decorative initial 'I' n the midst of the dark-Dickens revolution, Fred W. Boege wrote, "Dickens is still read for his fun, but he is being read more and more for the profound, brooding sense of evil in life that informs his work and causes his name to be coupled constantly with Dostoevsky's" (p. 187) Surely one need not make this choice or this distinction. Edmund Wilson and G. K. Chesterton, so remote from each other in many ways, still saw the same writer, and both saw further that his fun was very serious and his seriousness often funny. Wilson noted "a trace of the hysterical" (p. 14) in Dickens's humour, and Chesterton more pointedly complained that "the frivolous characters of Dickens are taken much too frivolously" (p. 57).

I want to examine the part laughter plays in our response to both early and late novels and to demonstrate not so much how serious Pickwick is and how funny Little Dorrit is as how our laughter is used in both cases to cement our involvement in the novel's themes and concerns. Instead of approaching the novels through imagery, structure, or theme, this is an attempt to approach them through humour, one of Dickens's most certain rhetorical tools, and through the resulting laughter, one of the most complex and intimate responses a reader can make. Laughter implies, among other things, a very solid agreement with a certain value system, and Dickens is masterful in using that agreement for subtle thematic and aesthetic purposes. He can use it to reinforce the feeling of freedom and the opposition to order and bureaucratic sterility in The Pickwick Papers, to undercut the apparent bourgeois comfort of Oliver Twist and force us into at least temporary [1/2] sympathetic alignment with the world of Fagin and Sikes, to make effective the pathos of The Old Curiosity Shop, to define more emphatically the structural principle of contrasts in Barnaby Rudge, to urge us into agreement with an extremely sophisticated and worldly value system in Martin Chuzzlewit, to create an ambiguous response to the narrator in David Copperfield, to attack the very bases of comedy in Little Dorrit, and to reassert a final and limited comic view in Our Mutual Friend. Every time we laugh at Sam Weller's witty attacks on the law, we are moving a step further from our usual position of commercial safety; laughter at Sim Tappertit implicates us in his final crippling; laughter at Mr. Micawber forces us to take a position on the crucial thematic issues of imagination — irresponsibility — freedom as opposed to fact — prudence — imprisonment. I should say at the outset that Dickens's variety in this regard is all but overwhelming, but his success seems to me so complete as to necessitate some examination of the details.

I shall, then, examine the several novels I have mentioned — The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend — in terms of their appeals to laughter, not primarily to judge the success or failure of those appeals or to examine Dickens's techniques as a humorist, but to understand the individual novels better by more sharply defining our reaction to them. More specifically, I wish to show how Dickens controls our response to his humour and integrates that response into the entire novel. The primary emphasis, however, will be literary, not psychological. Our sensitivity to humour will be used, much as our sensitivity to patterns of imagery has often been used, in order to articulate more clearly and thereby understand more completely our experience with the novels. With Dickens, the reader's laughter is important evidence for the critic and becomes a valuable tool for literary criticism.

decorative initial 'T' he greatest humourist whom England ever produced, Shakespeare himself certainly not excepted" (Spectator, 716): these lines began the obituary notice in the Spectator, and John Forster picked them up in the first sentence of his biography a few years later: "Charles Dickens, the most popular novelist of the century, and one of the greatest humorists that England has produced, was born . . ." (p. 3). No one has ever really questioned these judgements; in fact, Edmund Wilson's decision is undoubtedly not only tactful but also accurate: "In praise of Dickens' humor, there is hardly anything new to say" (p. 13). We have, no doubt, had enough praise.

