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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Pickwick Papers was Charles Dickens’s first novel. It tells the story of Samuel Pickwick and the other members of the Pickwick Club. The group is comprised of members who journey around England with a goal of studying human nature. Hence, the narrative is episodic and anecdotal. 

Over the course of their very amusing travels, the Pickwickians encounter all sorts of colorful characters, experience many adventures and mishaps, and consume lots of food and drink. They are an affable but pretentious group. This creates plenty of opportunities for humor. The book reminded me in many ways of Don Quixote. 

The Pickwickians include: Nathaniel Winkle, who claims to be a sportsman, but who generally makes a fool of himself whenever he engages in any sport and Augustus Snodgrass, who is a man who claims to be a poet but who seems to write no poetry. Also included is Tracy Tupman, who is a self-proclaimed ladies’ man but is clownish and overweight. Sam Weller is Mr. Pickwick’s loyal servant. His smart aleck sense of humor and charm makes him, for me, the most entertaining character in the book. For his part, Mr. Pickwick is overweight and good natured but bit silly and pompous. There are numerous additional colorful characters, including drunken medical students and malevolent attorneys. 

There are also many side stories. Often, the characters, both major and minor, tell tales ranging from accounts of everyday events to the fantastical. There are also several underlying plot threads that pop up throughout the novel. One is the misunderstanding and subsequent legal battle between Mrs. Martha Bardell and Mr. Pickwick. Mrs. Bardell is a widow who is Mr. Pickwick’s landlady. She mistakes Mr. Pickwick’s naturally friendly and courteous disposition for romantic interest and a marriage proposal. This leads to not only hurt feelings but to a legal battle that resurfaces at various points in the narrative. Another subplot involves conman Alfred Jingle and his servant, who vex the Pickwickians at several points in the story.

The narrative is, with occasional exceptions, light, funny and entertaining. At times I found myself laughing out loud. Pickwick and his associates are often silly and buffoonish. With that, they all display a sense of decency and act charitably towards others. 

In this early Dickens effort, many of the themes and plot devices that will appear later are present here in a less developed form. Dickens’s contempt for the legal profession, fully developed in Bleak House, manifests itself in this work. Attorneys involved in his legal proceedings are shown to be inefficient, cruel and unethical. The side story of Gaberial Grub, a sexton with a nasty personality, is a precursor of A Christmas Carol. Grub is confronted on Christmas Eve by an army of goblins who excoriate him for his malicious disposition. Motivated by fear, Grub eventually reforms his ways. Like later Dickens, the book is full of colorful and over the top characters. 

I also think that the way that Dickens portrays the world throughout his books can be partially seen in this one. Though the tone of most of this novel is light, something dark in the universe manifests itself from time to time. At one point, Mr. Pickwick is in conversation with “The Dismal Man,” a philosophical but depressed character that the Pickwickians encounter in their travels. 

"‘Did it ever strike you, on such a morning as this, that drowning would be happiness and peace?’ ‘God bless me, no!’ replied Mr. Pickwick, edging a little from the balustrade, as the possibility of the dismal man’s tipping him over, by way of experiment, occurred to him rather forcibly. ‘I have thought so, often,’ said the dismal man, without noticing the action. ‘The calm, cool water seems to me to murmur an invitation to repose and rest. A bound, a splash, a brief struggle; there is an eddy for an instant, it gradually subsides into a gentle ripple; the waters have closed above your head, and the world has closed upon your miseries and misfortunes for ever.’ The sunken eye of the dismal man flashed brightly as he spoke, but the momentary excitement quickly subsided;"

Having read a fair amount of Dickens over the years, I find that the way that he describes the dark aspect of existence to be somewhat similar throughout his writings. Dickens clearly shows that there is a good side to existence. However, this gloomy aspect is always there. 

I also think that it is interesting that Dickens often shows the good side of humanity in the form of charity and compassion for others. In this novel, Mr. Pickwick does show much of that. The positive angle to existence is also shown here in the form of good cheer and fellowship. 

On a related note, Dickens’s social consciousness, which manifests itself so strongly in his later works, also appears in this book. When Mr. Pickwick loses his legal case, he refuses to pay the damages on principle. He voluntarily goes to debtor prison. There, he encounters human suffering and injustice that appalls him. One of many people that he encounters is a man whose life has been ruined after twenty years of imprisonment.  

"The Chancery prisoner had been there long enough to have lost his friends, fortune, home, and happiness… Mr. Pickwick surveyed him with a painful interest. He was a tall, gaunt, cadaverous man, in an old greatcoat and slippers, with sunken cheeks, and a restless, eager eye. His lips were bloodless, and his bones sharp and thin. God help him! the iron teeth of confinement and privation had been slowly filing him down for twenty years."

The above quotes are not representative of this novel as a whole. As stated above, the book is mostly humorous, upbeat and extols the virtues of good cheer and friendship. 

