HPfGU #43271

Twins, Toons, Humor and Instinct

RE: Twins, Toons, Humor and Instinct

Abigail wrote:

I remain convinced that it just doesn't matter whether F&G are bullies, because we were never meant to analyze their actions as deeply as we do.

I'm sorry that you're not enjoying the discussion, Abigail, but really, I think it obvious that the issue does indeed matter to quite a number of people. After all, if no one considered the question of any interest, significance or relevance, then the thread would likely have died out long ago, don't you think?

As for why it matters...well, we've had debates here in the past over whether or not Sirius Black suffers from PTSD. Now, what does that matter? Isn't it rather a silly discussion, when it comes right down to it? After all, the wizarding world has probably never even heard of PTSD. Sirius is not playing with a full deck in PoA—that much is clear—so why not just leave it at that? Who really cares whether he does or does not fulfill the clinical criteria of a very specific real world personality dysfunction?

Well, lots of people do. Many people find that topic an interesting one because it speaks to a question of character, and questions of character happen to be of great interest to a good number of people on this list. We've also had discussions over whether or not Peter Pettigrew possesses physical (as opposed to moral) courage, whether or not Lupin is non-compliant, whether Hermione is gifted or merely driven, whether or not Ron and the twins are every bit as ambitious as Percy, whether Snape suffers from survivor's guilt, who was kissing Florence behind the greenhouses, and so forth. When these questions of character determine (as they often do with Snape, for example) how a character might behave himself when he is not in Harry's (and therefore the reader's) range of perception, then people often find them even more interesting -- perhaps in part because we realize that we'll likely never get to find out for sure.

I am sorry that such character discussions bore you, but honestly, there's really very little that I can do about that. There are other threads, and if none of the topics currently on offer interests you, then you are always free to start one of your own.

I would like, though, to ask why you feel that my belief that the twins are canonically depicted as bullies is symptomatic of such a great depth of analysis. A lot of people have expressed similar objections on this thread, and I've been having some real trouble understanding it. What makes my reasons for believing that they act like bullies any more "deeply analyzed" than other people's reasons for believing that they do not act like bullies?

This came up in your response to the very first message that I wrote on this thread, too. I stated that I didn't much care for the twins and that I thought they were bullies, and you wrote:

You know, I've had the feeling for a long time that, as a group, we tend to over-analize the Harry Potter books - at least past a certain point.

Since you've now reiterated this claim, I'd like to ask you about it, because I must say that I'm finding it very difficult to understand. In what way is saying, "I don't like the twins at all. I think they're bullies" over-analyzing the text?

After all, how much analysis does it really take to form a gestalt impression of a couple of fictional characters? I wasn't aware that doing this was analysis at all, really. I tend to think of it as just, well, reading.

Don't we all like or dislike certain minor characters due, in large part, to our impressions of the sort of people that they are -- impressions that we receive due to what we see them saying and doing in the text? If called upon to explain our reasons for feeling, say, that Percy is pompous, or that Ginny is shy, couldn't any of us do that by citing canon?

That's what I've done on this thread. I posted once saying "I don't like 'em. I think they're bullies." And then I posted again to provide some clarification, as well as some clinical definitions, because an awful lot of people jumped in to contest my claim that the twins act like bullies. Since it seems quite clear to me that they are indeed depicted as rather stereotypical bullies, and since I thought that my arguments had been misunderstood, I posted a clarification. But until now, that has been the full extent of my participation in this discussion. Yet both times you have talked about "over-analysis," it has been in response to me in particular.

So that does make me feel compelled to ask: in what way do you feel that I have been engaged in such terribly deep analysis? Many people over the course of the history of this list have discussed their feelings about the twins. So what makes it "over-analyzing" when I do it?

The obvious explanation that leaps to mind, of course, is that people just plain don't like what I have to say, and that they therefore feel compelled to dismiss it as irrelevant because in that way they hope they can make me stop saying it. But surely that can't really be the case, can it? That would imply that people find my reading somehow threatening. How on earth could a simple observation about the behavior of a couple of minor characters in a work of fiction be so tremendously upsetting to a group of mature adults?