What we have not had, as countless symposia, introductions, and bibliographies solemnly announce, is anything very much beyond praise. It is commonplace now to suggest that the once orthodox view of the dark Dickens was one-sided, that the early novels have been neglected, and that studies of his humour are needed. But there is, at the same time, a widespread and understandable uneasiness at seeming to promote either a return to appreciative collections of funny scenes or a rash of dull explanations of jokes. As Henri Bergson says, the analysis of laughter is likely to leave a very bitter after-taste (p. 190), and Freud makes it very clear just why we do not want to know why we laughed: we laughed in the first place only by "keeping our conscious attention at a distance" (p. 238), but more fundamental is our natural disinclination to examine our own [3/4] aggressive, exhibitionistic, or egoistic impulses. There is also a suspicion that any such study will ignore the later novels.

However, I think we have made an over-facile and generally false distinction between the dark and the funny Dickens, and between the early and the late novels. I agree on the whole with the dominant movement of Dickens criticism in the last twenty years and have, like many others, been taught by it how to read his novels. I agree too that the overriding impression of the novels after David Copperfield is very dark indeed. But I think J. Hillis Miller has demonstrated persuasively how much organic unity there is in Dickens's career; at any rate, there is certainly a consistency in his use of laughter, terror, pathos, indeed all the tools at his disposal to support his dominant themes and effects. It is true that the humour is sometimes more closely integrated into the whole design in the later novels, but it was "serious" and organic to begin with. Even Sairey Gamp is not autonomous and she is deadly serious. The notion that humour declines or disappears in the later novels likewise seems to me gratuitous and false. Laughter is used in different ways in the later novels, but it is always important. As Dickens said when writing David Copperfield, "The world would not take another Pickwick from me now, but we can be cheerful and merry. [sic] I hope, notwithstanding, and with a little more purpose in us" (Letters, ii. 150, 25 Apr 1849). Generally speaking, as Dickens progressed he used humour for perhaps more serious purposes, attacking and persuading the reader more and more subtly. But generalizations on his progress in this regard are dangerous; the laughter in Oliver Twist is as subversive in its blunt way as that in Little Dorrit. The contention here, at any rate, is that the evocation of laughter is important throughout his career and that the early novels are generally just as rewarding in this regard as the later ones. Therefore, though the debt of this study to previous criticism is very great, the pervasive distinction implied in almost all of it between the serious and the funny is rejected. As a natural corollary, the notion that the humour is somehow detached from major concerns or that it functions mainly [4/5] as a holiday or relief and the notion that it is genial, soft, or humanitarian seem to me demonstrably false, but the demonstration is naturally more important than the assertion.

Some points of Dickens's technique

Though generalization is indeed risky and though this study is mainly concerned with the examination of the contribution laughter makes to individual novels, it is possible to indicate briefly some of the general outlines and characteristics of Dickens's humour:

i. Perspective. "Nothing", said G. K. Chesterton, "can be funnier, properly considered, than the fact that one's own father is a pigmy if he stands far enough off" (p. 16) and Dickens is a master at controlling our distance from the matter at hand in order to evoke laughter. In its simplest form, the contrast of language and action can itself be funny; Taine noted how often Dickens's humour depended on "saying light jests in a solemn manner" (p. 352) and it is clear that the laughter at Mrs. Gamp and Mr. Pickwick, for instance, is made more boisterous by the "disparity between the narrative voice describing the characters and the images they print of themselves". (Cross, p. 144) Of course the personality implied by the narrative voice can itself be very important in establishing laughter and creating a sense of security: "Even a rabbit, were it suddenly to materialize before us without complicity, could be a terrifying event. What makes us laugh is our secure consciousness of the magician and his hat" (Mack, p. xvi). But with Dickens we are not always conscious that the magician is there; he has a tendency to behave like his rabbit. The variety and continual fluctuation of Dickens's point of view makes possible the wildest contradictions in general discussions of this subject: Taylor Stoehr repeatedly cites the effects Dickens gains by the "absence of the narrator from the scene" and says the dominant effect is one of "detached immediacy" (pp. 58, 61); Robert Garis says that the [5/6] first and continuing impression "in Dickens's prose is of a voice manipulating language with pleasure and pride in its own skill" and says our constant impulse is to applaud. (p. 16) Both are right, depending on which passage from Dickens one examines. The fact is that Dickens's use of the narrative voice is highly variable and that the use he makes of it to promote laughter simply cannot be reduced to precept, though it is an important factor that must be accounted for in individual cases.

ii. The use of the concrete. One aspect of Dickens's humour often noted is that it is rooted in the specific and continually manifests itself in the vivid and exact details which George Orwell called the "florid little squiggle[s] on the edge of the page" (p. 61). Though again difficult to generalize about, the revivification of the concrete almost always serves an organic rather than a marginal purpose and is part of Dickens's constant campaign against deadly forms and machinery. Those flowering annuals, for instance, which are stuffed in Pumblechook's mouth (Orwell's illustration of the squiggle) clearly suggest (among other things) everything which Pumblechook is not. The very vividness of the image serves as an indictment of the grey, hypocritical world of Pumblechook and its earlier reflection in Pip.

iii. The force of the idiom. Related to the use of the concrete is the fact that much of the force of Dickens's humorous characters rests in their absolutely distinctive language. His ability to catch with precision and subtlety the idiom of his comic characters has often been praised and perhaps has meaning only in specific characters. It is true, though, that with characters like Mr. Micawber and Sam Weller their diction suggests a separate and complete world, and Dickens demands that we pay close attention to the nature of that world. It very often serves as an implicit commentary on another world. Mr. Micawber's verbosity provides not only insight into his own habit of mind but also a criticism of David's values; Silas Wegg's artificial and pathetic (if also predatory) imaginative life protests against the world of Podsnap. [6/7]

iv. Savagery. John Middleton Murry has argued that Dickens's "comic vision was the fiercest that has ever been in English literature, so savage as to be sometimes all but unbearable" (The Times, 14 July 1922, p. 11b). Though it flies in the face of received notions concerning Dickens's genial gaiety, I think Murry's statement is accurate. Not all of Dickens's humour is as potentially vicious as that evoked in the quarrel between Mrs. Gamp and Betsey Prig, the scene Murry refers to, but anyone who examines the basis of laughter in the line of sex-starved women that runs through Rachael Wardle, Sally Brass, Miggs, Charity Pecksniff, Mrs. Skewton, to Lady Tippins, or in the alternate line of henpecked husbands from Mr. Pott, Mr. Bumble, Sampson Brass, Gabriel Varden, Mr. Chillip, to Rumty Wilfer will not think this humour, at least, very genial — certainly not in its appeals.

v. Darkness. Related to the savagery of much of Dickens's humour is the fact that it is often dark to the point of grotesquerie. This issue has often been discussed and in any case is best treated in relation to individual novels, so it will only be touched on here. The important point is that Dickens often asks us to laugh at the very subjects he is, in other parts of the novel, asking us to sympathize or be angry with: death, loneliness, improvidence, rigidity, spontaneity, cruelty . . . the list could be extended indefinitely. Dickens confronts us, time and again, with these contradictory lures and, time and again, uses our alternate responses to intensify our relationship to his principal appeals. Ruskin's famous statement, "I believe Dickens to be as little understood as Cervantes, and almost as mischievous" (xxxvii, 10) is suggestive here of the subtlety and darkness of Dickens's humour. The ambiguity with which he mixes the funny, terrifying, and pathetic in his villains is a case in point, but again detailed discussion must wait for specific cases.

The preceding generalizations are meant to suggest only a framework for analysis, but they are perhaps misleading in that they point mainly to Dickens's humorous techniques. But it is the tendency of his humour which seems to me most important, along with his use of that tendency as a rhetorical [7/8] tool. I am not primarily concerned with just how Dickens gets us to laugh at Sairey Gamp, but I am concerned both with what meaning our laughter expresses and with the use Dickens makes of that meaning in terms of the entire novel.


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Last Modified 10 March 2010