Humour in David Copperfield
Table of Contents
Dickens is the greatest humorist in the history of English and European literature. Humour is the basic quality of his genius. In fact, it is the very soul of his works. Without humour, he would have failed as a novelist; without humour, he would never have been such a famous story-teller in English literature.
In this respect, he may be considered only next to Shakespeare who is the creator of great humorous characters like Flastaff and Malvolio. Undoubtedly, Dickens has not produced a comic figure as great as Flastaff. But Shakespeare has not the same comic fecundity as Dickens. It is astonishing that there are nearly a hundred characters in Pickwick Papers alone and most of them are comic. To quote Priestley:
“Like most things easy to enjoy, he is unusually difficult to critcise. We do not know where to begin. It is like being faced with a whole uproarious town; we can only point and shout”.
Element of Farce in Dickens’s Humour
As a writer of farce, Dickens is unsurpassable. His humour is broad and farcical. His humour is an admirable piece of farce. Here, a dish full of cutlets is placed before the poor and starving boy. To the surprise of the reader, the waiter eats it up and endevours to make him believe that it is the boy who has eaten it all. The scene is full of comic vigour which is irresistible. In this manner, we show sympathy for the suffering creatures like David.
The description of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield is also farcical. He is described as
“a stoutish, middle-aged person, in a brown surtout and black tight and shoes, with no more hair upon his head (which was large one, and very shiny) than there is upon an egg, and with a very extensive face.”
We are immensely amused at the funny description of the physical traits of a Dickensian character.
Dickens makes us laugh and subsequently makes us think. Again comic and hilarious is the scene in which the nurse is told the story of the crocodiles and an impression is created that they are vegetables. Thus there is an element of farce in Dickens’s homour.
Queer Manners of Dickens’s Characters
Our greatest happiness and pleasure comes from queer manners and behaviour of these humorous characters. Their method of conversation is also very humorous. For example, Mrs. Gamp says in David Copperfield:
“Rich folks may ride on camels put it isn’t so easy for them to see out of a needle’s eye.”
Mr. Troots falls in love with Miss Dombey in the novel Dombey and son but he does not get a positive response. In order to illustrate the effect of unrequited love upon his health, he says:
“Burgess & Co. (tailors) have altered my measure, I am in that state of thinness. If you could see my legs, when I take my boots off, you will form some idea of what unrequited affection is.”
Humour in Character
Dickens’s humour is illuminating because it sheds light on human nature. His humour allows thought. It is suggestive and psychological. We are immensely delighted in the company of his large number of humorous creations whom we never forget. We remember unforgettable characters like Mr. Peter Magnus, Mr. Guppy, Mr. Jack Hoping, Mr. Tools, Mr. Pumblechook, Mr. Micawber, Mrs. Gamp and Miss Nipper among many others. Priestley remarks:
“Dickens lives chiefly now in his comic characters, but these are so numerous, so astonishing, so altogether delightful, that a writer could hardly wish for a better hold upon posterity”.
Spenlow and Jorkins in David Copperfield are humorous creations who are taken directly from life. Mr. Spenlow is the representative of those who excuse their own meanness because of follies by other people. Dickens has made this character an object of humour instead of an object of disgust.
Humour Emerging from Stupidity and Eccentricity
Dickens is excellent in bringing out the humour of oddity and stupidity. For example Mr. Dick in David Copperfield is a source of amusement and entertainment for the readers. In this manner, simpletons and idiots become objects of humour. The humour often emerges from their sublimely idiotic talk.
Dickens’s Love of Exaggeration
David Copperfield reveals Dickens’s exuberant spirit of comic art. It is because of the riot of absurdity in David Copperfield that it has become immortal. Dickens has a profound love of exaggeration which enables him to create absurd characters and situations in it. Mr. Micawber, Mrs. Micawber, Barkis, Peggotty and Miss Betsey are absurd figures in the novel. He has brought out the absurdity of their characters with his gusto and exuberant spirit.
Moreover, there are absurd situations in the novels which are sources of immense amusement and entertainment, e.g. Miss Betsey’s confrontations with Mr. Chillip and the donkey-boy, David’s absurd situation with the greedy waiter and the horrible old man on Mover road.
Humour out of Deformities
The wooden-legged Tungay in David Copperfield is a remarkable example of physical deformity. Again, Miss Mowcher is a highly successful comic figure in this novel because of her physical deformities. Dickens has vividly presented physical deformities.
