Recently I listened to The Pickwick Papers on my way to and from work/class. For those who don’t know, this was Charles Dickens’s first novel, which (if I recall correctly) he was assigned to after the original author backed out, and which was intended to accompany the illustrations of a then-famous satirist, who died almost immediately into the project. The result was that Dickens had his big break and made a name for himself with a rather formless, yet very entertaining work.
Chesterton, in his summary of the book, calls it the primordial, unformed matter of Dickens, and that really is a good way to describe it. It contains just about everything we think of when we think of Dickens, to the point where you can almost see future stories slipping in and out of the proceedings. You know how movies about authors always sprinkle little lines and incidents from their books throughout the script, as if to say “that’s where that came from”? Well, The Pickwick Papers is kind of like that. I can spot definite shadows of Nicholas Nickelby, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield at the very least (which is to say, of all the Dickens novels I’ve read), while one of the many short-stories peppered throughout is sort of an embryonic version of A Christmas Carol, in which a mean old sexton is whisked away by goblins on Christmas Eve to be taught a lesson in humanity.
The premise of the book is that Mr. Pickwick, a wealthy and prominent gentleman of fashionable (and ridiculous) scholarship decides to embark upon a journey to explore England and meet its people. In this, he is accompanied by his three friends; Mr. Winkle, the young would-be sportsman, around whom no man is safe and no bird in danger when he has a gun in his hand, Mr. Snodgrass, the young would-be poet whom no one can remember actually writing anything, and middle-aged Mr. Tupman, the old would-be romantic. They soon cross paths with the fast-talking, unscrupulous Mr. Jingle, and subsequently with the eloquent, street-smart cockney, Sam Weller, whom Mr. Pickwick employs as his manservant.
The first half or so of the book is mostly a series of more or less unconnected, humorous vignettes of the characters going from place to place, encountering the usual Dickensian menagerie of colorful caricatures, and often hearing a quaint short story or poem. They take up with a good-natured gentleman farmer named Mr. Wardell, who has a good-sized family that includes an elderly and selectively deaf mother, several lovely daughters, and a very fat servant boy who falls asleep any chance he gets. They witness a parliamentary election in a small town, where the rival newspapers attack each other and each other’s candidates with unstinting vitriol while assuring their readers that the fate of the nation depends upon whether there will or will not be an increase in the turnpike toll, and their readers believe them with gusto. Sam introduces his father, who drives a stagecoach and is married to a humorless woman taken up with a temperance society headed by an extremely drunk shepherd. And Mr. Pickwick quite innocently ends up in several compromising positions with a variety of women, including being locked in a closet in a girl’s boarding school.
All this is great fun, and Sam Weller, with his endless Wellerisms (“Hoping this will be a long acquaintance, as the gentleman said to the five-pound note”), is one of the crowning achievements of the book. He and Pickwick make for one of those striking pairs of upperclass innocence and lower-class shrewdness, though with much more affection and balance than is often met with. Imagine a Jeeves and Wooster where Jeeves legitimately respected Wooster, and Wooster had a fatherly concern for Jeeves. As Chesterton noted, Dickens understood in this case that, when pairing innocence and knowledge, innocence ought to rule over knowledge.
But what struck me most was the change that comes over the course of the story. It seems that once Dickens was allowed to try his wings, he gradually abandoned the satire of the early chapters. It remains a comedy, but Pickwick is no longer the butt of the joke. Instead, he adopts the role of straight-man, especially when one of the earlier humorous incidents comes back with unexpected consequences that eventually land him in debtor’s prison.
It’s there that Pickwick begins to show that, despite his ridiculousness, he is a genuinely great man, capable of real nobility, courage, and charity. At the same time, Sam shows the depths of devotion, and the other characters shed their farcical roles as Mr. Winkle and Mr. Snodgrass both become involved in love affairs that call for courage and honor (though amid plenty of humor, of course).
As I say, I find this transformation to be the most interesting and appealing thing about the book. Accidental or not, there is a strong impact in seeing the carefree humor of the early chapters give way to serious grief and misery, with accompanying moments of heroic virtue. I don’t believe Pickwick would be nearly so stirring a hero if he hadn’t begun the story as a buffoon, and I don’t think Sam would be half so delightful if his unflappable flippancy weren’t balanced by his fervent devotion to his master.
I’m not the greatest fan of Dickens. I’ve enjoyed all the stories I read (well, listened to mostly) from him, but for me he has several great flaws. His caricatures are often too broad and his social commentary too heavy handed (for instance, I thought Wackford Squeers’s school in Nicholas Nickelby was so obviously exaggerated that it defeated its purpose. Salem House from David Copperfield was far more effectively horrible for being more restrained). Not to mention that his tragic moments tend to be painfully maudlin. To my mind, Jane Austen ranks far higher in the pantheon of great British authors. That said, Dickens is undeniably one of the greats and I’d rank Pickwick as one of his best.