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Charles Dickens’ Humor, Irony, and Language Play

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Charles Dickens’sHumor, Irony, and Language Play
by Don L. F. Nilsenand Alleen Pace Nilsen
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Dickens has a special talent for evoking strong emotions that result in laughter, terror, and/or pathos. These emotions are used to support his dominant themes and effects, and although the earlier novels tend to be lighter in tone and the later novels more serious, there is a seriousness in his humorthoughouthis writing career.James Kincaid said, “Generally speaking, as Dickens progressed he usedhumourfor perhaps more serious purposes, attacking and persuading the reader more and more subtly” (Kincaid 4).
Charles Dickens’s novels fall into two categories:Comedies of Manners: where social, family, and political hierarchies are satirized, andComedies ofHumours: where the characters are seen as eccentrics, or even grotesques.
Two Kinds ofHumoursCharacters
Northrup Frye feels that Dickens has two types ofhumourscharacters, the genial, generous, and lovable ones, and the absurd or sinister ones.Typically the characters in the congenial society have amiable and harmless eccentricities, while thehumourscharacters in the obstructing society reinforce the false standards and values of that society (Frye 56-57).
Bleak HousevsPickwick PapersHumoursCharacters
InBleak House,Smallweedis the miser,Chadbandis the hypocrite,SkimpoleandTurveydropare the parasites, and Mrs.Jellybyis the pedant.InPickwick Papers, Mr. Winkle is the duffer sportsman, whose pretensions go far beyond his performance. Mr. Winkle, however, represents anotherhumouras well—“the pleasant young man who breaks down family opposition on both sides to acquire a pleasant young woman” (Frye 57).Otherhumourscharacters inThe Pickwick Papersinclude Mr.Tupmanthe incautious lover, Mr. Snodgrass, the melancholy poet, and of course Mr. Pickwick, the pedant.
Dickens Characters are Distorted
Elton Smith says that for Charles Dickens, everyone is larger than life or smaller than life, but never just life size.Some Dickens characters, like Little Nell, and Oliver Twist, are “Perfect Innocents.” We suffer and weep for these characters, but we are not allowed to laugh at them because we know that “they will die closing innocent blue eyes upon a world that taught them nothing.”
Worldly Innocents and Villains
David Copperfield, Pip, and Mr. Pickwick are Worldly Innocents, because their experiences have shaped them, and they have a capacity for growth.Scrooge is an example of a Villain, who mistreats his employees. But we can laugh at Scrooge because he is scared into change by the ghosts.
Targets of Dickens Satires
Dickens novels can be seen as ironic tragi-comedies of deception.Dickens targets the injustices of the nineteenth century, namely, poor houses, boys’ boarding schools, the lack of education for women, the tyrannies of family life, the over reliance on alcohol, and the effects of poverty.
The Pickwick Papers(1836-1837)
Many of Dickens’s novels were first published serially in London newspapers.Number Four ofThe Pickwick Papersintroduced two strikingly colorful Cockney characters, Sam Weller, and his father, Tony Weller, the fat coachman.Sam was impudent, but he was warmhearted. His worldly-wise anecdotes were told in a strong Cockney accent that made him an ideal foil for Mr. Pickwick’s innocence and benevolence.
Comparing Samuel Pickwick with Don QuixoteThe Pickwick Papersis a burlesque of the touring and sporting clubs in England in Victorian times.Both Samuel Pickwick and Don Quixote run around trying to redress evils, and both (because of their naiveté) invariably end up looking ridiculous.This comparison is strengthened by comparing Sam Weller with SanchoPanza. Weller’s speech is as full of farcical comparisons as was SanchoPanza’sspeech full of proverbs.About eighty percent of the “Wellerisms” inThe Pickwick Papersare either morbid, or else they deal with such things as debt, unhappy marriage, misanthropy, or general social discomfort. When JohnSmaukersays that the Bath waters are “killibeate,” Sam responds, “I don’t know much about that ‘ere…. I thought they’d awerystrongflavouro’ warm flat irons.”
Dickens describes Mr.Squeersas being not prepossessing. “He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favor of two. The eye he had was unquestionably useful, but decidedly not ornamental: being of a greenish grey, and in shape resembling the fan-light of a street door.”“The blank side of his face was much wrinkled and puckered up, which gave him a very sinister appearance, especially when he smiled, at which times his expression bordered closely on the villainous.”
Mr.Squeers“wore a white neckerchief with long ends, and a suit of trousers a great deal too short; he appeared ill at ease in his clothes, as if he were in a perpetual state of astonishment at finding himself so respectable.”
Oliver Twist(1838-1839)
InOliver Twist, Mr.Gamsfieldis the overseer of the chimney sweeps. He makes readers laugh by lighting dry straw fires while the boys are in the chimneys.“Boys isweryobstinit, andwerylazy,gen’lmen, and there’snothinklike a good hot blaze to make ‘emcome downvitha run.”“It’s humane too,gen’lmen,acause, even if they’ve stuck in thechimbley, roasting their feet makes ‘emstruggle tohextricatetheirselves.”
The Old Curiosity Shop(1841)
The Old Curiosity Shop is one of the characters in this novel. Northrup Frye considers it to be a threshold symbol of the entrance into the grotesque world, like the rabbit-hole and mirror in the Alicebooks.NorthrupFrye says thatThe Old Curiosity Shopis a melodrama, in which the “the mainspring of melodramatic action is, like that of humorous action, mainly obsession” (76).