Miss Betsey’s breach of social etiquette produces spontaneous laughter, e.g. first chapter and chapter fifty two of David Copperfield. She gives a blow to Mr. Chillip in the first chapter and she holds Uriah by his collar in chapter fifty two.
Misfortunes of Others Provide Humour
Sometimes misfortunes of others appeal to our sense of humour For example, the clever porter runs away with David’s money and box.
Reflective humour implies a high degree of mental activity. It is not spontaneous humour but, on the other hand, it entails some implied criticism of life revealing faults, follies and pretensions of an individual. Bergson, a distinguished critic writing on comic art, feels that reflective humour is the treatment of life
“as if it were a machine, which could repeat, which could be reversed, and which has interchangeable parts.”
There is laughter when we are face to face with Mr. Micawber, Mrs. Gummidge and Miss Micawber because we note in them a certain mechanical rigidity rather than the suppleness and flexibility of human beings.
Secondly, we observe the humour of domesticalities which is because of the reflective bent of mind of Charles Dickens. He humorously indicates the relationship between master and servant. For example, in David Copperfield he portrays the humorous contrast between Mrs. Cripp’s tyrannous demands and David’s horrible cringing
Thirdly, reflective humour of Dickens can be noted in respect of the funeral humour in David Copperfield. For example, Dickens has artistically presented the humorous contrast between Omer and Joram’s jollities and David’s profound grief.
Fourthly, the reflective humour is noted in respect of satirical humour. For example, the members of the legal profession were lashed out at satirically by Dickens in David Copperfield. In this novel, he has exposed the tricks and intrigues of unscrupulous lawyers, e.g. Mr. Spenlow and Mr. Jorkins, with the tone of his satirical humour.
Finally, reflective humour can be observed in David Copperfield in respect of poetic humour. Poetic humour takes its origin from a close mixture of comicality, sadness and poetry. For example, David’s attempt to form Dora’s mind has been portrayed in a poetic manner. Swinburne has correctly described Dickens as the greatest comic Poet. The greatness of David Copperfield lies in his mastery of poetic humour.
Humorous Scenes in David Copperfield
Dickens’s David Copperfield is rich in humour. The whole novel is replete with humorous scenes and comic characters. At the very beginning of the novel we meet Miss Betsey Trotwood at Blunderstone Rookery: Clara Copperfield, the widow of her nephew Copperfield is expected to give birth to a child. Miss Betsey hopes or rather is convinced that the child will be a girl whom she will adopt as her daughter. But the child born to Clara is a boy. On learning this, Miss Betsey gets annoyed. Without saying a word she takes her bonnet by the strings in the manner of a sling and aims a blow at Mr. Chillip’s head with it. Then she walked out of the house never to come back again. The way Dickens narrates this whole incident is immensely funny.
As appendage to the somewhat eccentric Miss Betsey is the mad Mr. Dick. Pathos is created by his helpless condition as a dependent of Miss Betsey but poor Mr. Dick’s unending involvement in writing the memorial and the intervention made in his meditations by King Charles l’s head is completely regaling.
Perhaps one of the greatest comic characters after Shakespeare’s Falstaff is Dickens’s ever hopeful Mr. Micawber, who was modelled after Dickens’s own father and is an embodiment of both pathos and humour. In his indictment of Uriah Heep he is quite regaling. His pompous style and his bombastic language brings an atmosphere of hilarity wherever he goes.
Mr. Barkis’s love for Peggotty and the way, he sends his proposal to her “Barkis is willin” is quite hilarious. These words spoken by Barkis and conveyed to Peggotty through David became a household phrase in Dickens’s times. These very words become very touching when Barkis utters them at the time of his death.
There are a few minor comic scenes in David Copperfield which are no less amusing. When Mr. Chillip hears Miss Betsey Trotwood’s name mentioned by David, he is startled and scared, perhaps on remembering the time when she had struck him on the nose with her bonnet at the news of David’s birth.
The scene where William, the waiter at Yarmouth, who so obligingly helped David dispose of his dinner is perhaps one of the most amusing incidents in the novel. The novel is replete with such humorous incidents and scenes. Some of the humorous scenes are outright funny but most of them are touched with a tinge of pathos and those are the most memorable. We remember those scenes, recall them in our sadder moments and laugh away our blues.