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

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.


Read the study guide:
Great Expectations

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question