The most memorable character inThe Old Curiosity Shopis DanielQuilp.Quilpis a dwarf with the head of a giant.Heis a combination of a prankster and a villain. In Chapter 48 ofTheOld Curiosity Shop,Quilptakes a carriage ride with Mrs.Nubbles:“It was some gratification to Mr.Quilpto find, as he took his place upon the roof, that Kit’s mother was alone inside; from which circumstance he derived in the course of the journey much cheerfulness of spirit, inasmuch as her solitary condition enabled him to terrify her with many extraordinary annoyances;”“such as hanging over the side of the coach at great risk of his life, and staring in with his great goggle eyes, which seemed in hers the more horrible from his face being upside down.”
Unnecessary Detail?
George Orwell considers “unnecessary detail” to have been the most salient feature of Dickens’s writing. An example is when Mr. Jack Hopkins is telling a story at Bob Sawyer’s party about a child who had swallowed his sister’s necklace:“Next day, child swallowed two beads; the day after that, he treated himself to three, and so on, till a week’s time he had got through the necklace—five-and-twenty beads in all.”
“The sister who was an industrious girl and seldom treated herself to a bit of finery, cried her eyes out at the loss of the necklace; looked high and low for it; but I needn’t say, didn’t find it.”“A few days afterwards, the family were at dinner—baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it—the child, who wasn’t hungry, was playing about the room, when suddenly there was heard the devil of a noise, like a small hailstorm….”
InMartinChuzzlewit, Mr.Tarpleycomments on grammar: “AWerbis a word as signifies to be, to do, or to suffer (which is all the grammar, and enough too, as ever Iwostaught); and if there’s aWerbalive, I’m it. For I’m always a-bein’, sometimes a-doin’, and continually a-sufferin’.”In the fourth Chapter ofMartinChuzzlewit, there is a greedy reunion of theChuzzzlewitsand their relatives and friends, thePecksniffs,Slyme,Spottletoes, andTigg.” RobertPolhemusdescribes this event as “a gathering of funny words” (93-94).
InMartinChuzzlewit, Mr.Scadderis described as “swinging backwards and forwards in a rocking-chair, with one of his legs planted high up against the door-post, and the other doubled up under him as if he were hatching his foot.”“The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and he wore his shirt collar wide open, so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in aharpsicordwhen the notes are struck.”“Perhaps it was the truth feeblyendeavouringto leap from his lips. If so, it never reached them.”
RobertPolhemussays that inMartinChuzzlewit, Dickens considers America to be “a land of Pecksniffian manifest destiny.”Americahad the same function for Dickens as Lilliput had for Swift. It was “a place where he could isolate and satirize major developments and coming distractions of the world” (104).
When Martin and Mark first arrive in New York, they hear the cries of the newsboys:“Here’s this morning’sNew York Family Spy!” cried one. “Here’s this morning’sNew York Stabber!” “Here’s theNew York Sewer!” “Here’s theNew York Family Spy!” “Here’s theNew York Private Listener.” Here’s theNew York Peeper!” “Here’s theNew York Plunderer!” Here’s theNew York Keyhole Reporter!” Here’s theNew York Rowdy Journal!”George Ford characterizes the American scenes inMartinChuzzlewitas “open-stopped satire,” all the way from newsboys shouting the names of their various newspapers to the swampy land development called “Eden.”
David Copperfield(1850)
InDavid Copperfield, Mr.Micawberis described as “astoutishmiddle-aged person in a brownsurcoatand black tights and shoes, with no more hair upon his head (which was a large one, and very shining) than there is upon an egg.”“His clothes were shabby, but he had an imposing shirt collar on. He carried a jaunty sort of a stick, with a large pair of rusty tassels on it; and a quizzing glass, hung outside his coat, for ornament, I afterward found, as he very seldom looked through it, and couldn’t see anything when he did.”
When David Copperfield shakes hands with UriahHeep, he says that his handshake feels as if he had just “grasped a frog, hislizardlikespacticity, his involuntary writhing and screwing up of the face, and his redshadowlesseyes.”“Heap embodies the self-abasement that accompanies the obsequiousness by which he wriggles up the social ladder.”
Great Expectations(1861)
InGreat Expectations, MissHavishamcan be seen as a tragicomic figure.It is ironic that Pip, a Victorian boy, would perceive a person who looks like a witch, to be a “good fairy.”According to Henri Talon, “Pip must have fancied that he was behaving like ‘the young Knight of romance’ as he went down on his knee and put MissHavisham’shand to his lips.”
Conclusion: The Grounding of Dickens Characters
Many Dickens characters were grounded in real life.The character of Little Nell inThe Old Curiosity Shopwas based on Mary Hogarth, Dickens’s sister-in-law, who died in Dickens’s arms at the age of seventeen. When the character Little Nell died, all of England wept.Mr.Micawberwas based on Dickens’s father, and Mrs.Nicklebywas based on his mother. Mrs.Nicklebyspeaks in loquacious monologues that are filled with delightful absurdities.Dickens’s mother didn’t realize that she was the model for Mrs.Nickleby, and Dickens once wrote about ‘Mrs.Nicklebyherself, sitting bodily before me in a solid chair [who] once asked me whether I believed there ever was such a woman.”
Mr.Squeers, the schoolmaster inNicholasNicklebywas also taken from real life, and the portrait was painted so well, and so close to real life that the person on whom the sketch was based suffered from a premature death.HeskethPearson notes that Dickens’s portrayal of the Yorkshire schools was so devastating that the school system drastically changed, and schools like the ones he described were ridiculed out of existence.
Charles Dickens’s Humor
Charles Dickens’s Humor:





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Charles Dickens’ Humor, Irony, and Language Play