particular applications for the study of self-conscious literature. Given the relative paucity of Anglophone scholarship on the topic, it will outline the debates surrounding the notion of ‘humour’ in the French critical tradition, set against the historical development of humour as a concept in both languages. While the purported cultural and historical specificity of humour remains problematic to an Anglophone readership, the essay concludes by considering how the reflexive dimension of French ‘humour’ is echoed in other theories relating both to humour and to literary self-consciousness.