Abigail wrote:

Fred and George Weasly, as the chief suppliers of comic relief in the books, tend to be responsible for most of these actions, but I find it hard to believe that we are meant to read any insight from this into their character.

But a good deal of the rest of your message was then taken up with explaining, in quite a lot of detail, exactly what you think about Fred and George! You speculated as to their motivations, and you analyzed their relationship with Percy, their feelings towards Cedric, and their feelings towards Draco Malfoy.

So where did all of that come from, if it didn't come from their behavior as observed in the canon? You didn't just make it all up out of thin air, did you?

No, of course not. I rather imagine that what you did was to extrapolate it from the gestalt impression that you have received of the character of the twins from the sum of all of their canonical appearances over the course of four novels -- very many of which are indeed, as you yourself have pointed out, written as comedy.

Which is precisely what I did. So I'm having a hard time understanding in what way my interpretation is "over-analyzing," while your own (I assume) is not. What makes your reading less analytical than mine?

What is bothering me a bit here, I think, is what I am perceiving as a decided tendency for people to believe that their own readings are somehow more genuine—more honest, more spontaneous, more natural, more unself-conscious, more authorially sanctioned, more canonically supported—than those of people who happen to have reached different conclusions from precisely the same canonical evidence, or than those of people who happen to have had somewhat different emotional responses to the same things.

Surely we all realize that different readers do respond differently to the canon! If they didn't, then this list would be a very boring place indeed. So why must people assume that any deviation in response must be symptomatic of someone having "thought too hard" about it? Why does the assumption seem to be: "My response is spontaneous and emotional and natural. Your response is forced and ratiocinated and over-intellectualized?"

Take humour, for example.

Abigail wrote:

With almost no exception, the humor in the Harry Potter books tends to be broad and on the slapstick side. . . . [involving] actions which, if one looks too carefully into them, are actually quite rude and insensitive, but when you don't think of them too much are very funny.

Well, but surely you can see that this is highly subjective? You may find those scenes very funny "when you don't think of them too much," but by no means everyone shares your response. In fact, wasn't that where we first came in? With Jenny describing her mother's instinctive reaction to the Toffee scene?

I didn't get the impression that Jenny's mother mulled it over before she decided that the twins' behavior there had been cruel and insensitive. She didn't need to ponder it to feel that way, surely. From the way that Jenny described it, I had received the impression that it had been her initial instinctive response, just like laughter was your initial instinctive response.

Nor, it would seem, is it even all that unusual an instinctive response. Debbie and Eileen both reacted negatively to the scene as well. So, for that matter, did I. It didn't make me laugh the first time that I read it. It made me cringe. But a cringe is every bit as natural and spontaneous a response as a laugh, is it not?

When people don't laugh at a joke, I don't generally assume that it is because they have "looked too carefully into them," because there's just not enough time for that, is there, when you hear a joke? You hear the joke, and then you either laugh or you don't laugh. When people don't laugh, I always just figure that it must be because they didn't find that type of humor funny.

Eileen wrote:

The ton-tongue-toffee made me feel sick, just really sick. I couldn't laugh at all. And that was an instinctive reading, as instinctive as any hearty guffaw at the "hilarious" situation.

Yes, precisely. And that's an incredibly visceral response, isn't it? To feel physically sick? There's nothing at all analytical about a sense of nausea. Nausea is about as instinctive as it gets.

Forcing yourself to laugh when you don't find something funny, now. That would be "over-analyzing."

Humour is a notoriously subjective phenomenon. Sometimes JKR's sense of humor matches up with mine, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the laughs work for me, and sometimes they fall flat. I suspect that everyone has pretty much that same experience, although which types of jokes work and which don't varies from person to person.

But why would the question of whether or not the reader starts yukking it up the instant that the authorial LAUGH sign lights up be relevant to the question of whether or not we think that the twins are depicted as bullies?

