Some of Charles Dickens's greatest achievements are his comic and grotesque characters. Here are some of the best.
Charles Dickens is perhaps seen today as a fundamentally serious writer, a social critic and a purveyor of “literature”, rather than an entertainer. For his contemporaries, however, he was most popular for his comic characters. His giant, rambling novels often featured minor characters who became more popular than the central characters. In George Orwell’s famous words, Dickens’s novels had “rotten architecture but wonderful gargoyles”. Here are some of his greatest, funniest and most grotesque “gargoyles”.
A beadle in charge of the workhouse in Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble is uncaring and cruel, as well as pompous of speech. In the second half of the book, though, he becomes less a figure of misused authority than a comically hen-pecked husband, dominated by a shrewish wife. His enduring legacy is in his response to the suggestion that he will be punished for his wife’s crimes, for the law supposes the wife to act under her husband’s influence – a bitter irony for Bumble, who replies: “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass – a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.”
A secondary character in Martin Chuzzlewit, this fat, drunken nurse became massively popular in Victorian culture, giving her name to a type of umbrella. She has a peculiar irregularity of speech by which she tends include a “-g-” sound at the end of words; for example, “dispoged” for “disposed, “Jonage” for “Jonah”, even “Polge” for “Paul”. She also has an imaginary friend named Mrs Harris, whose she quotes whenever she wishes to make complimentary remarks about herself. Mrs Gamp’s immortal self-definition is as follows: “Gamp is my name, and Gamp my nater [nature].”
A little-known character from one of Dickens’s least-known books, Barnaby Rudge, Dennis is about as grotesque as it gets. He is a hangman whose dedication to his job goes way beyond the call of duty. Every person he meets is immediately sized up for the drop: “Did you ever see such a throat?... There’s a neck for stretching!” is a representative quote. He considers himself an expert in “working peope off” and joins the Gordon rioters in the novel to give him increased opportunities to indulge in his favorite pastime.
The master of a Yorkshire school in Nicholas Nickleby, one whose pupils are starved and beaten into a state of compliance, Squeers’s most notable physical trait is that “he had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favor of two.” His teaching skills are also questionable: “B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, bottin, n-e-y, ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants.” Eventually gets his comeuppance in the form of a beating from Nicholas Nickleby.
Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop, is a very ugly dwarf, with the aspect of a “panting dog”. Though apparently of advanced years, he is energetic and nimble, always popping up unexpectedly. He terrorizes his pretty young wife, yet she is devoted to him. He also makes improper advances to Little Nell, and suggests that some day she could be his wife, an idea which doesn’t appeal to her at all.
A Tale of Two Cities, from Dickens’s later career, is not a particularly comic book, except in the figure of Jerry Cruncher, a “resurrection-man”, that is, stealer of corpses to sell. Cruncher is convinced that any ill-luck that befalls him is owing to his wife. He becomes incensed whenever he sees her praying, as he is sure she is “floppin’ agin’” him. He considers her an “aggerawayter” and becomes violent when he sees her adopt the kneeling position.
One of Dickens’s most famous scenes is the opening of Great Expectations, when young Pip, in the graveyard looking at the gravestones of the parents he never knew, is accosted by a fearsome and ogreish man with a chain on his leg, who orders Pip to procure him food and a file. If he fails to do so, the man assures him: “your heart and liver will be took out, and roasted, and ate.” This man turns out to be an escaped convict named Magwitch, and he is to play a pivotal role in Pip’s life.