Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Dickens and the Idea of the Comic Novel

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Dickens and the Idea of the Comic Novel

Article excerpt

The idea of comedy inherited by Dickens and his contemporaries derived from classical, medieval, and Renaissance traditions, in which comedy dealt with 'low-life' subjects and exposed the 'ludicrous' in human actions, but which also allowed for happy endings, rewards for the virtuous, punishments for 'bad' characters, and, following the Shakespearian model, the celebration of human love. This essay argues that although Dickens was sometimes dismissed as a humorist by Victorian critics, his work should be seen in the mainstream of the English tradition of comic fiction. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are explored in the light of these arguments.


In the preface to his edition of Shakespeare of 1765 Samuel Johnson complained that Shakespeare's first editors, Heming and Condell, seemed not to have distinguished between the genres of comedy, history, and tragedy 'by any exact or definite ideas'. Johnson went on to describe what he saw as the vague notion of comedy which was acceptable to Jacobean audiences: 'An action which ended happily to the principal persons, however serious or distressful through its intermediate incidents, constituted a comedy.' (1) Largely thanks to the example and the subsequent influence of Shakespeare's comedies over the span of English literature this loose definition has taken on some intellectual weight. Indeed, if we balance it with the splendidly bland theory of fiction expressed by Miss Prism in the second act of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, it can be seen as having shaped a good number of moral, but not necessarily exclusively 'comic', novels. For Prism, fiction simply 'means' that 'the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily' (though Cecily Cardew nicely protests that the theory 'seems very unfair'). (2)

If we were to superadd Shakespeare's concern with the significance of love and marriage to what Johnson describes as Heming and Condell's idea of 'comedy', we might safely arrive at a very loose definition of what is often called 'romantic comedy'. This 'romantic comedy' is, of course, at odds with the 'classical' idea of what constituted the comic. For Plato the comic spirit was rooted in the representation of self-ignorance. In the Philebus he has Socrates argue that 'those [...] who combine their delusion with weakness and incapacity to be revenged on a scoffer you may truly call comic figures [...] In the strong, ignorance of self is odious and repulsive [...]. Where it is weak, we see the proper place and true character of the comic.' (3) This notion is echoed by Aristotle, with a new stress on social status, in his definition of the 'ludicrous':

Comedy is [...] an imitation of characters of a lower type--not, however, in the full sense of the word, bad; for the Ludicrous is merely a subdivision of the ugly. It may be defined as a defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. Thus, for example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not cause pain. (4)

Despite our lack of Aristotle's larger treatise on comedy, it has been assumed that these Greek principles came to influence Roman comedy and, beyond the ancient world, the comic dramas and stories of medieval and Renaissance Europe. The medieval comic tale seems to have retained many of the elements outlined by Aristotle. Commenting generally on the traditions of comic storytelling, and on audience responses to comedy, which held sway until the late eighteenth century, Derek Brewer has written:

No general study of humour was made in the Middle Ages. It is an interesting question whether such a quality, or entity, was even recognised. There was some discussion of comedy and tragedy, usually of a learned and rather muddled kind, based on an inadequate study of classical sources. Discussions of comedy rarely do more than imply humour [...] the kind of funniness enjoyed in the Renaissance was very similar to the traditional and medieval forms. …

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