Blending of Humor & Pathos in David Copperfield

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      Dickens's Englishness is nowhere more betrayed than in the skillful mixing of humor and pathos in his novels. His gift of humor is inseparable from that of pathos. His humor is essentially humor of character and his characters are mostly poor people who find themselves in pathetic conditions. There is a whole galaxy of such characters who are both comic and pathetic at the same time. Certain traits of character are exaggerated in most of his characters, but they are not mere caricatures as many critics have taken them to be.

Blending of Humour and Pathos

      Dickens's humor is of two kinds: satirical and sympathetic. People like Mr. and Mrs. Murdstone, stiff, cold and officious, are often the victim of Dickens's satirical humor. His depiction of people like Murdstones is such that we laugh at their appearance, their peculiar manner of speech and their habits, but it is a kind of derisive laughter. His best characters are creations of his sympathetic humor. He has created such characters like Peggotty, Barkis, Betsey Trotwood, Dick and Mr. and Mrs. Micawber with sympathy and care. All of them are queer and hilariously funny But there is a streak of the pathetic in most of these characters.

      Dickens's Falstaff is Mr. Micawber. With his pompous language and his never-dying optimism, he is both funny and pathetic. Mr. Micawber's use of bombastic language may make us laugh but his unending hope that something better will eventually turn up and put an end to his miseries is not merely humorous but also pathetic. And his motion at himself with a razor, threatening suicide may even look ludicrous when we remember what sort of a character he is but all the same we feel sorry for him and drop of tear may very well sneak down our cheeks. He is miserable and we feel miserable too. It is true, however; that our feeling sorry for him is as short-lived as is his misery. For, the very next moment the incomparable Mr. Micawber is busy polishing his shoes with extraordinary pain and goes out humming a tune with a greater air of gentility than ever.

      Humour and Pathos are not kept apart in David Copperfield; they frequently overlap. The humorous-cum-pathetic character of Miss Trotwood is a sterling example of Dickens's power to combine Betsey's humor and pathos. Behind Miss Betsey's humorous dislike for male children can be seen the pathos of her life. Miss Betsey is actually a married woman but she had separated from her husband and reverted to her maiden name because of his weak character. Thus she had developed a dislike for all males.

      None of Dickens's novels with the exception of David Copperfield has such a nice combination of humor and pathos. The love story of David and Dora is a fusion of humor and pathos. The poetry of the narration makes this fusion complete and satisfying. However, Dickens isolates the pathos in the closing scenes of this love story and tends to exaggerate.

      The word 'pathos' means "suffering" in Greek but in English it is used in the sense of the quality in speech, writing, incidents etc. that "excites pity or sadness." The word "humor" has various connotations. That which is relevant here is facetiousness and the faculty of perceiving the comical side of everything. It is a kind of jocose imagination that has less of the intellectual aspect than in the case of wit. Wit may be bereft of the sympathetic side but humor has more of it.

      Dickens's Pathos. The skill of Dickens who has enriched his narratives with both humor and pathos cannot be surpassed by any other writer whether in English or in another language. His natural gift for patios doesn't stop with shedding tears of sympathy: He further enlivens the context with a great deal of laughter. In fact, the encroachment on each other's territory by humour and pathos is deliberately introduced by the author who is conscious of their peculiar effect on the readers.

      Satirical Banter and Amiable Smile. Dickens is like a man who attacks with both hands, left and right indiscriminately; with the sole aim that the blow should have some telling effect on the victim. He takes it into his head that certain characters should be ridiculed and immediately makes use of satire. When he feels that some characters should be hit slightly but not wounded, a sympathetic humor backed by a suppressed smile is taken up the resourceful author. All the novels abound in characters of diverse idiosyncrasies meriting either of the two devices. Dickens paints the pretentious and pompous characters masquerading as leaders of the society, big-wigs professing to be the initiators of fashions, such as government officials, lawyers and others in a funny manner, projecting their eccentricities with an exaggerated emphasis on their weak points and foibles. Sometimes these exaggerations appear wild but are definitely effective in achieving their aim and purpose. As for the gentle and truly amiable good characters, he strokes them as it were with genial and humorous touches. Lovable simpletons like Micawber, Sam Welle, etc, receive affectionate endearing fondling.

      Foremost of Humorists. Dickens can be crowned as the Emperor of English Humorists with an international reputation. Original in his humorous conceptions he makes those conceptions travel through various levels of sympathy, geniality, hilarity, facetious ridicule, farcical satire and a happy blending of humor and pathos in due proportions. Comic and pathetic ingredients are blended together to form a very comprehensive whole touching the heart of aesthetic richness. It is on account of this that Dickens was able to achieve a permanent place in the sphere of literature of world-wide reputation.

