Charles Dickens, despite writing many dark and tragic pieces, is equally famous for his use of humor. This is part of the reason he was so popularly read by the common man in Victorian England, despite the fact that his works frequently dealt with serious topics.
The most prominent example of humor in Dickens’ writing is his entertaining descriptions of his characters, in which he built exaggerated and comical identities. Each character has some undeniable quirk about them (frequently excepting the protagonist) that is exaggerated just to the point of being funny. This is true of major characters, supporting characters, and background characters. From their names to noses, Dickens’ characters develop personas that are so precise and absurd to be thoroughly either well-loved or well-hated by his readers, and comical either way.
Two such examples are Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Wemmick in Great Expectations. Pumblechook’s despicable arrogance has little actual effect on Pip, and he mostly serves as a character to be laughed at. He is described “a large, hard-breathing, middle-aged, slow man, with a mouth like a fish, dull staring eyes, and sandy hair standing upright on his head,” and spends most of the novel pathetically exhibiting such glaring hypocrisy and dishonesty that it becomes laughable. Mr. Wemmick, on the other hand, is a seemingly serious man whose childlike enthusiasm for all things medieval, and quirky relationship with his aged parent, make him one of the most loveable and hilarious characters in the book.
A second way that humor appears in Dickens’ work is through satire, poignant enough to make people laugh while simultaneously communicating a scathing social criticism. This is more common in his later books which are considered less lighthearted. Dickens accomplishes this comical satire through descriptions of individuals as well as scenarios.
One example of such a character would be Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, who is the constantly in debt and constantly optimistic about a solution “turning up.” Dickens actually satirized his own father in this character and used him to illustrate the anxiety that affects a whole family when parents lack good judgment. The situation itself may not be funny, but through the irony of Micawber’s speech and the repetition of his foolish phrases, Dickens created a character at whose absurdity readers can’t help but chuckle. Other examples are found in his descriptions of Doctor’s Commons in David Copperfields and the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit.
Imagery is a key and recognizable element of Dickens’ writing style. For each new scene in Dickens’ novels, he created the setting meticulously and vividly, to the point of the room or the landscape being visible to the reader, the scents, music, and flavors floating in the air. But beyond just the set-up of a scene, imagery permeates the entire text. He once wrote in a letter to a friend,
“When…I sit down to my book, some beneficent power shows it all to me and tempts me to be interested, and I don’t invent it—really do not—but see it, and write it down.”
Dickens used imagery as a tool to immerse the reader into the setting of the novel. True to his love of theater and experience as a reporter, Dickens managed to create nearly tangible settings in the readers’ imaginations because of his use of descriptive words and appeal to all the senses. An example of this is the scene of early morning on the marshes found in Great Expectations: “It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs, hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy…” Other well-known passages of rich imagery include the descriptions of Peggotty’s boat in David Copperfield, of London in many of his books, and of the Christmas feast in A Christmas Carol, which include visual, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory imagery.
Dickens used imagery as a tool for characterization—not just by describing an individual’s appearance, but also the mood created from the setting that individual chooses to reside in. For example, in his description of Miss Havisham’s decayed room in Great Expectations, Dickens creates a mysterious and desolate mood that reflects the mysterious and desolate state of Miss Havisham’s heart. In essence, Dickens’ s use of imagery gives the reader a picture of a character’s depths, beliefs, priorities, preferences, in only a glance. These memorable pictures, painted in the readers’ mind through language, accomplish show-don’t-tell style of characterization and have contributed substantially to Dickens’ fame.