he same subversive technique illustrated by the author's comments and the point of view is utilized more fully and more subtly in the narrative itself. Though there are other important humorous appeals, particularly later in the novel, it is the dominant humour of the first half, focusing on the conflict between the novel's outcasts and its established society, which is most functional. The laughter called up by these situations to a large extent determines our reaction to the general world of the novel and to the social assumptions on which that world is built.
The humour attending these conflicts between the institution and the individual almost invariably calls for an ambiguous response. For example, in the second chapter, Oliver is told that "the board had said he was to appear before it forthwith". Oliver is confused by this report, "not having a very clearly defined notion of what a live board was", and when he is ushered into the august presence of "eight or ten fat gentlemen" and told to "bow to the board", "seeing no board but the table, [he] fortunately bowed to that". This is both tactful and pointed; it could be very funny. Dickens manages to use Oliver's ignorance to make the point that his confusion is, after all, not so meaningless: the board does have all the flexibility and feeling of a thick plank. Given only these details [57/58] and this perspective, the humour could well be successful. There are, however, other factors which work against laughter. First of all, the situation is under the control of Bumble, who at this point is an almost unrelieved villain. Second, we are disturbed by Oliver's reaction: he "was not quite certain whether he ought to laugh or cry". Finally, however, the boy's conflict is resolved; Bumble gives him so many "taps" behind that he cries. The scene seems to be devised in such a way as to undercut the aloofness we have originally assumed in order to laugh and to force us into a closer identification with Oliver, adding by the way a penetrating glance into the underlying viciousness of such laughter. In order to laugh in the first place, the reader must remove himself slightly from the situation: he knows what a board is, Oliver does not. Oliver's ambiguous reaction, however, recalls the novel's earlier remarks about institutions, workhouse institutions in particular; and the reference to the possibility of crying similarly recalls us to a position of sympathy for him. When he is finally forced by Bumble to decide against laughing in favour of crying, we too must decide. In order to laugh, we must identify ourselves with the board, and this is clearly impossible. Our probable laughter at the beginning of the scene is cut off, perhaps denied, but we are not likely to escape a recognition of the fact that, for a brief instant, we had allowed ourselves to be members of the board, regarding Oliver as an "it". The shock of recognition urges us closer to Oliver and denies us the easy sanctuary of laughter.
This same subversive process is used periodically in the novel both to reinforce the reader's feelings for Oliver and to undermine the social assumptions on which laughter is built. In Chapter III, for instance, we are introduced to "Mr. Gamfield, chimney-sweep", who "in a species of arithmetical desperation" was "alternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey". The zeugma in the last phrase is a witty disguise for the hidden aggression, allowing both the speed and the conciseness necessary to all jokes. Again, we are very likely to laugh. Two paragraphs later, however, we are told that Gamfield gave the donkey's jaw "a sharp wrench" and that he "gave him another blow on the head, just to stun him till he came back again". What happens here is that the wittily disguised "cudgelling" at [58/59] which we had been asked to laugh is made repulsively explicit in an entire paragraph devoted to the maltreatment of the donkey. The disguise is removed and the aggression nakedly exposed. When Gamfield then applies to the board in answer to the advertisement offering Oliver as an apprentice, we again sense how perilous is the boy's situation; we are dangerously close to being Gamfields ourselves. In the scene between Gamfield and the board, then, it is hard to miss the point that laughter is being used as a weapon:
"Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, gen'lmen, and there's nothink like a good hot blaze to make 'em. come down vith a run. It's humane too, gen'lmen, acause, even if they're stuck in the chimbley, roastin' their feet makes 'em struggle to hextricate theirselves." The gentleman in the white waistcoat appeared very much amused by this explanation. [III]
Gamfield talks very much like Sam Weller here, but surely his remarks are not funny. Not only is he a brutal man, but he wants to subject Oliver to horrible tortures! We were tempted to laugh at him once before and we certainly won't be victimized again. In case there is any temptation, we are immediately given a picture of the sort of person who is amused: "the gentleman in the white waistcoat", heartless, stupid, and vicious.
Finally, there is the brilliant scene, perhaps the symbolic centre of the novel, in which Oliver stands for a brief instant against all the institutionalized cruelty and demands that he be allowed to survive. One reason this scene is so memorable is that Dickens controls the humour so as to make us stand with Oliver as he asks for more.
