Laughter in the dark: the Jester God in American literature

Dula, Michael Williams, Department of English, University of Virginia
Day, Douglas, Department of English, University of Virginia
Nelson, Raymond, Department of English, University of Virginia

In the nineteenth century, American writers responded to the lingering mythos of Puritanism by creating a counter-myth of their own: a God who plays cruel or 4 incomprehensible jokes on mankind. The Jester first appears in the works of Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, but his grin also punctuates the writings of artists as diverse as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, James Branch Cabell, and William Faulkner. Although the idea of a God who plays tricks on mankind is neither a distinctly modern nor a distinctly American invention, the American Puritan tradition, with its paradoxically tyrannical Judge who is also an omnipotent, benevolent Father, has offered particularly fertile ground for its growth.

From its roots in Dickinson's poems to its more recent mutations in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon, the Jester God functions as a reaction against belief in Providence and the genteel tradition of naive optimism. In this private solution to the problem of evil, the misanthropy of the Puritans is directed outward at God himself, and all human institutions become suspect as mirrors of a potentially perverse divine order. The Jester is not merely an anti-religious device; he is in some sense a true God, an Other against whom these writers define themselves. The line between a universe without any order at all and one 5 ruled by the Jester is fine but significant; it is better to be the butt of a Joke than to be a meaningless part of an absurd cosmos.

The struggle to transform the Calvinist Father into a Jester is a supreme imaginative effort, achieved by turning radical playfulness against a still powerful tradition. By entering wholeheartedly into the game, the artist attains the privileged vantage of the Gamemaster; moreover, writers who invoke the Jester God frequently pass into a final stage where they imaginatively usurp the throne of that God as a conscious creator and puzzle-master. In these final, solipsistic solutions to all paradoxes, the creators of the Jester enter their own projections as God, Jester, and Author of all they survey.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Providence and government of God in literature, American literature -- Effect of Calvinism on, Calvinism -- Influence, American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism, American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism
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