A Tale of Two Cities, though tragic and full of bloodshed, violence and hatred, has abundant humour, comic elements, farce and satire. The humour, wit, satire, caricature and farce are an integral part of his work and relieve us of the monotony of endless seriousness and bloodshed.
Dickens' use of new devices of humour was a contribution to English literature at that time. Ungrammatical sentences uttered by the illiterate, fun in the contrariness of inanimate objects, the absurdity of the apt, the humour of the professional and over-riding egoism are the trademarks of his humour (S.D. Neil). In fact, though his humour is not intellectual, it creates laughter as it arises from contrast and humour of character, situation and theme. All said and done, humour is the soul of his work and mingled with pathos, it reflects his attitude to life.
Humour of Character
Dickens, the comic writer lives chiefly in his comic characters. His humour of character is unsurpassed and we remember him more for his humorous characters than his stories. In fact he points out social evils with satire and fun instead of being serious. His wit, farce, satire and irony are not biting. He even treats the oddities of character, kindly.
In A Tale of Two Cities humour of character can be seen in abundance. Though Lucie, Charles, Sydney and Dr. Manette command our respect, the other characters are all comical in some way or the other.
Stryver, the lawyer is an egoistic character who makes a fool of himself. He is shallow and has no regard for Sydney to whom he owes his success. He is conceited like a lion but is vain and hypocritical from within. He takes credit for Charles's acquittal though actually
had been responsible for it. His marriage proposal for Lucie is ridiculous as he is no match for the delicate Lucie. He is so self-opinionated that he thinks that he is doing a favour to Lucie by considering her as a marriage partner. According to K.J. Fielding, "his decision to honour Lucie with a proposal is magnificently comic with a rightful place in the story." Stryver the lion and Carton the jackal, create laughter. All this is possible in the hands of master of humour like Dickens. Sydney
Jerry Cruncher, too, is a comic figure. His spiked hair tickles us as much his humorous character and humorous interpretation of his secret profession do.
Though he calls himself a "Resurrection man", he is irreligious and resurrects or digs dead bodies to eke out an existence and to promote the cause of science.
His mannerisms in calling himself "an honest tradesman", his profession of being a body snatcher, his habit of talking to himself and scolding his wife for "flopping, are a source of comedy in the novel. He fears that his wife's prayers will prolong people's lives, and his profession as a resurrection man, will suffer. The trait of malapropism is conspicuous in his dialogue that induce our laughter. For example, he calls a year "Anna Dominoes" instead of "Anna Domini". His belief that "Dominoes" is a popular game in
which was introduced by a sport-loving English woman Anna, creates humour and provides comic relief. England
However, his presence, besides providing relief, is important for the plot In the course of his "resurrection business, " he digs up the coffin of Roger Cly and finds the coffin empty as Cly had faked death to escape the wrath of his enemies. Later, he escape to
and became a revolutionary spy. This information helps France in blackmailing Barsad into allowing him to enter Charles' cell in prison and allowing him to die instead of him. So though a comic figure, he is important for the plot. Sydney
Miss Pross, too is also a comic character who is good at heart. She is described as a wild looking woman, wifh red hair, covered with a bonnet like a Grenadier's wooden measure. She lays a brawny hand upon Mr. Lorry's chest and makes him fall. After this she fusses over Lucie and calls her "my bird".
Her exaggerated remarks about dozens of suitors who come to visit Lucie, create laughter. Her confrontation with Madame Defarge is comical as well as dramatic and serious. When she tells her "I'll not leave a handful of that dark hair upon your head, if you lay a finger on me", the tussle between the two assumes comic proportions. Though a comic character, she is a symbol of love triumphing over hatred. She also plays an important role in bringing about the death of Madame Defarge.
Dickens sums up that the peculiar quality in "her character dissociated from stature was shortness."
Even Jarvis Lorry, 'a man of business' is comical. He keeps on telling Lucie that he is a man of business and this heightens the comic effect at times.
On the other hand, two characters who are comical in a grotesque manner are the mender of roads and Madame Defarge. When he shouts "God save the king, God save the King", he is funny because as a revolutionary he is supposed to hate the aristocrats, and not cheer them for a long life.
Later, again when he compares his wood-cutting activities to Solomon, the guillotine-master, he appears grotesquely funny and humorous. Equally grotesque is Madame Defarge who continuously knits the names of the doomed, inveterately.
Thus, it can be seen that Dickens' humour is sympathetic and satirical. While sympathetically portrayed characters make us laugh with sympathy, the grotesque and evil characters are portrayed satirically. His sympathetically delineated characters like Micawbers, Pickwicks and Miss Pross are simpletons and arouse our feelings.
Dickens also evokes laughter by exaggerating the manners and oddities of his characters. His caricatures arouse laughter. Jerry Cruncher's spiky hair, Miss Press's red complexion and red hair and the mender of roads' funny gestures are all sparkle of Dickens's humour. His remarks about Tellson's Bank also create humour. The partners were "proud of its smallness, proud of its darkness, proud of of its ugliness, proud of its incommodiousness".
Besides humour of character, he creates humorous situations or scenes or themes. For Dickens, funerals and journeys are a source of comedy. Roger Civ's fake funeral procession is vividly described to arouse laughter.
Pathos and Humour
Thus, we see that Dickens, the master of humour is comparable to Shakespeare. His humour is mingled with pathos, and this shows his realistic approach towards life. Life too is full of laughter and tears. However, he does try to wring an extra tear by giving vivid details. He does not let the situation speak for itself. For example, when Gaspard's child dies he overstates and exaggerates and does not let the situation speak for itself.
However, all said and done, his humour is commendable. He highlights evils and monstrosities in a humorous vein. His humour is present in his characters, phrases, descriptions, situations and contrasts while Miss Press's eccentricities are a foil to Lucie's gentleness, Cruncher's spiked hair and ridiculous clothes provide a comic contrast to the conservative Jarvis Lorry. The moody, morose Carton is a contrast to boastful, egoistic Stryver whose attitude often becomes out of the way and ludicrous.
John Forster complained that the novel has little humour. In comparison to his other novels, A Tale of Two Cities stands out for the grimness and gravity of the theme where the plot is focussed and characters are not abundant. Within this compact structure, which is absent in Dickens's other significant novels, we get few sparkles of the writer's treatment of humour which are brilliant, vivid and ludicrous with a tinge of irony.