How does Dickens characterize Mr Wopsle and Uncle Pumblechook in Great Expectations?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Ever the social critic, Charles Dickens so often models characters after real people with whom he has been acquainted. Minor characters can represent certain types that Dickens wishes to satirize or use for comic effect. Two such characters who provide comic relief are Mr. Wopsle and Mr. Pumblechook.

  • Mr. Wopsle

Mr. Wopsle is the clerk at church, an official who assists the minister at church services and who teaches in the local school. He is proudest of his deep, resonant voice which he employs in his great aunt's school when he "examined the students."

What he did... was to turn up his cuffs, stick up his hair and give us Mark Antony's oration over the body of Caesar.

After Pip moves to London, he and Herbert attend the play Hamlet and see Mr. Waldengarver, formerly Mr. Wopsle, in the starring role. He is so ridiculous in his elocution that Herbert and Pip cannot help laughing along with the rest of the audience,

I laughed in spite of myself all the time, the whole thing was so droll; and yet I had a latent impression that there was something decidedly fine in Mr Wopsle's elocution -- not for old associations' sake, I am afraid, but because it was very slow, very dreary, very up-hill and down-hill, and very unlike any way in which any man in any natural circumstances of life or death ever expressed himself about anything. 

  • Mr. Pumblechook

The corn chandler represents the emerging middle class of Victorian England as a result of the Industrial Age. Among many of them, there were those who aspired to what Dickens felt was a frivolous upper class. With his peering at other merchants lest they get ahead of him, and his attempts to see Miss Havisham, and his pretentious claims, Pumblechook is a ridiculous character that Dickens satirizes as representative of this rising merchant class.

In Chapter XXVIII, Pip reads in the newspaper at the Boar's Nest that Pumblechook has taken credit for Pip's good fortune.

...the youth's earliest patron, companion, and friend, was a highly-respected individual not entirely unconnected with the corn and seed trade.... we record HIM as the Mentor of our young Telemachus, for it is good to know that our town produced the founder of the latter's fortunes. 

While both Wopsle and Pumblechook are characters that Dickens employs for satirizing the pompous and materialistic, they do provide ample comic relief from the tribulations of Pip, and it seems this is their primary purpose.

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gpane's profile pic

gpane | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Like so many characters in Dickens’s novels, Mr Wopsle, the local church clerk, and Uncle Pumblechook appear rather odd. Dickens often exaggerates certain traits in his characters; thus Mr Wopsle’s chief quality appears to be his deep resonant voice. When he says grace before the Christmas dinner, it has the effect of a ‘theatrical declamation,’ as though he’s taking part in a Shakespeare tragedy (chapter 4). This produces an incongruous effect in the scene.

Uncle Pumblechook is decidedly grotesque. He is memorably described as follows:

... 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, so that he looked as if he had just been all but choked, and had that moment come to ...(chapter 4)

 Mr Pumblechook, then, is likened to a fish, with all the peculiarity of appearance that such a description implies. He is also seen to have an odious personality; at first he picks on Pip, and later, when Pip becomes wealthy, he sucks up to him.

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