Mr Bumble is the parish beadle in the town where Oliver Twist is born. He plays a prominent role in the early chapters of the novel and makes recurrent appearances later. He is both a representative character and an individual. In this first capacity, he helps to bring out the inhuman workhouse system which was a bane of the Victorian era. As all individuals, he is portrayed in a light vein and is the chief source of comic relief in the novel.
Mr Bumble’s appearance is invariably described in terms of his dress the official magnificent coat with its giltedged lapel and gold laced cuff, and beautiful buttons in which Mr Bumble takes inordinate pride. Without the beadles coat, plush breeches, cane and cocked Mr Bumble is merely a fat man, for as Dickens remarks in chapter 37 “dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.”
Mr Bumble seems to enjoy inflicting pain on the poor little orphans. He presents Oliver to the board after giving him a tap on the head with his cane to wake him up and another on the back to make him lively. On another occasion he gives him the benefit of exercise which is washing himself in nice cold water under the pump where he privets his catching cold by causing a tingling sensation to all his body by repeated application of the cane. He is quite a terror to the inmates of the workhouse. When Oliver misbehaves in a refractory manner at Mr Sowerberrys, it is Mr Bumble who is summoned to control him.
A very important point to be noted about Mr. Bumble is that he has been treated very ironically by the novelist. The office of beadle was an inferior position in the parish. But Mr Bumble’s self-importance is in inverse proportion to his actual status. The children feel overawed while Mrs Mann fawns on him when he visits the workhouse. But later he is reduced to his proper size by the Chairman of the board when he is rebukes him, “hold your tongue, Beadle.” After this even though he continues to assume the air of importance, there is no doubt left in the reader’s mind about his true smallness and vulnerability.The irony indulged in by the novelist at the expense of Mr Bumble is externally effective and amusing. At one stage Mr Sowerberry is very appreciative of the buttons of his coat. Mr. Bumble gratefully acknowledges this note of appreciation and enlightens Mr Sowerberry that the buttons are embossed with the parochial seal; “the good Samaritan healing the sick and bruised man” and he tells him, I put it (coat) on, I remember, for the first time, to attend the inquest on that reduced tradesman who died in a doorway at midnight.” What a delightful irony and how happy Mr Bumble is to be oblivious of it!
Basically Bumble is a very greedy man. When he comes across the advertisement inserted by Mr Brownlow for some information about Oliver, he immediately approaches him and speaks against Oliver thinking that it would help him. When later Mr Brownlow tells him that he would have rewarded him very generously if he had reported favorably, he is very regretful. His decision to marry Mrs Corney is also prompted by his greed. He decides to marry her for her spoons, sugar tongs, some old pieces of furniture, and may be a little money in case. It is much later that he realises he sold himself dirt cheap. In Mrs Corney he catches a Tartar and is completely humbled. Immediately after his marriage, he is divested of his cocked hat without which he hardly appears like Mr Bumble.
Mr Bumble is also a big coward. When Oliver fights with Noah Claypole and Mr Bumble is called for help, he goes there well prepared with the waxend properly twisted round the bottom of his cane to flog Oliver. However, the accounts of Oliver’s ferocity are so startling that he judges it prudent to parley before opening the door. When Oliver persists in his defiance, Mr Bumble does not have the courage to open the door and deal with him. Instead he talks to Mrs Sowerberry in a philosophical mode. “It is meat……. You have overfed him, Ma’ am You have raised an artificial soul and spirit in him”.
A Comic Character
As remarked rightly in the beginning, Mr Bumble is the chief comic character of this novel. To begin with, it is his self importance that makes him a source of comedy, he appears utterly ridiculous in his assumptions of dignity. His wooing of Mrs Corney is also comic. The novelist puts him in a very funny situation when he plants a very impassioned kiss on Mrs Corney’s chaste Dose or he puts his arms round her waist or he tastes the medicine Mrs Corney prepares for herself. His counting the cutlery and the furniture pieces and his opening of the chest of drawers and exulting in the jingling sound of coins are also quite funny. His humiliation at the hands of Mrs Bumble, in direct contrast to his earlier pomposity, has also been depicted in a comic vein. Mrs Bumble at first resorts to shedding tears, but immediately after this, she overpowers him, scratches his face and threatens to douse him with soapsuds. She even insults him in the presence of old ladies in the workhouse. Mr Bumbles malapropism also renders him a comic character. His use of language betrays his ignorance.
A Touch of Humanity
Although Mr Bumble mostly behaves in a callous manner, the novelist does give him at least one humanising touch. Mr Bumbleis seen to be moved by the heart-broken loneliness and weeping of the poor Oliver as Oliver accompanies him, and he pretends to have a troublesome cough. This little touch of humanity lifts Mr Bumble from the group of caricatures and puts him in the category of realistic characters. Later when Dickens degrades him completely and makes him an inmate of the workhouse in which he has been tyrannizing so long, he also becomes one of those he victimised. Poetic justice might have demanded this but the reader would have been more thankful to the novelist if he had shown the same kind of generosity to Mr Bumble as he had shown to Monks.