      David Copperfield - The Greatest of his Novels. Dickens himself considered this novel the best one among his works. It is humor and pathos evoking from the beginning till the end. Aunt Betsey Trotwood was an elderly woman of many an oddity and eccentricity. Her attitude, utterances and activity are all comic and funny. But a sense of systematic thoroughness and uniformity of behavior, with consistency of the highest caliber, is not absent in her. She may be annoyed on learning that Clara had given birth to a boy as against her own expectation and wish for a girl to be adopted and may even shake her first at the poor doctor who has no control over Nature and its vagaries. She may ridicule David for his blind love for the doll-like Dora of no practical ability apart from her beauty of form. But her consistency in helping Dick, David and even her erring husband must be considered to be good points in her character. Dickens has heaped the novel with the sentiment of pathos through the many characters who suffer in various ways, e.g., Emily, Mrs. Gummidge and others.

      The disorderly situation in the schools of early nineteenth-century London has been described by Dickens with the use of humor and pathos liberally but proportionately administered. How the boys of Salem House suffered in the reign of terror prevalent then is indelibly impressed on the minds of the readers. Mr. Creakle school was no better than a jail and there is no wonder that the author makes him an acting jail governor later. Dr. Strong's school is better administered but the poor doctor suffers because of the disloyalty of his young wife.

      Exquisite Blend of Humour and Pathos. Micawber is portrayed by Dickens with his own father in mind. His peculiar notions about domestic economy; despite his practical failure as evidenced by repeated financial difficulties, the undaunted optimistic courage he makes use of and his pompous way of writing letters etc, contribute much to the humorous elements in the story. By portraying a character that can never be forgotten, like Micawber, Dickens has earned the title of the perfect humorist. In fact, Micawber was not a simpleton as we would have believed from the earlier descriptions. Later on his shrewdness and capacity to act courageously is revealed when he exposes Uriah Heep as a fraud and cheat by furnishing solid proof in support of his charge. His terse utterances like "Appetite and myself, Mr. Dixon, have long been strangers," "I trust you will shortly witness an eruption" etc, are capsules of pungent humor. His bold vehement utterance "If there is a scoundrel on this earth with whom I have already talked too much, that scoundrel's name is Heep" clearly indicates that he had sterner stuff in his constitution.

      Thus we find that Dickens tinges his humor with pathos. Sympathy and satire, geniality and farce, laughter and pity all combine together in a favorable blend to contribute to the success of the author. This is the case with David Copperfield more than the other novels. In Pickwick Papers we may find more humor and more of pathos in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop but it is only in David Copperfield that we can find an exquisite blend of the elements of humor and pathos.

      If we analyze the novel further for pathos we can cite many instances such as the mourning of Mrs. Gummidge for her lost husband, the unhappy episode of the defilement of Emily as a result of her high ambitions, the dismissal of Mr. Mell, a hardworking teacher merely because of the fact that his mother was in an almshouse, the accidental death of Mr. Spenlow, the prolonged illness and death of Dora, the attachment of the dog to her etc. But in the midst of all these pathetic events and episodes, we get the relief thanks to the humorous intermixtures.

      Dickens paints the outer scenes so realistically and creates them so naturally that we are moved by these descriptions. But we note that the surface life reflects the inner self. The hero views the world and his feelings fuse with outward action and his selection of events advances inward meaning. Introspection, probing analysis of the streams of consciousness stimulating the flow of inner conflict etc, are not wanting. Dickens gives firm and texture to all the episodes with an artistic insight adding a touch of geniality with his expansive humor.

      The events and episodes hovering round the Yarmouth locality advance the major conflict beneath the peaceful surface. It makes the pain and sense of loss continuous. This locality with Peggotty, Ham, Emily etc, has a particular role to play in the mingling of humor and pathos. The incident of David's the hand of Murdstone and its sequel with a placard — "Beware of him he bites" hanging on the boy’s back has a great deal of pathos and humor in it. Hence we can assert that humor and pathos are inseparable to Dickens's works.


      Pickwick Papers is rich in humor and Oliver Twist in pathos but David Copperfield is Dickens's only novel whose merit lies in the exquisite blending of the elements of humor and pathos. The two run hand in hand in the novel. As John Gross puts it, "Dickens without humor is a very lop-sided creature indeed..." And we must add that Dickens without pathos is rare or rather unthinkable.

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