Dicking around with Dickens: The Oft Overlooked Humor of a Literary Master
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
For many people, the idea of reading the works of Charles Dickens conjures images of sombre tomes and dry university lectures. It comes as a surprise to many of us then that Dickens was an incredible humorist, renowned in his life for his comedic style. In fact, in his obituary The Spectator wrote that he was “the greatest humorist whom England ever produced, Shakespeare himself certainly not excepted.” During his life, Dickens reached a level of rock star-like celebrity, touring Britain and the United States, performing theatrical readings of his stories to huge crowds.
These performances held audiences in emotional rapture, which frequently induced both gasps of horror and gales of laughter. The perception of Dickens as the pinnacle of riotous entertainment has somewhat mellowed in the intervening years. His novels are certainly widely read and admired, but the cultural and literary importance of his writing has made them a topic of serious study. In this context there has been a tendency to favour his later, more sober works, such as Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, over his early works, which were more overtly comical, in what has been termed as the “dark-Dickens revolution.” It is true that his later novels contain his most serious representations of social inequality and class struggle. These books would have a strong influence on popular thought and would ultimately lead to profound social change. To be interested in these aspects of Dickens’ writing however, does not preclude an interest in his humor, indeed the two are frequently inextricably linked. Dickens’ humorous style, was not only immensely popular, but intrinsic to the stories and messages he was trying to convey.
One of the clearest ways in which Dickens’ had a lot of fun in his writing is in his character names. Dickens was able to construct names that have a sense of playful onomatopoeia to them, the names themselves are tailored to the characters to whom they belong. They often capture a sense of physical appearance, as with the squat and squinting Phil Squod in Bleak House, or imply character traits as seen with the browbeating philanthropist Luke Honeythunder in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens, it would seem, had a lot of fun devising names which take snide jabs at his own creations, giving his antagonists names that make their flaws inescapable. It feels inevitable that Mr. Pumplechook would be pompous, or that Col. Chowser would be unscrupulous. Of course the most famous example of this is Ebenezer Scrooge, the sneering silhouette of that miser who twists the screw to get the last of your pennies is perfectly captured in his iconic name.
As fitting as these names are, Dickens doesn't leave his character descriptions to that which is implied in their names. Instead, Dickens relishes in depicting his larger- than-life figures in great and often unflattering detail. As T.S. Eliot noted "Charles Dickens excelled in character; in the creation of characters of greater intensity than human beings.” The good are angelic, the bad are abominable, and Dickens happily lampoons them all. With Scrooge, we are treated to a hilariously hyperbolic and damning description:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster...He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his of ice in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
There’s a dark glee in the extremity of this description. The use of repetition, imagery and sibilance create an unforgettable picture of villainy, but it is one that is undercut with satirical exaggeration. Dickens’ novels are replete with these scathing descriptions. In Bleak House Mr. Chadband is "a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system" and in Great Expectations Mr. Wopsle’s great aunt is described as "a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity."
These cutting depictions are conveyed through Dickens’ distinctive narrative voice. It is this voice that is the vehicle for most of his comedy, and Dickens’ certainly knew how to use it to powerful effect. Among the most important ways it appears in his work is in spotlighting issues of social inequality and suffering. Setting his stories in the midst of Victorian life, Dickens’ gives ample space to his caustic descriptions of the hypocrisies and failings of the era. These commentaries, which would play a large role in championing social change, are rendered more potent by the morbidly funny method of delivery. In the opening chapters of Oliver Twist, Dickens’ describes the experience of foster care with a sense of humor that amplifies the bleakness of the circumstances:
Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher who had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he had got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, four- and-twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for the experimental philosophy of the female to whose protecting care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended the operation of her system; for at the very moment when the child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident.
The extremity of the horror is delivered through an off-hand and impersonal tone thickly underscored with irony, with darkly humorous effect. His narrative voice displays a careless apathy that mimics society’s own responses to these orphans. The passage is a clear demonstration of the way in which humor is often intrinsic to Dickens’ approach to social issues.
As his career progressed, these concerns came to the fore of his writing and his emphasis on comedy lessened. Two of his later works, David Copperfield and Great Expectations, which are often given as examples of his more serious work, see another change, they move from his usual third-person narration to the first person. This move contributes to the change in the way in which humor operates in the books. The detached external narrator who comments on the time and setting of the novel is replaced by the subjective perspective of the protagonist. This voice is still used for comedic effect, but now the humor of the comments is underpinned by a sadness caused by the fact that the narrator endured the horrors of this story rather than simply relaying them. In Great Expectations, Pip describes the conditions of being raised by his older sister Mrs. Joe Gargery:
She had brought me up “by hand.” Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.
This section lends an easy comparison to the previous quote from Oliver Twist, as both convey the conditions in which the young protagonist is raised. In Oliver Twist, Dickens gives a blunt but distant description, whereas in Great Expectations the description is less morbid but has greater pathos in being Pip’s personal experience. The humor stems from the naivety of Pip’s perspective, but this naivety precludes much of the bombastic cynicism and morbidity which characterises so much of Dickens’ humor in his early work. Still, despite the changes in tone and prominence, Dickens’ use of humor never completely disappears. Dickens remains the shining star of the English literary canon, but it’s easy to forget in the midst of his cultural impact and literary status, that he was also a master entertainer. The popularity and endurance of his work is due in no small part to his ability to captivate, entertain, and amuse his audience. As Dickens himself noted in A Christmas Carol, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
This article originally was written for Bookwitty.com and published on February 3, 2017.