The Pickwick Papers

[amazon template=image&asin=0140436111]

The Marx Brothers have nothing on Dickens, as proven in his scenes of ragtag madcap drinking, jesting, capering, punning, joking. This is his first novel, fully titled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club and you can actually watch as he progresses in honing his skills across the pages. The first chapters are universally despised as boring, but Dickens introduces the character of Sam Weller in chapter 10, breathing life into the story and carrying it to success for another 600+ pages. It gives off “an extraordinary sound, which being neither a groan, nor a grunt, nor a gasp, nor a growl, seemed to partake in some degree of the character of all four” (from chapter 52, where Sam’s dad is about to give the red-nosed preacher a beat down).

Pickwick roves the countryside with his band of merry younger friends in search of wisdom but adventures come knocking. Even in the early chapters we see glimpses of genius like “[the horse] wouldn’t shy if he was to meet a wagon load of monkeys with their tails burnt off.”

The scene with warring political parties also comes off well in chapter 8, where Pickwick cheers for the candidate that the mob just cheered and tells his friends, “Hush. Don’t ask any questions. It’s always best on these occasions to do what the mob do.” Mr. Snodgrass asks “But suppose there are two mobs?” and Pickwick recommends to “Shout with the largest.” Later, a politician is making the rounds and told to kiss babies to make a good impression on the crowd, to which the politician (Slumkey) resigns himself.

One of my favorite techniques Dickens uses is the nested story, having a character relate a tale that he heard, like the Bagman’s ghost story (Ch 14). Inevitably the people in the story get drunk, which explains the weird stuff they see later. In the Bagman’s Story, Tom Smart thinks a chair in his bedroom is an old gentleman, and begins to have an argument with it/him. The chair brags of having lots of ladies sit in his lap, then proceeds “to recount some other exploits of his youth, when he was seized with such a violent fit of creaking that he was unable to proceed.”

Another embedded ghost story in chapter 49 ended with a line that made me laugh out loud. The character walked home late at night, drunk (natch!), and sat in some dilapidated abandoned mail coaches, then woke to find them bustling about, brand new. He attempts to help one of the ghosts elude her captor, but wakes before they get to safety. The landlord who has listened to this tale asks “I wonder what these ghosts of mail-coaches carry in their bags,” and the storyteller answers, “The dead letters, of course.”

We get the first hints of Dickens anger about lawyers, courts, and debtor prisons here (prisons more fully explored in Little Dorrit and courts in Bleak House). Pickwick is entrapped by his landlady who thinks he’s made a marriage proposal and who sues him for breach of contract. When a jury finds him guilty, he refuses to pay the amount and prefers to go to Fleet prison instead. After a few months, the woman’s lawyers throw her into prison for non-payment of their fee, wherein Pickwick pays her out in return for a letter saying that he never made such a proposal. Unaccountably, Pickwick also helps Jingle out of prison, despite being made the butt of his schemes earlier in the book.

Besides this aborted marriage, there are plenty of sneaking around and pinching of barmaids. Several of Pickwick’s friends end up married off at the end, bearing children for him to godfather.

Possibly my favorite parts were those witticisms of Sam. If I read this again, I’ll try to collect all of them. A sample:

  • “Come sir, this is rayther too rich, as the young lady said, wen she remonstrated with the pastry-cook, arter he’d sold her a pork-pie as had got nothin’ but fat inside.”
  • “I rayther think you’d change your note, as the hawk remarked to himself with a cheerful laugh, ven he heerd the robin redbreast a singin’ round the corner.”
  • “Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament.”

Pickwick disbands his club with a farewell speech worth quoting, as it mirrors Dickens’ own farewell to the time spent writing this in monthly serials:

“I shall never regret having devoted the greater part of two years to mixing with different varieties and shades of human character: frivolous as my pursuit of novelty may have appeared to many. Nearly the whole of my previous life having been devoted to business and the pursuit of wealth, numerous scenes of which I had no previous conception have dawned upon me—I hope to the enlargement of my mind, and the improvement of my understanding. If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm, and that none of my adventures will be other than a source of amusing and pleasant recollection to me in the decline of life. God bless you all!”