I enjoyed The Pickwick Papers a lot. I found it to be very funny and entertaining. This book was pleasant to read. It also contains Dickens’s signature prose as well as multiple over the top characters.  I also found it interesting how so many ideas that the author used later on seem to originate in this novel. Though this would not be the first Dickens that I would read, it is a fine book for those who have already read and liked the famous author.

43 comments:

  1. splendid post... so far as i can see you covered all the bases including some i didn't know were there... i read this years ago and surely i'll find time to read it again... we shall see... tx for the enlightenment!

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  2. Thanks Mudpuddle- With an author like Dickens, I think that there is always something new to discover.

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  3. Brilliant review, Brian! I remember having read Pickwick Papers while waiting at the hospital two years ago (my mother was having an operation). It was so funny at times, that I have had trouble to keep myself from laughing every few minutes. But it's just the perfect book for that ocassion, because it kept my mind from too much anxiety. :)

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    1. Thanks Fandu. It is striking that something this old can still be so funny and so entertaining.

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  4. This is the first time I remember ever reading a review on this book. I've also read quite a few books by Dickens but have avoided this one as I thought it would be a bit dull, for some reason. Anyhow, you've convinced me otherwise. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book. Great review, as always :)

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    1. Thanks Carol. The book is episodic and a lot less dramatic then many other Dickens books so some might find it a bit dull. With that, I found it so entertaining.

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  5. An author I'm slowly, very slowly, coming to appreciate. I must say you make these characters sound rather appealing.

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  6. Hi Brian, thanks for a great review from which I got a real sense of who the characters are and the themes that run through the book. I've read one Dickens novel, Great Expectations. The book didn't grab me as much as I hoped but Dickens is too great a writer to leave it at that. Intrigued by the fact that Pickwick Papers was Dickens first novel and so maybe that's the place to begin. Interesting too how many authors have been inspired by Don Quixote which I must read.

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  7. Hi Tracy - The characters in this book are so much fun.

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  8. Thanks Kathy- I actually liked Great Expectations less then many other Dickens novels. This book was a lot of fun but my favorite Dickens books are David Coperfield and Bleak House.

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  9. I have recently been entertaining the idea of reading all of Dickens' major works, possibly in chronological order. I had been a bit wary of his earlier works, wondering if they wouldn't stand up today, but your review has been very interesting. Thanks Brian.

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    1. Hi Jonathan - I more or less have been reading through Dickens but I have been doing so over a period of years. Though this one does not pack the emotional power of later works, it was pleasant and easy to read so I think it is a good starting point.

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  10. Oh, I'm *so* glad you've picked up some more Dickens!! I've not read The Pickwick Papers yet, but I'm so biased, I'm very sure I'd love every wonderful word he wrote including this one. I can't help but think back to the March sisters from Little Women, so obsessed with the Pickwick Papers that they set up their own society and adopted the names themselves. Ha! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, excellent as always :)

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    1. Hi Sharee - I did not know about that aspect of Little Women. That is so neat! I can see starting a Pickwick Club. Apparently many have done so since the publication of this book.

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  11. Excellent post on one of my favorite authors. I remember the humour the most from this early work. I appreciate your focus on aspects of this work that would continue to be prominent in Dicken's later novels.

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    1. Thanks James. I need to read more of Dickens’s early books. Dickens is a favorite of so many.

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  12. I love this book! Partly because it was one of the first Dickens novels that I read as a young teenager, and partly because I love Sam and Mr Pickwick. I think your comment about Don Quixote is spot on! Mr P does tilt at windmills, but is at heart a very good soul.

    The skating scene is always a favorite for me to reread around Christmastime.

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  13. Hi Jane - I think that this is a super novel for young folks to read. Sam is such a charming character. There are many passages in this book that fit the Christmas season so well.

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  14. I have developed a read liking for Dickens and intend to read everything he finished (so no unfinished mysteries for me). I found him very clever, very observant and, as you say, very funny too. He sees the absurd in situations without denigrating the people involved. That takes real skill.

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    1. Hi CyberKitten - I agree that Dickens is all of those things. This book tilts more to the funny.

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  15. Brian Joseph, I enjoyed reading your commentary (and some of the comments). You make this novel, and its characters, sound funny and appealing. First novels of prominent authors are especially interesting to me!

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    1. Hi Suko - First novels are interesting for a lot of reasons. This one is very good and with looking at in light of what came after.

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  16. This is my favorite Dickens. It was more light-hearted than most and I found Mr. Pickwick rather lovable even if he was at times buffoonish. Your post has inspired me to re-read it.

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    1. Hi Sharon - Mr. Pickwick is loveable and it is a loveable book.

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  17. Dickens is about the only writer in "the canon" that I've never taken to. He's just too prolix for my liking. Bleak House made me lose the will to live! I think my reluctance to read him is maybe because I've seen so many adaptations of his novels in films and TV series. I already know the plots, and reading his writing, which is so wordy and shoots off on all kinds of tangents, just seems tedious to me. I'm glad you're liking his work. Reading a book that causes out-loud laughter is always a great experience.