Dickens first, however, tempts us to take a step back from the "slow starvation" he is discussing by focusing on a threat of cannibalism made to his fellow victims by a cook's son, who "hadn't been used to that sort of thing". "He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him" (II). Notice the traps Dickens sets here for the reader: we are urged to laugh, first, by the camouflage put over the starvation, which becomes "that sort of thing", second, by the substitution of mock killing for the real institutional murder, and third, by the appeal to our superior experience: the boys may believe him, but we [59/60] don't. He allows us, by our laughter, to shift our attention and thereby our concern. But, as I said, this shift is a trap meant to expose our callousness. Dickens is fattening us for the kill:
"Please, sir, I want some more." The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear. [II; Jonathan Bishop, p. 14, also discusses the humour in this scene, but suggests that our amusement may distract us from the important issues it contains.]
The reaction of the master is, in one sense, very funny. In one dazzling flash we are told that he is fat and healthy and that he clung to the pot for support. This appeal to our superiority in the absurd causal relationship, a cataclysmic reaction to a trivial event, would certainly satisfy our humorous demands, were it not, for the peculiar situation, emphasized by the last sentence. What seems to be a supporting, funny detail, "Te assistants were paralysed with wonder", turns out to be a false lead, for the second part of the sentence, "the boys with fear", jars us pointedly with the unexpected word "fear". We laugh only at the peril of ignoring this fear, and if we do ignore it, we implicitly share in the guilt for the brutality which comes to Oliver as a result of his daring.
These three episodes, similar in effect if not in execution, are all taken from the early sections of the novel. Throughout, however, Dickens subtly reverses even the most conventional humorous situations. For instance, the explosive coughing after drinking liquor is one of the most recurrent pieces of equipment in slapstick comedies. But in the novel Oliver's coughing is almost a threat or a dare, and it is very likely that by the time it takes place we know enough to avoid the trap. At any rate, just before the attempted robbery of the Maylies', the thieves are — rather happily — drinking "Success to the crack!" Toby Crackit proposes "A drain for the boy", and Oliver, "frightened by the menacing gestures of the two men ... hastily swallowed the contents of the glass, and immediately fell into a violent fit of coughing: which delighted Toby Crackit and Barney, and even drew a smile from the surly Mr. Sikes" (XXII). By this time, we know instinctively not to be amused [60/61] by anyone who is "frightened", and we identify too strongly with Oliver here to laugh at him. He is alone and is faced with an adventure which almost kills him, We can't even smile, lest we be associated with "the surly Mr. Sikes".
There are, however, times when we are associated with Sikes, or with any other victim, any other man who is hunted, frightened, or alone. Dickens uses the technique of subversion so consistently and subtly that, by the end of the novel, we are asked to react with the same combination of guilt, insight, and intense association with the victims, even when there is no "gentleman in the white waistcoat" to nullify our temptation to laughter and even when the victim is an equivocal character at best. For instance, during Sikes's flight through the countryside, he draws near two mail-coach guards to hear them talk of the murder:
"Corn's up a little. I heerd talk of a murder, too, down Spitalfields way, but I don't reckon much upon it." "Oh, that's quite true," said a gentleman inside, who was looking out of the window. "And a dreadful murder it was." "Was it, sir?" rejoined the guard, touching his hat. "Man or woman, pray, sir?" "A woman," replied the gentleman. "It is supposed-" "Now, Ben," replied the coachman impatiently. "Damn that 'ere bag," said the guard; "are you gone to sleep in there ?" "Coming!" cried the office keeper, running out. "Coming," growled the guard, "Ah, and so's the young 'ooman of property that's going to take a fancy to me, but I don't know when. Here, give hold. All ri-ight!" The horn sounded a few cheerful notes, and the coach was gone. [XLVIII]
The joke clashes strongly with an atmosphere which is so controlled and intense that it allows us no real interest outside Sikes; the brilliant juxtaposition of the guard's slight and impersonal interest in the sensational aspects of the crime with Sikes's obsession with the eyes that won't shut is capped by the final unconsciously brutal witticism about "the young 'oornan of property". Since the focus has shifted only very briefly from the killer, the only woman on our minds at the moment is the mangled corpse of Nancy, who has been killed [61/62] precisely because her "fancy" for Bill would not allow her to desert him. Two orders of reality, connected only by a startling and accidental relevance of referents, are violently contrasted here: the order which contains the social world, easy jokes and thoughtlessness, and the horribly intense and torturous world of Sikes. By this point, the reader is most likely conditioned by Dickens's technique and has no real choice but to enter into the latter; the social world has consistently been shown to be cruel with the special cruelty of comfortable aloofness. The notes of the horn certainly are cheerful only to those who regard the fact that "Corn's up a little" as equal in interest to the murder. The continual and subtle rhetorical insistence is that crimes of passion, no matter how brutal, are not nearly so, pervasive as crimes of indifference.
