Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

Start Free Trial

How does Dickens use humor and pathos in Great Expectations? Please give a detailed explanation.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Charles Dickens uses humor and pathos both singly and together. Although the novel has many serious themes, Dickens makes the narrative more compelling through the constant interjection of humorous scenes, characters, and dialogue. The underlying emotional gravity of the novel is communicated through repeated use of pathos.

Dickens uses humor in the descriptions of many minor characters. Among these is the attorney Jaggers, with his exaggeratedly formal speech and manners. Jaggers’ many clients, current and former, also provide humor when Pip runs into these disreputable individuals on his visit to the courts. He is suitably impressed by their “testimonies to the popularity of my guardian….”

The author’s characterization of Miss Havisham evokes pathos in the initial description of her appearance and especially the abandoned wedding feast. The unsuspecting Pip arrives at her once-grand mansion, and when he enters, he is disturbed to behold the ruin and desolation—“so fine, and so melancholy.” Although Pip is a poor young boy, he feels sorry for this older wealthy woman. Pathos also applies to several interactions between Pip and Joe. The reader, understanding that Joe is a true friend, feels for him when Pip mistreats and neglects him, instead putting on airs and imagining himself superior to the kind, loyal blacksmith.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Great Expectations, considerable humor is derived from Dickens' frank descriptions of his colorful cast of characters. Uncle Pumblechook, who's about as colorful as it gets, is given to us as 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." As for Mr. Wopsle, he's described as a man who has "united to a Roman nose and a large shining bald forehead".

As well as being humorous, such descriptions tell us an awful lot about what kind of people we're dealing with. Here as elsewhere in Dickens, what you see is what you get.

Dickens mainly uses pathos to highlight the vulnerability of his characters. The most obvious example in Great Expectations would be the scene in the graveyard, when young Pip first encounters Abel Magwitch. Pip's young age, combined with the fact that we know him to be an orphan, make him especially vulnerable. Add in a confrontation with an escaped convict who threatens to kill him and eat certain of his inner organs, and you generate a considerable amount of pathos.

Later on in the story, it will be Magwitch's turn to be vulnerable, as he desperately tries to make good his escape from England with the assistance of Pip and Herbert Pocket. Once again, Dickens uses pathos to generate sympathy for those who, for one reason or another, find themselves isolated in society.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his bildungsroman, Great Expectations, Charles Dickens employs humor and comic relief through the use of ridiculous and silly characters to whom he gives typically ridiculous names. And, he evokes pathos from characters who are the unfortunate victims of poverty and the social "prison" of English society.


  • The earliest example of such a character is the pompous Uncle Pumblechook, "the basest of swindlers," as Pip terms him. He is a sycophant, who fawns before rich people.  When Miss Havisham asks him to find a boy with whom Estella can play, he assumes an importance because he believes himself an emissary of hers.  While Pip is poor, Pumblechook berateS him; but once Pip has a benefactor, Pumblechook becomes fawning.
  • Another humorous character is Wemmick, whose "post office" mouth merely takes in information and emits it with no personal touch added.  However, after Pip goes to Wemmick's home, he finds that the little man has much personality and is attentive to his father, whom he fondly calls "Aged P."  With an odd house and landscape, Wemmick fires a canon each night for his deaf father to enjoy.  Certainly, the relaxation of spending an evening with Wemmick is comic relief for Pip.  In addition, Wemmick's quirky character comes out in the scene in which he visits the prisoners and talks to the plants as he makes his way to the cells in Newgate.


  • The character who arouses the emotion of the reader is Abel Magwitch.  While in the exposition he is "a fearful man in grey," who threatens Pip's life if he does not bring him "wittles," Magwitch displays human sympathy after he is captured, by asserting that he has stolen the food and file himself.  There is a poignant exchange of looks with Pip.  Even Joe sympathizes with the criminal, who apologizes for having eaten the pie:

"God knows you're welcome to it--so far s it was ever mine...We don't know what you have done, but we wouldn't have you starved to death for it, poor miserable fellow creature."

  • After Magwitch goes to New South Wales and amasses a fortune, he does not forget the simple kindness of Pip and Joe.  Having no other to love, he risks death by returning to London to meet the grown Pip and tell him that he has been his benefactor for years.  Pip's repulsion at the sight of the old convict is cruel to the pathetic victim of the restrictive society of London. But, as he relates his history, Pip's heart melts with compassion and he realizes that intrinsically Magwitch has never been a bad person; instead, he has been victimized by society, especially the upper class Compeyson who used him to steal from Miss Havisham.  Much pathos is aroused in Magwitch's story and his single desire to have Pip appreciate and love him.
  • In some ways, Miss Havisham is also a poignant character.  When she begs Estella to love her and Estella replies that she cannot because "You made me," the reader feels sympathy for the eccentric old woman who finally realizes her errors.  Especially emotive is the scene in which she asks Pip to write "I forgive you" for her cruelty to him.


See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team