Have you ever wondered why you laugh when a clown trips and falls, or a toddler misuses a word, or a friend makes a silly mistake? According to superiority theory, the oldest and one of the most prominent theories of humor, people find funny those things that most make them aware of their own superiority. It’s the TLC theory of humor, helping explain the popularity of television shows which showcase dysfunctional individuals, families in disarray, extreme and unhealthy obsessions–a range of unflattering vignettes of the poor, the inept, the marginal. It’s a theory that suggests laughter doesn’t make people feel better so much as people laugh because they suddenly feel better about themselves.
It’s also the comedic foundation of Leonard Q. Ross’s 1937 novel The Education of Hyman Kaplan. The story of an immigrant’s struggle to learn English at “the American Night Preparatory School for Adults,” Kaplan delights in skewering it’s namesake, offering up his linguistic deficiencies as comedic fodder for the reader’s intended pleasure. Over and over, chapter after chapter, we’re asked to laugh at Kaplan’s difficulty learning the language–whether it’s his spelling, his verb conjugations, his oral comprehension, his use of idioms, etc. A case in point: after noting mockingly that Mr. Kaplan’s “smile was broad, luminous, transcendent; his manner regal,” the narrator relates Kaplan’s attempt to discern a phrase he has heard on the street–“‘I big de pottment.’” When the class’s teacher, Mr. Parkhill, realizes Kaplan means “I beg your pardon,” the narrator informs us gravely that Mr. Parkhill “wondered whether he could reconcile it with his conscience if he were to promote Mr. Kaplan…at once” to a higher level class, just to be rid of him, as though dealing with such a student is an unbelievably wearying burden. Sigh.
Admittedly, Kaplan isn’t your ideal student–he tends to be loud, impulsive, somewhat standoffish, a bit prideful–but he does try, and he isn’t stupid. An “earnest student” who “worked hard…did all his homework, and never missed a class,” Kaplan more than once impresses with his intelligence only to have the narrative conveniently undercut him. In one particularly poignant scene, Kaplan launches into a lucid discussion of compound words only to spell the word “headache” as “H-E-A-D-A-X-E.” It was one of a few occasions where I felt as though the book was going out of its way to make Kaplan look bad. To remind us that, however intelligent he might be otherwise, Kaplan stinks at English. Ha ha. How pathetic.
The book’s relatively hostile attitude toward Kaplan’s struggles only becomes more perplexing when you realize that the book itself was written by an immigrant–a Polish immigrant, in fact, like Kaplan himself. Ross’s choice to mock his protagonist’s difficulties, rather than to explain them, or contextualize them in any way, made me wonder if he wrote the book, at some level, to distance himself from the greener, English-less immigrants he might have known–to demonstrate his superiority via his grasp of the English language. It doesn’t take long, after all, to notice the narrator’s predilection for complex words like “colloquy” and “teleological,” or his oblique allusions to Greek mythology–choices which seem intended to steer the book toward a more well-spoken readership. Unfortunately, for this reader, those kinds of choices are what made this book so off-putting. It’s patronizing tone, its air of superiority, make the book less funny than, frankly, sad.