Nonsense on the Margins

The Verbal Comedy of Sam Weller and Mrs Nickleby


  • Balázs Sánta



The paper charts certain nuances of the diction of two minor characters in Dickens’s early fiction, Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers and Mrs Nickleby from Nicholas Nickleby. The paper focuses on what David Ellis calls Sam’s “extended comic comparisons” and Mrs Nickleby’s typical speech acts, called here, by analogy, extended comic recollections. After examining the role both characters’ verbal comedy plays in the novels, the paper invites Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s critical insight into a Victorian genre contemporary to Dickens: nonsense literature. I approach the underlying structural parallel between Sam’s and MrsNickleby’s comic verbal instances with the aid of the definitive trait of nonsense as established by Lecercle, the paradox of excess and lack on different levels of language. Though not arguing for the novels’ inclusion in a nonsense literary canon, I show that Lecercle’s conceptualisation of nonsense linguistics proves useful in making sense of the two characters’ monologues. Their role in each novel may thus be grasped as functional nonsense.