Charles Dickens's satirical masterpiece, "The Pickwick Papers," catapulted the young writer into literary fame when it was first serialized in 1836-37. It recounts the rollicking adventures of the members of the Pickwick Club as they travel about England getting into all sorts of mischief. Laugh-out-loud funny and endlessly entertaining, the book also reveals Dickens's burgeoning interest in the parliamentary system, lawyers, the Poor Laws, and the ills of debtors' prisons. As G. K. Chesterton noted, "Before ÝDickens¨ wrote a single real story, he had a kind of vision . . . a map full of fantastic towns, thundering coaches, clamorous market-places, uproarious inns, strange and swaggering figures. That vision was Pickwick."
I found the funniest parts of the book to be the early chapters where Dickens seems to be concentrating more on pure humour/satire by creating brilliant caricatures and there were several incidents that had me laughing out loud whilst I was reading (fortunately I was reading at home). As the serial progresses Dickens seems to move away from this approach to create more rounded, sympathetic characters, particularly where Mr Pickwick himself is concerned and whilst that meant there were fewer laugh out loud moments it also meant I became fonder of the characters.
A note on my edition: My copy was the 2003 Penguin Classics edition and as well as including some very helpful notes on the text and an introduction, this edition also showed where each monthly part ended so I was able to read along as the original subscribers to the serial would have received it (yes, I am a Dickens geek). This edition also comes complete with the original illustrations by Seymour and Phiz which are absolutely superb and really add to the story.
All in all, I can't recommend this book enough and I'm only sorry it took me so long to get round to rereading it.
Pickwick himself is a sweet, kind man who goes out of his way to help others and righteously stands up for principles he considers vital to humanity. He is sued for breach of contract by Mrs. Bardel when she falls into his lap and then Pickwick doesn’t marry her. He naively opts for debtor’s prison rather than pay the fees demanded by her unscrupulous lawyers when he loses the case. I’ve learned that Dickens had little use for lawyers and often skewered them and the law in general. He uses Pickwick’s three months in debtor’s prison to lambaste that system and the horrid conditions that prevailed.
By far my favorite character was Pickwick’s valet, Sam Weller, who serves his master and advises him with Cockney wisdom. He spouts, what I came to call “Sam-isms” for nearly every situation that arises and clearly reveals his philosophy of life.
”Hooroar for the principle, as the money-lender said ven he wouldn’t renew the bill.”
“’Vell sir,’ rejoined Sam, ‘I think I see your drift, it’s my pinion that you’re a-comin’ it a great deal too strong, as the mail-coachman said to the snowstorm, ven it overtook him.’”
“’Well, perhaps,’ said Sam, ‘you bought houses, wich is delicate English for goin’ mad, wich is a medical term for bein’ incurable.’”
“’I wouldn’t make too sure o’ that, Sir,’ urged Mr. Weller, shaking his head. ‘If you know’d who was near, sir, I rayther think you’d change your note; as the hawk remarked to himself vith a cheerful laugh, ven he heerd the robin-redbreast a-singin’ round the corner.’”
“’Don’t say nothin’ wotever about it, ma’am,’ replied Sam. I only assisted nature, ma’am; as the doctor said to the boy’s mother, after he’d bled him to death.’”
Sam’s witticisms are part of the overall humor that infuses the narrative and I found myself laughing out loud. It’s a feel good novel as we follow Pickwick and his friends on their merry adventures but it’s Sam who steals the show. Highly recommended.
The characters were wonderful, of course
This is a book I know I will turn to again and again and it has made me want to read more Dickens (and classics in general) faster than I am able to!
But that was later. This is his first, and it's a great book. A real 'pick-me-up'. So many parts still make me laugh, after so many readings: Mr Pickwick being discovered at night in the garden of the boarding school where he had been lured on a false errand; Then later ending up by mistake in an old lady's bedroom; and Mr Winkle agreeing to go horse riding, even though he had no experience in the equestrian arts ('What makes him go sideways?' said Mr Snodgrass [in the carriage] to Mr Winkle in the saddle. 'I can't imagine,' replied Mr Winkle. His horse was drifting up the street in most mysterious manner, side first…); and many more.