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    1. Hi Violet- Though I loved Bleak House, your comment was hilarious. I used to have similar feelings about Dickens but he has grown on me. Because of its lightheartedness and perhaps because it was the first, some of Dickens excesses were a bit toned down here. With that, this book was also wordy.

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  18. Brian, I’ve just begun reading PP and appreciate your fine posting and the comments, all serving as prologue to my PP reading experience. Perhaps I will post my own reader response in a week or so. Best wishes from a Gulf coast blogger ....

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    1. Hi RT - I am so glad to hear that you are reading this. I would love to know what you think when you are done.

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  19. Surely any book that reminds one of "Don Quixote" can't be all bad! Glad to hear you liked this, Brian, and that you were able to confirm its amusing status. This and "Our Mutual Friend," for different reasons, are likely to be my own next choices for Dickens reads when the time comes.

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    1. Hi Richard- I thought that Our Mutual Friend was also a really good one. This was more fun and entertaining and that the be more serious.

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  20. I loved this book. Glad you enjoyed it too.

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    1. Hi Rachel - It was such a pleasant book.

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  21. One of the interesting qualities in Dickens is the humor found in ghastly circumstances. The more you read about what London was like back then... there's so much that's appalling. (Currently I'm reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, set in the mid-1800s, and while the novel isn't bleak as a whole, there are character deaths, including a suicide, that can't be avoided in a novel that's a social commentary of the times.)

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  22. Hi Hila - In this one the humor is more pronounced then in other Dickens. I have been wanting to read North and South for awhile. These Victorian writers were so good at social commentary.

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  23. I have not read the Pickwick Papers but I'm a big fan of Dickens -- I especially like his characters ... such as those in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. But I need to read more of his novels. I can see where he employs the same themes and prose over & over in each of his books. Still he is a wonder.

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    1. Hi Susan - I have come to see what a wonder Dickens novels are. This one is lighter then many of his other books but the characters are fantastic.

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  24. Laugh out loud funny? sign me up! I have not read this one yet and had no idea it was Dickens' first publication.

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    1. Hi Stefanie - This was definitely the funniest Dickens novel that I have read so far.

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  25. How strange, I actually thought this was a later book. Not sure why. It sounds like it's a lot of fun. For someone who loves Dickens, I'm sure it's fantastic to see the early manifestations of his themes here.

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    1. Hi Caroline - I did not know that this was his first until I read it. Early forays Into familiar themes are often interesting when one likes a writer.

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  26. EXCELLENT review as usual, Brian!

    I LOVE the beginning of Mudpuddle's comment! "Splendid post", he wrote. How very British, by Jove! Lol.

    Dickens has long been a dearly treasured writer of mine; I have him listed as one of my favorite authors on Goodreads. I have read three of his novels: "Oliver Twist", "A Christmas Carol", and "A Tale of Two Cities". I really must revisit these books!

    I didn't know that "The Pickwick Papers" was more of a humorous tale. I know I'll enjoy it! It's great that reading it made you laugh out loud. But then, of course, Dickens is known for his sharp wit, and that is very evident even in his most serious works.

    What I love most about Dickens is his attention to detail in characterizations, as well as his majestic prose.

    His characters really do become real people, and the reader easily and immediately becomes part of their world. The ones in the books I've read are vividly drawn, so much so that they have become an intrinsic part of British and American culture.

    This vividness of characterization is also due to, as you put it Dickens's "signature prose". Oh, how I LOVE his prose!! "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....." When I first read this, I felt chills down my spine. If I happen to come upon these words from time to time, I still feel those chills. It is sonorous, majestic prose. It stirs the intellect just as much as the emotions.

    There's just something mighty and wonderful about Dickensian prose. It's the pure flow of well-used words, and this flow draws one into the story, while weaving a mesmerizing spell, as well.

    I think I need to make a mid-year resolution, if there's such a thing: read EVERYTHING written by this great author, and that, of course, includes "The Pickwick Papers".

    I know I'll be in for many good laughs, and will delight in the "colorful characters", as you call them!

    Cheers for The Pickwick Club, and thanks for another greatly enjoyable, interesting review!!

    Hope your week is winding down well!! <3 :)

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  27. P.S. I should have mentioned the cover. Is that Mr. Pickwick? He certainly looks like a paunchy, jolly, very British, middle-aged soul! Lol. :) :) :)

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  28. Thanks Maria.

    What you say is true, Dickens’s characters have become a part of our culture.

    I also love Dickens’s prose. Not everyone I talk to does though. He does use a lot of words. However, I find that he creates such a powerful atmosphere by doing so. It is also very creative.

    I am slowly reading my way through all of Dickens. I seem to be getting through about two books per year.

    The cover picture is definitely Mr. Pickwick! He is such a jolly character!

    Cheers!

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