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Charles Dickens’s

Humor, Irony, and Language Play

by Don L. F. Nilsen
and 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 humor thoughout his writing

James Kincaid said, “Generally speaking, as Dickens

progressed he used humour for 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, and

Comedies of Humours: where the characters

are seen as eccentrics, or even grotesques.

Two Kinds of Humours Characters
Northrup Frye feels that Dickens has two types of
humours characters, 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
the humours characters in the obstructing society
reinforce the false standards and values of that
society (Frye 56-57).
Bleak House vs Pickwick Papers Humours Characters

In Bleak House, Smallweed is the miser, Chadband is the

hypocrite, Skimpole and Turveydrop are the parasites, and
Mrs. Jellyby is the pedant.

In Pickwick Papers, Mr. Winkle is the duffer sportsman,

whose pretensions go far beyond his performance. Mr.
Winkle, however, represents another humour as well—“the
pleasant young man who breaks down family opposition on
both sides to acquire a pleasant young woman” (Frye 57).

Other humours characters in The Pickwick Papers include Mr.

Tupman the 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

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 of The Pickwick Papers introduced 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 Quixote

The Pickwick Papers is 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 Sancho Panza.

Weller’s speech is as full of farcical comparisons as was Sancho Panza’s speech
full of proverbs.

About eighty percent of the “Wellerisms” in The Pickwick Papers are either
morbid, or else they deal with such things as debt, unhappy marriage,
misanthropy, or general social discomfort. When John Smauker says that the
Bath waters are “killibeate,” Sam responds, “I don’t know much about that
‘ere…. I thought they’d a wery strong flavour o’ warm flat irons.”

Nicholas Nickleby (1837-1839)
Dickens describes Mr. Squeers as 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)
In Oliver Twist, Mr. Gamsfield is the overseer of the
chimney sweeps. He makes readers laugh by lighting
dry straw fires while the boys are in the chimneys.

“Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, gen’lmen, and

there’s nothink like a good hot blaze to make ‘em come
down vith a run.”

“It’s humane too, gen’lmen, acause, even if they’ve

stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes ‘em
struggle to hextricate theirselves.”
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 Alice books.

Northrup Frye says that The Old Curiosity Shop is a

melodrama, in which the “the mainspring of
melodramatic action is, like that of humorous
action, mainly obsession” (76).
The most memorable character in The Old Curiosity Shop is
Daniel Quilp. Quilp is a dwarf with the head of a giant. He is
a combination of a prankster and a villain. In Chapter 48 of
The Old Curiosity Shop, Quilp takes a carriage ride with Mrs.

“It was some gratification to Mr. Quilp to 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

“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

“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….”
Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-1844)
In Martin Chuzzlewit, Mr. Tarpley comments on
grammar: “A Werb is a word as signifies to be, to do, or
to suffer (which is all the grammar, and enough too, as
ever I wos taught); and if there’s a Werb alive, I’m it.
For I’m always a-bein’, sometimes a-doin’, and
continually a-sufferin’.”

In the fourth Chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit, there is a

greedy reunion of the Chuzzzlewits and their relatives
and friends, the Pecksniffs, Slyme, Spottletoes, and
Tigg.” Robert Polhemus describes this event as “a
gathering of funny words” (93-94).

In Martin Chuzzlewit, Mr. Scadder is 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 a harpsicord when the notes
are struck.”

“Perhaps it was the truth feebly endeavouring to leap

from his lips. If so, it never reached them.”

Robert Polhemus says that in Martin Chuzzlewit,
Dickens considers America to be “a land of
Pecksniffian manifest destiny.”

America had 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’s New York Family Spy!” cried one.

“Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber!” “Here’s the New
York Sewer!” “Here’s the New York Family Spy!” “Here’s the
New York Private Listener.” Here’s the New York Peeper!”
“Here’s the New York Plunderer!” Here’s the New York
Keyhole Reporter!” Here’s the New York Rowdy Journal!”

George Ford characterizes the American scenes in Martin

Chuzzlewit as “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)
In David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber is described as “a
stoutish middle-aged person in a brown surcoat and
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
Uriah Heep, he says that his handshake feels as
if he had just “grasped a frog, his lizardlike
spacticity, his involuntary writhing and
screwing up of the face, and his red shadowless

“Heap embodies the self-abasement that

accompanies the obsequiousness by which he
wriggles up the social ladder.”

Great Expectations (1861)
In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham can 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

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
Miss Havisham’s hand to his lips.”
Conclusion: The Grounding of Dickens Characters

Many Dickens characters were grounded in real life.

The character of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop was 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. Micawber was based on Dickens’s father, and Mrs. Nickleby was
based on his mother. Mrs. Nickleby speaks 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. Nickleby herself, 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 in Nicholas
Nickleby was 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.

Hesketh Pearson 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: