hen reading novels such as David Copperfield or Great Expectations, we come to see Dickens as a true master of narrative voice. Here, always the textual body reveals itself as an all-encompassing entity in which we find the protagonists' perspectives forever joined with authorial commentary. It is, furthermore, within this kind of double narrative that we find various other strange textual dichotomies, and we come to see the Dickensian world as one which is at once both sentimental and cynical, playful and severe, absurd, imaginative, and realistic. Part of these stylistic tensions are due to shifts which take place in the novel. For example, as the character matures his narrative voice likewise undergoes various changes. The Pip in the first chapters of Great Expectations, of course, is not the Pip of chapter twenty, and so forth. Nevertheless, often in Dickens' works these juxtaposing narrative tones coexist within a single scene, and one very predominant instance of this technique appears in Dickens' use of comic irony. The comic-ironic narrative in novels such as Great Expectations, however, is not so easily defined. At times, it manifests itself merely in the ironic undertone of the text indicative of an outside authorial voice, and this undertone may become humorous simply because it places the reader in a position in which he or she knows more than the character speaking.
The most common examples of such double-voiced narratives occur in Dickens' portrayals of children in which the young characters' innocent outlooks or naiveties attribute a certain playfulness to the author's knowing, matter-of-fact, and often tragic vision of adult society. However, this comic irony perhaps appears most vividly when Dickens simply throws a bleak or awful situation into comic relief. We see a very clear example of this latter form of comic irony in chapter twenty-three of Great Expectations when Pip has his first, somewhat absurd encounter with the Pocket family:
After dinner the children were introduced, and Mrs. Coiler made admiring comments on their eyes, noses, and legs — a sagacious way of improving their minds. There were four little girls, and two little boys, besides the baby who might have been either, and the baby's next successor who was as yet neither. They were brought in by Flopson and Millers much as though those two non-commissioned officers had been recruiting somewhere for children and had enlisted these: while Mrs. Pocket looked at the young Nobles that ought to have been, as if she rather thought she had had the pleasure of inspecting them before, but didn't quite know what to make of them.
"Here! Give me your fork, Mum, and take the baby," said Flopson. “Don't take it that way, or you'll get its head under the table."
Thus advised, Mrs. Pocket took it the other way, and got its head upon the table; which was announced to all present by a prodigious concussion.
"Dear, dear! Give it back, Mum," said Flopson; “and Miss Jane, come and dance to baby, do!"
One of the little girls, a mere mite who seemed to have prematurely taken upon herself some charge of the others, stepped out of her place by me, and danced to and from the baby until it left off crying, and laughed. Then, all the children laughed, and Mr. Pocket (who in the meantime had twice endeavored to lift himself up by the hair) laughed, and we all laughed and were glad.
Despite the fact that in the above passage the characters' laughter may have some impact upon the reader's reaction to the scene, we may not know whether to laugh, cry, or merely feel shocked after playing audience to the above occurrences. Clearly, Dickens is placing us in the same uncomfortable situation as Pip. However, there may be other reasons for Dickens' use of comic irony here. At this point in the novel, Pip and the reader have been introduced to two middle- or upper-class families or households: the Pockets and Miss Havisham's home. How do we relate these two family settings to Pip's own family (Joe, Mrs. Joe, and Biddy), and is this above passage merely a farce on the upper-class household, or is it indicative of something more?
Mrs. Pocket's treatment of her baby and her reactions to her children in the above passage expose her as the incompetent mother and the self-important upper-class lady. Nevertheless, her character seems to fit into a whole slew of characters who are dysfunctional within their settings or roles. How do we juxtapose such characters with a man like Joe who seems to be both aware of and competent in his station in life? Do characters such as Joe or Biddy become the moral markers within the novel, and if so is their moral superiority due to their satisfaction with their appointed place?
A certain hierarchy of power is comically inverted in the above passage and in general throughout chapter twenty-three. Here, the young Jane is described as “taking charge" of both her siblings and her parents, and earlier in the chapter Pip states: “Both Mr. and Mrs. Pocket had such a noticeable air of being in someone else's hands, that I wondered who really was in possession of the house and let them live there, until I found this unknown power to be the servants." This comment seems to act as a direct attack on the upper-classes. However, if it is Pip who is judging the Pockets or noting this class irony, then he does not seem to heed his own warnings or observations. Who is truly speaking here? Is it Pip or Dickens or both?
Finally, the entrance of the children in the above paragraphs becomes something of a burlesque or a comical parade. Both the servants and the mother seem to be focused on the appearance of the children and it is their external qualities which are meant to give them a noble or sagacious air. Of course, nothing about the children (think of Jane's dance) or the negligent parents really seems regal. This scene, perhaps, fits right into Dickens overall commentary about superficiality or appearances in the novel, and how it is not necessarily the dress which makes the man, so to speak. Pip, if it is Pip here who is truly speaking, seems to notice this irony in this passage. Nevertheless, he once again fails to relate these realizations to himself. How does Pip's preoccupation with dress reveal his own moral deficiencies or immaturities, and does Pip's ability to see in others what he cannot see in himself attribute to some of the comic-ironic tone apparent in the above passage?
Last modified 16 February 2004
Last modified 8 June 2007