Humour is used in The Canterbury Tales and Gulliver’s Travels for the purpose of both entertainment and satire. In addition, the humour of both texts is often directed at human bodily functions and sexuality in a way that all humans can identify with, even centuries after the texts were composed. Chaucer’s humour in The Canterbury Tales often has a satirical undertone, but generally seems lighter than Swift’s, which often reveals quite dark undertones beneath the surface.
The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales is an Estates Satire that consists of humorous caricatures of each character. These characters are stereotypes of their particular social class, and the subtle humour reveals truths and preconceptions that the reader shares about each of these classes. For example, the idea that doctors are more interested in money than curing people is revealed in the amusing couplet that finishes the doctor’s introduction, “gold stimulates the heart, or so we’re told. He therefore had a special love of gold” (15). The combination of subtle humour and the jovial tone of the rhyming couplets makes this satire both enjoyable and easy to read.
The lightest and most overt example of humour in The Canterbury Tales is in The Miller’s Tale, a fabliaux involving both adultery and physical comedy. Absolon the love-sick clerk is punished for his jealousy in the hilarious scene with Alison in which “at the window out she put her hole, / And Absalon, so fortune framed the farce, / Put up his mouth and kissed her naked arse” (103). Both Nicholas and John also come to humorous grief, revealing an advisory message for the male reader in their pursuit of sexual love.
The humour in The Gulliver’s Travels also has its light moments, but is generally combined with a much darker satirical edge. Early in the book, the image of the tiny Lilliputian soldiers looking up Gulliver’s breeches in “admiration” (37), and Gulliver using his “presence of mind” (49) to urinate on the palace fire until it is “wholly extinguished” (50) are good examples of lighter humour. Both scenes involve a preoccupation with human bodily functions in a way that is common in many comedies, but as the book progresses Swift portrays humans (through the Yahoos) in more disgusting ways and without the comedic overtone. The amusing image of Laputians and their Flappers carries a biting attack on academia as being inward looking and too caught up in their own philosophising to either hear others views or even observe the world around them.
The touches of humour have faded somewhat by the time Gulliver reaches the land of the Houyhnhnms. At this point of his journey, social satire and irony are often coming directly from Gulliver himself rather than the non-human characters, and he is identifying more with his Houyhnhnm masters than with humankind. When Gulliver is describing the “Art of War” (230) to his master, he rattles off a long list of the various ways in which humans are able to kill each other. The irony of Gulliver feeling superior as he “educates” his master, combined with the exhaustive length of this list, are quite humorous, but in an extremely dark way that leads to a realisation about the evil in humanity. While Chaucer maintains a light touch of humour in his social satire, Swift in Gulliver’s Travels uses both humour and irony in increasingly dark ways that encourage the reader to think deeply about his message.