Pathos in David Copperfield

Pathos in David Copperfield

Pathos in David Copperfield


One of the chief elements in the novels of Dickens is tears. He is as adept at making his readers cry as he is capable of making them laugh. When Forster read one of Dickens’s stories to a friend, he wept so much and so painfully that Forster didn’t know whether to go on or stop. Dickens’s letters to his wife itself are full of reference to friends crying, or being thrown ‘into a dreadful state’ on reading his books. It is clear that such effects were for him a test of success. In his novels and even in his series, he was able to rouse an emotion in his readers, remarkable even in Victorian times, by the pathetic and sentimental scenes.

Last Drop of Tears

The pathos in Dickens’s creative works is closely knit with his humour. He had explored all the sad human situations so as to make his readers feel the impact of the sorrows and sufferings of his make his characters intensely. In his autobiographical novel David Copperfield, there are several characters who are really pathetic and Dickens manages to extract the last drop of tears from the eyes of his readers.

The early scenes in which Mr. and Mrs. Murdstone tyrannize Clara Copperfield and David, affects the reader in such a way that he is all sympathy for the poor souls. Who would not feel sad and dejected at David’s fate? His mother dies. He is kicked out of home and made to work for his living for an amount which is hardly enough to keep his body and soul together. David’s love for Dora and her prolonged illness and ultimately her death is depicted in such an effective way that we are sure to be moved to tears.

Pathetic Characters

The picture of Mr. Mell of Salem House is indeed pathetic. His mother lives on charity from an alms house. The ill-treatment she gets there is itself a suffering to Mr. Mell. To add insult to injury Mr. Mell is dismissed from the school on the grounds that his mother lives on charity Traddles seems to be the only student who sheds tears for the poor, humble school master and the readers too shed a tear along with him as they read this episode.

The great figure of Mr. Micawber modeled after Dickens’s own father, to some extent, is an embodiment of both humour and pathos. Though Mr. Micawber is the most comic of all the characters in the novel, he is pathetic in many ways. Though he makes us laugh with his funny speech and manners, there are moments when he makes us forget our laughter and tears start welling up in our eyes. Mr. Micawber’s arrest is no laughing matter and when this funny old man threatens to cut his throat with his razor we are on the verge of tears, and we weep shamelessly for him.

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Some of the people whom David comes cross at his first school Salem House are both comic and pathetic. Dickens’s natural gift for pathos can be seen in the heart-rending pictures of the sufferings of children which he presents in his novels. Richardson, Sterne and Goldsmith were the masters whom Dickens followed in the art of producing pathos bordering on sentimentality. Those who are inclined towards sentimentalism love to read Dickens.

Overdone Pathos

Dickens’s depiction of pathos is accompanied by his usual literary practice of exaggeration. He shows a lack of restraint in his description of the miserable. His exaggeration is obvious in the some where he gives lurid details of Mrs. Fibbitson’s futile struggle for life. This is what Dickens makes Mrs. Mell say of her:

“If the fire was to go out, through any accident, I verily believe she would go out too and never come to life again.”

The theatrical element is also evident when Mr. Mell satisfies his hungry mother and the dying Mr. Fibbitson by playing his flute.


Though the pathetic Dickens has always moved his readers to tears, it is also always regarded as slightly conventional and unreal by critical judges. There is no doubt that he had a natural gift for homely pathos but almost always – he overstates. He tries to wring an extra tear from the situation. He never lets it speak for itself. He adds detail after detail and sentence after sentence, heaping pathos upon pathos in his ardent desire to impress his own sense of tragedy upon his readers.

The trouble with Dickens is that he never quite understood that while there is a very excellent thing called exuberant humour, there ought to be no such things as exuberant pathos. A man may give himself up gloriously to his laughter, but he ought always to be resisting his tears. Pathos can only be brief and stoical.

1 thought on “Pathos in David Copperfield”

  1. I would appreciate if you can describe ‘pathos’, ‘ethos, and ‘lego, with a single suitable example.


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