The final goal of this technique is to pry us away from the normal identification we make with an aloof society and to force us to enter much more fully into the world of the terrified and alienated individual, who at various times is Oliver, Fagin, Sikes, Bumble, and the Artful Dodger. Laughter, the strongest expression of social identification, is brilliantly used as a weapon against our own safety, quietly urging us to assume, for the moment, the perilous position of the hunted and the trapped. Instead of providing for a comic society, our laughter is meant to deny society altogether and to force us to be as alone as the novel's victims. The novel's humour, in other words, maintains that the real conflict is between the outcasts and the establishment, even after the plot itself has introduced a new theme which seems to provide a sanctified society and which turns against the outcasts.
The ironic humour of the second half of the novel is generally either ignored or passed off as "comic relief". Dickens himself half-seriously suggested, in Chapter XVII, that he was merely alternating "the tragic and the comic scenes". There isn't much point in attacking these obviously inadequate formulations, but they do point towards some of the novel's most interesting humour, which centres on two outlaws, in and out of the establishment, Mr. Bumble and the Artful Dodger.
First of all, one should notice that, despite all his maliciousness, Bumble sometimes sounds very much like the narrator: "And I only wish we'd a jury of the independent sort, in the [62/63] house for a week or two ... the rules and regulations of the board would soon bring their spirit down for 'em" (IV). Though the object is different from that in the narrator's attack on "philosophers" two pages later, not only is the desire for revenge similar, but the means of accomplishing that revenge as well. Bumble and the narrator both want to subject the aloof commentators to practical experience and concrete reality. The point is that abstract pity is nearly as bad as abstract cruelty; both commit the central sin of remaining untouched. It may seem odd that Dickens is using Bumble here as his partial surrogate, but it does prepare us for the very complex treatment which follows.
Probably the most basic thing to be said about Bumble is that his humour is based on the role of the henpecked husband. He makes other appeals, but this one is at the root of his "funny" position. But there is a great difference between Bumble and the array of traditional henpecked husbands in Pickwick. Mr. Pott, for instance, is not effectually vicious, nor does his condition inspire great pity; in fact, he, Mr. Nupkins, even Mr. Raddle we suppose, richly deserve the treatment they receive. These figures are also like the traditional figure in that ordinarily they are not physically mistreated by their spouses, or, if they are, they have some crafty resources to combat brutality. The traditional figure is, above all, resilient; he does not degenerate into a complete buffoon; he does not wholly sacrifice his identity. Bumble evades all these qualifications.
Bumble's marital relationship is further complicated by a kind of doubling, which functions as an ominous foreshadowing. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, early in the novel, is in its main outlines just like that which Mr. and Mrs. Bumble will later assume. Sowerberry is completely dominated by his wife:
"My dear-" He was going to say more; but Mrs. Sowerberry looking up, with a peculiarly unpropitious aspect, he stopped short. "Well," said Mrs. Sowerberry, sharply. "Nothing, my dear, nothing," said Mr. Sowerberry. "Ugh, you brute!" said Mrs. Sowerberry. "Not at all, my dear!" said Mr. Sowerberry humbly. "I thought you didn't want to hear, my dear. I was only going to say-" [63/64] "Oh, don't tell me what you were going to say," interposed Mrs. Sowerberry. "I am nobody; don't consult me, pray." [V]
This is the normal breakfast conversation between the henpecked husband and his wife. Mrs. Sowerberry cleverly manages to deny his manhood, and her claim that she is "nobody" clearly is an assertion that it is her undertaking husband who is really a cipher. As with Mr. Nupkins, we are very likely happy to see officialdom deflated. But our amusement here ignores the relationship of these two to their victim, Oliver. It turns out that Sowerberry's subordinate position is exactly what leads to Oliver's cruel punishment, which, in turn, leads him to London and Fagin. Sowerberry, Dickens says, is "kindly disposed" towards Oliver, but his wife demands that the boy be whipped and, when Mr. Sowerberry resists, she bursts into tears. The narrator then comments, "The flood of tears . . . left him no resource; so he at once gave him [Oliver] a drubbing, which satisfied even Mrs. Sowerberry herself" (VII). This situation not only upsets the comic relationship but also contains a veiled warning against laughing at henpecked husbands; they can, it seems, turn out to be very dangerous.