Surely the claim here is not that if the readers find it funny, then it can't really be bullying behavior? Surely not. I can't see how that would make sense. I mean, I personally find Crouch Jr.'s behavior throughout GoF incredibly amusing. Yet I don't claim that this means that he isn't really sadistic. I find Voldemort pretty funny in the graveyard, too. But I don't claim that this makes Voldemort a nice fellow. And not only do I find Draco's exasperated and sneering running commentary on Hagrid's classes quite entertaining as a reader, I also suspect that I would appreciate it a great deal as a by-stander. I mean, if I were a student stuck in that awful class, feeding bits of lettuce to the flobberworms, then I would love listening to Draco voice all of the same things that I would be thinking about what a total waste of time it was. But I still think that Draco's a mean little snob (not to mention a bully), and that Hagrid would be well within his rights and his authority to discipline him for mouthing off in class like that.

So I'm not quite sure how the question of whether or not something strikes the reader as funny really relates to anything much other than...well, than to whether or not the reader happens to like or dislike certain types of humour.

One argument, if I'm understanding this correctly, is that we cannot really deduce anything about a character's personality from a scene that is written comedically -- or perhaps this is only true if the scene is written as very broad comedy. Dicentra has suggested, for example, that so long as the characters involved in a scene are "Toons," then we are meant to read the characters' actual behavior in that scene as in no way significant to their actual character.

This, too, is very difficult for me to understand. After all, a great deal of the series is written as rather broad comedy. The Dursleys are Roald Dahl grotesques, and their treatment of Harry is ridiculously over-the-top -- and yet we still persist in reading them as abusive guardians, and Harry himself as someone who has suffered from an abusive upbringing. The ferret-bouncing scene is a piece of slapstick comeuppance humor -- and yet we still read it (in retrospect) as a telling piece of characterization for Crouch Jr. The Fat Lady is not only figuratively but even literally two- dimensional -- and yet we still view the slashing of her portrait as evidence that Sirius Black is angry, violent, impulsive and dangerous. Lockhart is a cartoonish buffoon -- and yet when he threatens to leave innocent children to die, it still chills the blood. All Magic Dishwashers notwithstanding, many people do read Voldemort in the graveyard as Toon Evil Overlord posturing before all of his Toon Worthless Minions -- yet they still feel comfortable drawing certain conclusions about Voldemort's character from his behavior in that scene. JKR consistently depicts Pettigrew's fear in a rather cartoonishly overdone manner -- and yet we still view the question of what is to become of him in the Shrieking Shack as absolutely vital to the spiritual condition of the other characters involved. And swaggering little Draco Malfoy and his two silent henchmen are pretty toonish themselves -- yet we read them as bullies.

Why should the twins alone be exempted from this dynamic?

Even if one argues that they are themselves "Toons," don't the toonish scenes then just depict them as toonish bullies? The TTT scene, for example, is definitely cartoonish. It is not in the least bit realistic. It's completely exaggerated, totally over the top, with Dudley backed against the wall and clutching his backside and whimpering, and then Fred and George coming into the living room and catching sight of him there, and immediately flashing a pair of "evil grins."

The entire sequence is exaggerated for comedic effect, sure, and both Dudley and the twins are definitely written as pure Toon in that scene.

They are written as Toon Victim and Toon Bullies.

I don't see how the fact that the entire scene is written as a cartoon changes at all the nature of what is actually being depicted. If anything, I would say that far from negating that depiction, the scene's exaggerated, iconic, and archetypical qualities reinforce it.

Dicentra wrote:

I think that reading HP without taking into account that some characters are Toons ends up distorting the story.

I think that it would distort the story even more if we were to assume that only the realistically portrayed scenes have any real significance or can be assumed to convey anything about character.

For one thing, if the "Toonish" scenes have no meaning that relates to the rest of the text, then what on earth are they for? I really don't think that the story works very well if we discount all of the toonish bits as irrelevant comic interludes, included for no other purpose but to give us all a nice laugh before we move on to the rest of the story. If that were really the case, then I don't think that the books would really be very, well, good.