Mr Pickwick is of course the prototype of many subsequent portly, good humoured old gentlemen who come to the rescue of various characters in distress in his later novels. such as the Cheeryble brothers, in Nicholas Nickleby, and Oliver's long lost grandfather in Oliver Twist. But none of these descendants are really so full of joviality, generosity and pure goodwill as is Pickwick. He's a tonic.
Yes, the final fifth met the approval standards of its period. There are a slew of marriage plots to be resolved. Somehow that struck me as an addendum for decorum's sake. The novel becomes a meditation on friendship; between Pickwick and Weller, Sam and his father, the reader and Dickens.
I'm looking forward to reading all of Dickens this year; The Pickwick Papers was a marvelous inaugeration.
At times the interposition of tragic or comedic vignettes seem a bit forced, like short stories Dickens edited in to fill space. Pickwick and the others interact with these tales very little, simply hearing them and then moving on with their adventures without commentary. Some are unrelievedly tragic; others are crazily hilarious and fanciful, like the armchair coming to life and telling his story.
But it's the characters that make this loosely connected string of stories so memorable. Samuel Weller is one of my favorite literary characters of all time. I think he must have inspired Tolkien's Sam Gamgee at some level; both are utterly devoted to their masters and have a sturdy, rustic self possession that is highly distinctive. And I can't think of Tony Weller without smiling. And of course, Mr. Pickwick himself. And Snodgrass, and Tupman, and Winkle, and Wardle, and Jingle, and Job, and all the rest of that merry bunch.
Quite simply, this is splendid fun.
It's the first Dickens I've read and I can see now why he's so highly rated.
It was very readable, funny and evocative of the period it is set in. The characterisation is superb and despite it being over 800 pages long, it was at no point a chore
I'm definitely going to try to read (at least one) more Dickens now.
Dickens' first novel, initially published as a monthly serial (I think most if not all of his novels were?), lacks much of a cohesive overarching plot. As explained in his introduction, he wasn't planning ahead for a finished product that would be read all at once. The result is a book that can easily be put aside at any time. It’s also a book that can easily be picked up again days or weeks later, resumed without much consequence, and still be just as enjoyable. I wish now that I'd written down every instance of Sam Weller saying something innocuous, then comparing it to another scenario that makes it hilarious. Pickwick is a unique treasure trove of light humour with an approach, tone and language that no modern novel can ever hope to emulate.
The first half of the book Pickwick and friends
Although the Pickwick Club is a populous body, the book is concerned with just a few members:
Samuel Pickwick - founder of the Pickwick Club,
Nathaniel Winkle - an inept sportsman,
Augustus Snodgrass - a poet with no known output,
Tracy Tupman - an inept Lothario.
They are taking time out (over a year) to travel and examine the world, before (in the case of Winkle and Sodgrasse) settling down to matrimony. Mr Pickwick, their quixotic leader, has taken early retirement. This gives the book the flavour of a nineteenth centre lads weekend away, stretched over many months, accentuated by the fact that it was published monthly, making it feel very episodic. The female characters seem to be victims or stooges - only Mrs Pott made a lasting impression on me and we get a male perspective on the world.
Sam Weller is my least favourite character, despite having some of the best lines, I hate subservient, but chirpy, Cockney Sparras, it has become such a cliche. There are some excellently done stereotypes, amongst others: solicitors, their clerks, barristers, doctors, politicians, journalists and preachers are hatcheted
It's a series of anecdotes and tales, loosely linked, but it improves greatly as
Despite its formidable opening (and no less daunting volume), this really is a fun (and funny) read, a sort of comedy of errors about the bookish, clueless Samuel Pickwick, Esq.