Deepening this early shadow on the Bumbles' potentially comic relationship is the fact that Bumble is not the sort of Bergsonian automaton we can laugh at easily. In the first place, he is in Oliver's view an exceptionally vicious man; at one point the child is described as "shaking from head to foot at the mere recollection of the sound of Mr. Bumble's voice" (V). But, alone among the characters associated with the workhouse, Bumble shows himself capable of sympathy for Oliver's plight. After the orphan utters his central complaint that he is "so lonely, sir! So very lonely", the narrator says, "Mr. Bumble regarded Oliver's piteous and helpless look, with some astonishment, for a few seconds; hemmed three or four times in a husky manner; and, after muttering something about 'that troublesome cough', bade Oliver dry his eyes and be a good boy. Then once more taking his hand, he walked on with him in silence" (IV). "That troublesome cough" makes all the difference. Bumble simply calls up far too many complex associations; he is too complex a human being to allow for easy laughter. Insofar as we identify with Oliver — and surely in the early [64/65] parts of the novel that identification is complete — we are required to hate the Bumble who is physically cruel, but we must also feel gratitude for the Bumble who alone can sympathize with Oliver's intense loneliness. And these two Bumbles are decidedly part of one man. While it is true that the first is dominant, to some extent Bunble's cruelty blends with the background of almost unrelieved indifference and sadism which Oliver faces and thus is unremarkable. It is the beadle's sympathy which is unexpected, for his feelings mark the first and only chink in the "porochial" armour, and we sense that he is somehow different from the hated institution, somehow a more complete human being.
Though I do not mean to distort Bumble into a tragic figure, this hint of disorientation from the institution he represents is an integral part of his character. It makes it more difficult for us to laugh at him, and, despite Dickens's deceptive insistence that we regard him as a villain, we are bound to reserve some measure of respect for the only person in Oliver's youth who managed even to have a "troublesome cough".
We are expected to approach the scene of Bumble's degradation, then, with somewhat mixed feelings. Dickens proceeds, however, to cast the beadle in a slightly different role when he comes in contact with Mrs. Corney and Mrs. Mann, two indistinguishably vicious workhouse matrons. He is slightly more pompous and much more rigid, and in this mechanical, Bergsonian pose he blunders on to Mrs. Mann, " 'A porochial life, ma'am,' continued Mr. Bumble, striking the table with his cane, 'is a life of worrit, and vexation, and hardihood; but all public characters, as I may say, must suffer prosecution'"' (XVII). This, of course, engenders a stock response. The important detail, "striking the table with his cane", alerts us to the conscious role-playing [the element of self-dramatization in Dickens's comic characters is discussed by Douglas Bush, pp. 82-91], as does the exceedingly formal and self-important manner of address. Bumble has been subtly altered. It is true that at times like this Mr. Bumble is, in more ways than one, "quite a literary character" indeed (II). From the curiously full human significance he suggested earlier, he [65/66] has become an emblem of self-importance, an overblown and self-righteous balloon, making us yearn for the needle of the Comic Spirit.
Yet there are still elements, even here in the early stages of his bitter introduction to women, which cloud this simple view of him. For one thing, we can hardly help noticing that Mrs. Mann and her double, Mrs. Corney, are much more vicious characters than Bumble. They have about them a frightening competence which is born of deep cynicism; they are far more rigid than Bumble; they are both frozen into the role of a monster. For instance, when the dying little Dick speaks to Mr. Bumble, the narrator adds that "the earnest and wan aspect of the child had made some impression [on him]: accustomed as he was to such things" (XVII). Mrs. Mann is equally "accustomed to such things", we can be sure, but it is absolutely certain that little Dick makes no similar impression on her. The contrast is significant, for Bumble, we sense, is being cast out of his depths, entering, at least in part, into the ranks of the victims of oppression. Upon seeing Bumble, Mrs. Mann reacts as follows:
"Drat that beadle!" said Mrs. Mann, hearing the well-known shaking at the garden-gate. "If it isn't him at this time in the morning? Lauk, Mr. Bumble, only think of its being you! Well, dear me, it is a pleasure, this is! Come into the parlour, sir, please." The first sentence was addressed to Susan; and the exclamations of delight were uttered to Mr. Bumble. as the good lady unlocked the garden-gate, and showed him, with great attention and respect, into the house. [XVII]
This is precisely the sort of smooth double-dealing Bumble could not possibly manage. His inability to see through Mrs. Mann is caused in part by his blinding ego, and in this regard he is funny, but part of his blindness comes also from the fact that he is simply a better human being, and in this sense he evokes not laughter but compassion.