Part of what does make the books so good, IMO, is that the narrative succeeds in sliding across such a very wide spectrum of "toonishness," yet still keep the characterization and the thematic focus relatively consistent no matter where on that spectrum any given scene happens to fall.

Take the immediate aftermath of TTT, for example. We've just had Toon Bullies and their prank on Toon Victim, complete with Toon Dahlesque Dursleys screaming and throwing vases at Toon Well-Meaning-But-Ineffectual Dad, who keeps trying to make things better while only succeeding in making them worse. It's very broad, over the top humor, down to flying vases and all of the shrieking. It's a Toon scene, to be sure.

Then, immediately thereafter, we have Arthur Weasley coming home and berating his sons for having engaged in an action that could quite reasonably be construed as "Muggle baiting" -- and then Fred responding with an indignation that I've always read as sincerely startled. The twins were Muggle baiting, whether they realized it or not, and I've always read Fred's indignation as proof that they hadn't consciously realized what their behavior really constituted. It's an important scene too, IMO, because it will soon be followed by the Muggle Baiting at the QWC, in which plenty of wizards other than the Death Eaters themselves join. The aftermath of TTT is in some sense a prelude not only to the QWC, but also to the Penseive sequences much later on. It's one of the earliest hints of the moral darkening of the series as a whole.

TTT is pure Toon, but its aftermath is not. The scene shifts "genres" there, so to speak. Yet the characters are the same characters, and the event being referred to is the same event as the one that was written as pure Toon. Frankly, I don't think that the sequence holds together at all—it just doesn't make any narrative sense—if you don't recognize that what the twins did in the Toonish sequence really is significant, that it really does serve as a legitimate expression of their character, that it really matters. It happened. It signified. It counted.

Much of the series works in just this way, IMO. If you discount the toonish stuff, then the other stuff starts not making any sense. I just don't see how the story can hold together at all if you try to read the things that are cartoonish depicted as "not really counting," or as not relevant, or as in some other way divorced from the rest of the series.

For one thing, you don't enjoy the jokes.

I don't think that enjoying jokes is really dependent on viewing the behavior of the characters as insignificant or lacking in ramification. I can get a good giggle out of Pettigrew's "I was a good pet" line in Shrieking Shack while still recognizing what is going on in that scene as fundamentally quite serious.

For another, it adds dimension to characters where none exists--mostly negative dimensions--so you don't enjoy the characters.

Mmmm. Well, you know, Dicey, I really do take some exception to this notion that I'm the one who has been adding negative dimension "where none exists" to the twins here. I wasn't the one who wrote them with bullying traits. JKR was. If that dimension to their character really didn't exist, then do you honestly think that people would have become so hot and bothered by my bringing it up?

Oh, no. I really don't think so. This debate as I've read it has mainly been one in which people have been arguing over what to call that negative dimension, or trying to excuse it, or trying to discount it, or pointing out all of the more positive dimensions which they feel mitigate it. But adding dimension "where none exists?" Oh, no. I don't think that's what's really been going on here at all.

What I'm beginning to think is really going on here, actually, is that some people just don't feel that they would still be able to enjoy the twins as characters, or to find their scenes funny, or to feel personal reader affection for them anymore if they were to acknowledge out loud that the twins exhibit classic bullying behavior patterns.

But I just don't know what to do about that, honestly. I really don't. I don't get it at all. Why must characters be perfect to be liked? Why must people feel compelled to defend an action morally just because they thought that it was funny? Can't we acknowledge that actions can still be funny even if they are not good actions? After all, sometimes things that are downright evil can be funny (especially to me, as I have a very black sense of humour). Can't people still enjoy characters even if they have been portrayed with some negative dimensions?

It is mystifying to me.


Posted August 27, 2002 at 10:38 pm
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dietwinsdie: Links to Elkins's Posts on the Twins

Links to Elkins's Posts on the Twins
Fred and George, the Bullies You Do Know...