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Book Review: The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

The comic misadventures of Samuel Pickwick, Esq., in Dickens' first novel.


The Pickwick Papers

Originally published in 1837 in serialized form; 801 pages




The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (commonly known as The Pickwick Papers) is the first novel by Charles Dickens. The book became the first real publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances, Sam Weller joke books and other merchandise.

Written for publication as a serial, The Pickwick Papers is a sequence of loosely-related adventures. The novel's main character, Mr. Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, is a kind and wealthy old gentleman, and the founder and perpetual president of the Pickwick Club. To extend his researches into the quaint and curious phenomena of life, he suggests that he and three other "Pickwickians" (Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, Mr. Augustus Snodgrass, and Mr. Tracy Tupman) should make journeys to remote places from London and report on their findings to the members of the club. Their travels throughout the English countryside provide the chief theme of the novel.

Its main literary value and appeal is formed by its numerous memorable characters. Each character in The Pickwick Papers, as in many other Dickens novels, is drawn comically, often with exaggerated personalities. Alfred Jingle provides an aura of comic villainy. His misadventures repeatedly land the Pickwickians in trouble. These include Jingle's elopement with the spinster, Aunt Rachael of Dingley Dell manor, misadventures with Dr. Slammer, and others.





The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.

'May 12, 1827. Joseph Smiggers, Esq., P.V.P.M.P.C. [Perpetual Vice-President—Member Pickwick Club], presiding. The following resolutions unanimously agreed to:—

'That this Association has heard read, with feelings of unmingled satisfaction, and unqualified approval, the paper communicated by Samuel Pickwick, Esq., G.C.M.P.C. [General Chairman—Member Pickwick Club], entitled "Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats;" and that this Association does hereby return its warmest thanks to the said Samuel Pickwick, Esq., G.C.M.P.C., for the same.

'That while this Association is deeply sensible of the advantages which must accrue to the cause of science, from the production to which they have just adverted—no less than from the unwearied researches of Samuel Pickwick, Esq., G.C.M.P.C., in Hornsey, Highgate, Brixton, and Camberwell—they cannot but entertain a lively sense of the inestimable benefits which must inevitably result from carrying the speculations of that learned man into a wider field, from extending his travels, and, consequently, enlarging his sphere of observation, to the advancement of knowledge, and the diffusion of learning.


The Pickwick Papers

The Pickwick Papers was Charles Dickens' first novel. I wouldn't recommend it as someone's first Dickens novel to read, as it's evident if you've read a few others that he was already a brilliant writer, but he was still perfecting his style. Also, The Pickwick Papers, like many of his books, was originally published in serialized form, but since this was his first effort, there isn't a really a main plot. Rather, it's a long series of adventures featuring Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, and his friends and foes, all wealthy London gentlemen who want to get out and see a bit more of the world (i.e., parts of England within a coach ride from London). So from one chapter to the next we read the humorous adventures of Mr. Winkle, Mr. Smiggers, Mr. Snodgrass, Mr. Trotter, Dr. Slammer, and so on. Sometimes entire chapters are devoted to a character telling an unrelated story, ranging from anecdotes about bygone relatives to ghost stories and Christmas tales, clearly "filler" material while Dickens decided what to do next with his Pickwickian characters.

The Pickwick Papers are mostly a series of humorous misadventures, with a bit of satire, that give some insight into the mores of Victorian society. You can also see Dickens working on a few prototypes that will show up in later novels - for example, there is a very Scrooge-like morality tale, and a goblin story that resembles his other Christmas tales. You also see his social consciousness already manifesting itself. After Mr Pickwick is sued for "breach of promise" (supposedly extending an offer of marriage which he then reneged on), the trial is described in humorous fashion, starring the character who would become a fan favorite in Dickens' day, Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick's Cockney manservant. The jury rules against Pickwick, and he tells off the crooked attorneys for the plaintiff.


They stopped in a side room while Perker paid the court fees; and here, Mr. Pickwick was joined by his friends. Here, too, he encountered Messrs. Dodson & Fogg, rubbing their hands with every token of outward satisfaction.

'Well, gentlemen,' said Mr. Pickwick.

'Well, Sir,' said Dodson, for self and partner.

'You imagine you'll get your costs, don't you, gentlemen?' said Mr. Pickwick.

Fogg said they thought it rather probable. Dodson smiled, and said they'd try.

'You may try, and try, and try again, Messrs. Dodson and Fogg,' said Mr. Pickwick vehemently, 'but not one farthing of costs or damages do you ever get from me, if I spend the rest of my existence in a debtor's prison.'

'Ha! ha!' laughed Dodson. 'You'll think better of that, before next term, Mr. Pickwick.'

'He, he, he! We'll soon see about that, Mr. Pickwick,' grinned Fogg.

Speechless with indignation, Mr. Pickwick allowed himself to be led by his solicitor and friends to the door, and there assisted into a hackney-coach, which had been fetched for the purpose, by the ever-watchful Sam Weller.


Standing on principle (but without much sense), Mr. Pickwick ends up going to debtor's prison, which is described in grimly realistic detail. Mr. Pickwick, a wealthy gentleman, is able to make himself somewhat more comfortable there with his ability to bribe the jailers and prisoners, but he learns just how horrible life is for the downtrodden members of society who don't have other options.

Aside from this episode, though, most of the book is quite light-hearted.



Verdict: I have been a Dickens fan for years, and I have never not enjoyed one of his books, but The Pickwick Papers isn't my favorite. Being his first novel, it doesn't have as much of the brilliance of prose that characterize his later books, and being a big collection of serialized adventures, it goes on and on with only a few recurring storylines. Worth reading for Dickens fans, but I can only rate it 6/10, as it's a very thick book for a relatively small amount of substance.

Also by Charles Dickens: My reviews of A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, charles dickens, reviews
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