Even during his hilarious proposal to Mrs. Corney, this contrast is subtly reinforced, and Bumble is shown to be more human and, surprisingly, less official. His ludicrous misuse of conventional terms is itself partly a parody of convention: "I mean to say this, ma'am; that any cat, or kitten, that could [66/67] live with you, ma'am, and not be fond of its home, must be a ass, ma'am" (XXIII). In his way, Bumble is an innocent here. He is even capable of dancing around the table, which violates what the narrator says we expect from beadles: that they "(as is well known) should be the sternest and most inflexible" of all "public functionaries" (XXIII).
Dickens has again led us toward a comparatively false reaction. If we laugh at Bumble, we are associating with the society outside, from which he deviates. It is a part of Dickens's subtlety that he often disguises that society, making it appear safe, humane, conventional. By the time he is through with Bumble, however, he demonstrates that the outcast beadle has deviated mainly from the standards of Mrs. Mann, Mrs. Corney, and the parochial board. Again we are likely to find ourselves uncomfortably playing the part of "the gentleman in the white waistcoat".
This reversal is caused primarily by the fact that Dickens pushes Bumble's fall past the humorous point. There is no question that we would rejoice in his deflation, but, in the end, he has lost his identity, and his famous protest against the law, "the law is a ass-a idiot", recalls Oliver against Mr. Fang and aligns Bumble with the victimized. What makes this reversal all the more effective is that it seems so sudden. Chapter XXXVII opens with a passage which begins by comparing Bumble to an insect in a trap and which leads to the climactic announcement, "Mr. Bumble was no longer a beadle". Now Mr. Bumble's egoistic involvement with his earlier role had been complete; he was, very simply, a beadle. At his height "he was in the full bloom and pride of beadlehood; his cocked hat and coat were dazzling in the morning sun", and Mr. Grimwig identified him as "a beadle all over" (XVII). When Oliver first saw Mr. Bumble and was told to "bow to the gentleman", his bow was "divided between the beadle on the chair, and the cocked hat on the table" (II). The comic equation is clear: Bumble = beadle = cocked hat. But with his marriage Bumble loses this identity, and in the attending symbolic castration, the narrator says, "The mighty cocked hat was replaced by a modest round one" (XXXVII). Mr. Bumble has been virtually annihilated.
Bumble's only comic alternative is to switch directly to the [67/68] submissive role of Mr. Leo Hunter, but this he refuses to do. He first tries inordinate self-pity:
"I sold myself," said Mr. Bumble . . . "for six teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a milk-pot; with a small quantity of secondhand furniture, and twenty pound in money. I went very reasonable. Cheap, dirt cheap!" "Cheap!" cried a shrill voice in Mr. Bumble's ear; "you would have been dear at any price; and dear enough I paid for you, Lord above knows that!" (XXXVII)
Bumble's treating himself as a thing might be funny; even in his misery, we find, he has not lost his powers of ludicrous exaggeration, but Mrs. Corney picks up the theme, without contradiction, and leads us to believe that Bumble is not exaggerating at all.
Bumble then, with a modest kind of heroism, tries to recapture his old position with "an exceedingly small expansion of eye", an "eagle glance", but Mrs. Corney (the narrator does not often call her Mrs. Bumble, for very good reason), far from being "overpowered", as he had intended, laughs at him. The shift is now complete; Bumble has changed from a persecutor to a victim. Our memory of his earlier cruelty perhaps limits our sympathy, but it is now perfectly clear that Bumble can no longer be laughed at so easily. At the centre of the novel is this polarization between masters and victims, and our understanding and sympathy are constantly directed toward the latter.
