Humour in the Novel Oliver Twist

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Oliver Twist, full of Gloom and Darkness

      If we read first Pickwick Papers and then Oliver Twist, we find an entire change in the world. We seem to plunge into a dark world from the sunny landscapes. Oliver Twist deals with the utter gloom of the workhouse and the criminal, vicious world of London. Brownlows and Maylies are just sapless rays of light that rather aggravates the darkness. But whatever humor is used in the novel, it enlivens the wickedness.

Multiple Kinds of Humour

      The variety in the humor of Dickens novel is remarkable. It is genial, farcical and satirical. Satirical humor is implied in the case of workhouse officials, the social exploitation, magistrate, lawyers and ruffians. In this way it reflects the problem of Victorian society also. The farcical humor is the outlet of Dickens' comic exuberance. It is the consequence of Dickens' indulgence in the fun for the sake of sheer fun. Dickens' genial humor at once raises him to the rank of Shakespeare, the creator of humourous character like Falstaff.

Ironical Humour

      Irony is the instrument of satirical humor. The irony is running through the chapters concerning workhouse. Its sharpness controls the feelings of disgust and abhorrence. Such irony is used in single tell-tale words. For example, "Twenty and thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female." Here, 'offenders,' inconvenience', 'parental' are the tell-tale words. Oliver is socially flogged before his mates when Mr. Bumble prevents Oliver from catching cold by a tingling sensation over his body and repeated application of the cane. When folly and absurdity is directed by this kind of ironic humor, it becomes so mild that it seems close to pure humor: "We name our findings in alphabetical order. The last was a S-Swubble, I named him. This was a T-Twist, I named him. The next one as comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names readymade to the ends of the alphabet, and all the way through it again when we come to Z." When evil becomes the goal of this kind of ironical humor, it becomes pungent: "I wish some well-fed philosopher.....could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the piece as under with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better, and that would be to see the philosopher making the same sort of meal himself with the same relish !" The gruesome picture of Oliver's devouring the scraps left by animals is lightened by the use of the word philosopher. It gives relaxation to think a philosopher relishing the same meat.

Humour used to Intensify the Inhumanity

      James R. Kincaid writes in his essay Laughter and Oliver Twist that there are so many family scenes in the novel that makes one laugh heartily. This kind of humour is used as a weapon to lay emphasis on inhumanity of situation and to arise sympathy for the subject of ill-treatment. "The selfishness and unfeeling cruelty which are a subconscious part of much laughter are here brought to the surface and used to intensify our reaction." For the illustration of this point two scenes can be given. When Oliver is told that the board had said that he was to appear before it forthwith, he gets puzzled by this report, 'not having a very clearly defined notion of what a live Board was. He enters the hall and finds himself in front of 'eight or ten fat gentleman'. He is said to 'bow to the Board’. 'Seeing no board but the table, (he) fortunately bowed to that. Here Dickens has used the humor to convey the utter inhumanity of the members of Board. The Board was as feelingless and merciless as a wooden plank. Besides Oliver is given many taps by Mr. Bumble's that Oliver starts crying. Thus laughter is immediately followed by pathos. We see in chapter (3) Mr. Gamfield "alternately and gelling his brains and his donkey. This provokes our laughter. Just two paragraphs onwards we are told that Gamfield gave the donkey's jaw a sharp 'wrench' and he 'gave him another blow on the head, just to stun him till he came back again. The thrash is no more humourous because of its association with cruelty to the animal. It also makes us to foresee the cruel treatment of Oliver in his hands. Mr. Gamfield says to the Board, "Boy is very obstinate, and very lazy, gentlemen and there's nothing like a good hot blaze to make en come down with a run. It's humane too, gentlemen, accuse, even if they've struggle in the chimbly, roasting their feet makes 'en struggle to extricate themselves." "The gentleman in the white waistcoat appeared very much amused by this explanation !" Again, Mr. Gamfield's statement is though funny, yet does not make the reader laugh but lays the impression of heartlessness an cruelty of the gentleman in the white waistcoat.' Rather it wins our sympathy for Oliver.

Use of Genuine Humour

      Oliver Twist is though full of darkness and gloom yet there is some genuine humor too. Sometimes we see pure humor in the straightforward and frank description of cruelty and callousness. There is a remarkable touch of humor when in chapter (2) Oliver is presented before Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Mann standing behind the beadle's chair shows her fist to Oliver with furious countenance. Again in chapter (6) when Oliver gives great thrash to Noah for abusing his mother, Noah's suggestion to summon military for security is also humourous. In the criminal gang of Fagin, Charley Bates also provides much fun. He is of cheerful and jovial disposition. When Oliver is captured by Nancy and Sikes and produced to Fagin, Charley Bates snatches his books and says that they are too pretty. Thenafter he pretends to read them. "Beautiful writing, isn't it?" he says with serious looks. At another occasion we laugh when they go through the scene in which a sound blow from Mrs. Bumble throws off the hat of Mr. Bumble to the opposite end of the room. Then she gives him a good deal of thrash and blow. Then, finding it not enough she scratches his face and pulls his hairs.

Humour Presented by Multiple Characters

      It is very common to find humor in Dickens' novel through characters. He does not create humorous situations but funny characters who make fun even in most grave atmosphere or who put themselves in funny situations governed by their own stupidity. All the humor related with Fagin comes out from his character, otherwise his lodging of evil can hardly be a place to enjoy and laugh. Likewise, the atmosphere of workhouse is not appropriate to produce fun but humor issues from the characters like Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Mann.

Mr. Bumble

      Mr. Bumble is used to produce both kinds of humor — satirical and genuine. His role as a beadle is satirized but as a hen-pecked husband he is made to produce pure comedy. Few funny words are also coined by him like 'demongalized' and 'outdaicous'. The quarrel scene between Mr. and Mrs. Bumble is quite amusing.

Artful Dodger and Charley Bates

      Artful Dodger is used to produce farcical humor in the novel. He proceeds too wittily and unflinchingly in the court. He insists on having his 'privileges' and refuses to utter anything to defend himself because this 'ain’t the shop for justice.' This is a great farce with serious suggestion. Charley Bates, in the group of Fagin, is of mirthful disposition who makes others laugh through his jokes or funny statements. He sometimes plays a great part in enlightening the tragic effect of the situation.


      For Oliver Fagin is the merry old man. His mirthful account of devilries makes Oliver laugh heartily. Though he is a villain and ugly fellow yet sometimes he is also given the humorous touches.


      Oliver Twist is Dickens' second novel. It reflects Dickens' anger and protest against the world of workhouses, law, justice etc. In it his fancy is restrcted and not let to run wild and coin characters like Mrs. Micawber or Mrs. Gamp or Mr. Pecksniff. But there is a good deal of fun in Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, Bates, Artful Dodger and Fagin. There are various kinds of humor used in the novel. It is dry, it is satirical, farcical and genuine also. Sometimes we laugh at characters, sometimes with characters and few moment we find ourselves smiling upon us.

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