What are the serious versus comic elements in Great Expectations?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While Charles Dickens both employs comic elements and serious narrative in Great Expectations, they are both parts of his extravagant didacticism. Both the comic and the serious point to hypocrisies, delusions, superciliousness, cruelty, and frivolity, about which Dickens wishes to instruct his Victorian audience. Often the comic is juxtaposed with the serious in order to bring them into sharp contrast, a contrast that allows the reader to understand the intentions of Dickens more easily.

Here are some comic elements that satirize serious issues:

  • The ridiculous character of Uncle Pumblechook (even his name is ludicrous) is pretentious at the Christmas dinner in the beginning of the novel when he makes his toast and ironically charges Pip to be grateful those who bring him up "by hand." Further, Pumblechook fawns over the eccentric Miss Havisham and congratulates Pip on his newfound wealth as he wishes him the "happiness of money." In the final part of the novel the pretentious Pumblechook takes credit in a local publication read at the Boar's Head Inn for Pip's having risen in social class. 
    Clearly, through the characterization of Uncle Pumblechook Dickens exposes satirically the serious issues of child abuse, and the Victorians' rising middle class who aspire to acceptance by what he perceived as a shallow and frivolous aristocracy.
  • The absurd character of Belinda Pocket sits and reads a book about aristocratic titles, hoping to locate something about her father's knighthood and background that will further her prestige. All the time that she is so preoccupied with her reading, her eight children are running about, tumbling over her feet, and the baby is about to ingest a dangerous object; general chaos abounds while servants imbibe in the kitchen and Mr. Matthew Pocket pulls at his hair in frustration. 
    This episode is again another satirical attack that points to the serious issue of the reverence and awe given to what Dickens considered a frivolous and disconnected upper class. That Mrs. Pocket would consider this more important than her position as mother and as protector of her children points to the serious issue of neglect of children that that were to be "seen but not heard" in Victorian society.
  • The comic episode of Wemmick's entertaining his Aged Parent after the dinner to which he invites Pip illustrates in a delightful manner how loving and caring Wemmick really is. Of course, Pip perceives Wemmick in a different light after his visit. In this particular episode, comedy serves to demonstrate the two sides to the clerk who works for Mr. Jaggers, and to explore the serious point of how one must present a different facade to an indifferent and even threatening world.
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Great Expectations

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