Thus Dickens again undermines any comfortable laughter and forces us beyond the rigid moral categories in which we may have taken refuge. The laughter is once more used as a weapon against our social assumptions, forcing us closer into the novel and into a closer identification not only with Oliver but also with Bumble, Pagin, and Sikes. By the end of this chapter, Bumble has been beaten, humiliated in front of the paupers, and driven to drink. But Dickens doesn't even allow [68/69] him the traditional alcoholic solace of the henpecked; for in the bar he meets Monks, and in the later interview between Monks and the Bumbles, the former beadle is forced into the role of the pathetic, self-conscious buffoon:
[Mrs. Bumble:] "But I may ask you two questions, may I?" "You may ask," said Monks, with some show of surprise; "but whether I answer or not is another question." "-Which makes three," observed Mr. Bumble, essaying a stroke of facetiousness. [XXXVIII]
His degradation is indeed complete. While the Artful Dodger is not degraded, Dickens uses our laughter at him in much the same way. The Dodger is the best reflection we have in this novel of Sam Weller. At his first appearance, his openness and friendliness even suggest that he will champion the innocent Oliver much as Sam champions Mr. Pickwick. At any rate, what is fundamentally important here in the Dodger — as in Sam — is the consistent and effective use of Freudian humour. His whole life is a kind of brilliant parody of social convention and dull, regularized conduct. This parody is most clearly illustrated by his trial.
His offence, first of all, amounts to a witty and insolent defiance of social demands for pretentiousness. A policeman testifies that he "had seen the prisoner attempt the pocket of an unknown gentleman in a crowd, and indeed take a handkerchief therefrom, which, being a very old one, he deliberately put back again, after trying it on his own countenance" (XLIII). The handkerchief is the perfect symbol of social hollowness (surpassed only by the silver snuff-box discovered on the Dodger), and it indicates perfectly that the Dodger is not a social threat but a kind of social medicine. His clever refusal to take this monstrous society seriously is the best defence of the human spirit and the closest thing to a possible alternative to the system we have in this novel. But the Dodger is a criminal, by society's definition, and is about to be imprisoned. The charges against him are both trivial and serious, trivial in fact but serious in the view of the law. The Dodger, however, refuses to adopt the view of the law and insists on parodying it. Thus he deals with the threat by ignoring it, and he allows us to economize our sympathy by releasing it in laughter. [69/70]
But Dickens is again deceptive; he again interrupts any laughter. As Arnold Kettle points out, the Dodger finally makes clear what had been implicit all along — that this trial is a symbolic restatement of the novel's central conflict between the individual and the threatening institutions (this is a paraphrase of Kettle's argument, i. 134; he sees the trial as illustrating the novel's main concern: "What are the poor to do against the oppressive state?") As the Dodger says, "this ain't the shop for justice" (XLIII), and our laughter has suggested that we may be no more just or merciful than the court.
Dickens further undercuts our amusement by allowing just a glimpse of the Dodger's courage. After he has been sentenced, he throws one more witty barb at the bench:
"Oh ah! I'll come on," replied the Dodger, brushing his hat with the palm of his hand. "Ah! (to the Bench) it's no use your looking frightened; I won't show you no mercy, not a ha'porth of it. You'll pay for this, my fine fellers. I wouldn't be you for something! I wouldn't go free, now, if you was to fall down on your knees and ask me. Here, carry me off to prison! Take me away!" With these last words, the Dodger suffered himself to be led off by the collar; threatening, till he got into the yard, to make a parliamentary business of it; and then grinning in the officer's face, with great glee and self-approval. [XLIII]
The "self-approval"' is tantamount to self-consciousness, and, as Bergson points out, "A comic character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself. The comic person is unconscious" (p. 71). As the Dodger is being led away, we are left with the haunting suspicion that his defiance was not, after all, so easy, and that his own wit was not so much a mechanical reaction as a rather desperate defence. All the talk of punishment, we see, is largely an expression of fear after all. Unlike Bumble, he does not lose his identity, but the hint that he has been able to retain it only with great courage is enough to cut off laughter and encourage us to identify with the victimized Dodger.
The humour in the novel, then, seems to me to be consistently and brilliantly directed to these ends: to make us see how incomplete and hostile a reaction our laughter is, to force us by this recognition briefly to see in ourselves the shadow of Fang, [70/71] Mrs. Corney, and the gentleman in the white waistcoat, and to direct us through this insight into a participation in the vital action of the novel which is, at once, more complete and much more intense.
Last modified 9 March 2010