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Meredith's most critically acclaimed work is the 1877 lecture An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, printed in the New Quarterly Magazine and published separately twenty years later. In this essay, which Arthur Symons called "his most brilliant piece of sustained writing," Meredith did not discuss comedy in general terms, but rather expounded on the comic approach that characterized his own fiction. Meredith contended that great comedy rectifies the excesses of human behavior by permitting audiences to laugh at their own foibles, depicting, according to Joseph Warren Beach, "the discrepancy between the real and the supposed motive" for human actions. True comedy thus has a beneficial social effect. For that reason Meredith asserted that true comedy is both "impersonal" and "thoughtful" and can only appear in a civilized nation. The novel The Egoist, written immediately after the essay on comedy, is the most successful example of his comic method and remains his most critically praised novel. In this comedy of manners, Meredith attacked a widely embraced element in the thought of John Stuart Mill, who held that individuals could think and do as they wished provided that they did no harm to others. Meredith demonstrated through the character of Sir Willoughby Patterne that such a belief was both alienating and harmful in that it ultimately denied the legitimacy of other opinions through the domination of egoistic individuals. Critical consensus is that with this work Meredith most successfully combined his theory of comedy, writing style, and thematic concerns. With The Egoist, Meredith finally achieved popular success and his popularity grew with subsequent novels.

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An Essay on Comedy, and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, 1897; edited by Lane Cooper, 1918, reprinted 1972, and Maura Ives, 1997
Further Reading
Beer, Gillian, Meredith: A Change of Masks: A Study of the Novels, London: Athlone Press, 1970
Carlson, Susan, Women and Comedy: Rewriting the British Theatrical Tradition, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991
Henkle, Roger B., Comedy and Culture: England, 1820–1900, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980
McWhirter, David, “Feminism/Gender/Comedy: Meredith, Woolf, and the
Reconfiguration of Comic Distance,” in Look Who’s Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Langhorne, Pennsylvania: Gordon and Breach, 1994:189–204
Martin, Robert Bernard, The Triumph of Wit: A Study of Victorian Comic Theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974
Moses, Joseph, The Novelist as Comedian: George Meredith and the Ironic Sensibility, New York: Schocken, 1983
Polhemus, Robert, Comic Faith: The Great Tradition from Austen to Joyce, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980
Stevenson, Lionel, The Ordeal of George Meredith, New York: Scribner, 1953; London: Owen, 1954
Stevenson, Lionel, “Carlyle and Meredith,” in Carlyle and His Contemporaries, edited by John Clubbe, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1976:257–79
Wilt, Judith, The Readable People of George Meredith, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1975

Comedy: "An Essay on Comedy" by George Meredith

Essay on comedy.

In his seminal Essay on Comedy,[6] Meredith maintains that man's "sensitiveness to the comic laugh is a step in civilization" (87-88). Indeed, the "sensitiveness" of the reader is targeted as intensely as that of the fictional egoists; Meredith's comic wit intentionally wreaks upheaval both inside and outside of the fictional framework, an aim which is at the heart of Meredith's convictions about the functions of art.[7] V.S. Pritchett has analyzed Meredith's comic method: