Laughter, Ridicule, and Sympathetic Humor in the Early Nineteenth Century

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Offering a reevaluation of the place of laughter in the history of ideas, this article suggests that laughter was understood as an act of sympathy in the early nineteenth century. While a sympathetic humor emerged in the eighteenth century to both encourage and endorse the cult of sensibility, laughter’s strong associations with ridicule and its boisterousness meant that it had a complicated relation to sympathy. The writings of William Hazlitt and, particularly, Charles Lamb and Thomas Carlyle, however, illustrate not only a rich engagement with their comic inheritance, but also demonstrate how these Romantic writers identify laughter with the amiable humor in vogue at the time and especially acts of sympathy and the imagination. Detailing the key role laughter plays in human feeling and interaction, and its ethical authority in social pleasures, this article argues for the need to acknowledge laughter’s place among other nonlinguistic modes of communication—such as crying and swooning—as an expression and performance of sympathy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)725-749
Number of pages26
JournalSEL - Studies in English Literature
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017


  • Laughter
  • Humour theory
  • History of emotions
  • Sympathy
  • Romanticism


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