The Pickwick Papers

by Charles Dickens

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Critical Evaluation

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Mr. Pickwick, the lovable, generous old gentleman of one of Charles Dickens’s most popular novels, is one of the best-known characters of fiction. Mr. Pickwick benignly reigns over all activities of the Pickwick Club; under every circumstance, he is satisfied that he has helped his fellow creatures by his well-meaning efforts. The height of this Dickensian comedy is reached, however, with the creation of servant Sam Weller and his father. Sam’s imperturbable presence of mind and his ready wit are indispensable to the Pickwickians. Pickwick Papers has importance beyond its humorous incidents and characterization. It is the first novel of a literary movement to present the life and manners of lower- and middle-class life.

At the time a publisher in 1836 proposed that Dickens write the text for a series of pictures by the sporting artist Robert Seymour, Dickens was experiencing the first thrill of fame as the author of Sketches by Boz (1836). He was twenty-four years old and had been for some years a court reporter and freelance journalist; Sketches by Boz was his first literary effort of any length. The work the publisher proposed was of a similar kind: short, primarily humorous descriptions of cosmopolitan life, sometimes illustrated, and to be published monthly. Although Dickens already had the plan of a novel in mind, he was in need of cash and accepted the offer as a stopgap. He made one stipulation: that he, and not Seymour, have the choice of scenes to be treated. He did this because he himself was no sportsman and had little knowledge of country life beyond what his journalistic travels had shown him. It is evident from the digressive character of the first few chapters that he viewed the enterprise as an expedient.

For Pickwick Papers, Dickens was able to disguise his ignorance of country life by a canny selection of scenes and topics. Actual sporting scenes are kept to a minimum and treated with broad humor and slight detail. On the other hand, he knew country elections, magistrates, and newspapers well, and the chapters describing the Eatanswill election and those dealing with Mr. Nupkins, the mayor of Ipswich, and Mr. Pott, the editor of the Eatanswill Gazette, abound in atmosphere and choice observation. Most useful of all was his intimate knowledge of stagecoach travel, of life on the road, and of the inhabitants and manners of inns great and small. The device of a journey by coach unifies the first part of the novel, and a large portion of the action, including several key scenes, takes place in inns and public houses: Mr. Pickwick meets Sam Weller at the White Hart Inn, Mrs. Bardell is apprehended at the Spaniards, Sam is reunited with his father at the Marquis of Granby, and the Wellers plot Stiggins’s discomfiture at the Blue Boar.

A theme that Dickens developed in later works appears in embryo here: the quicksand quality of litigation. Readers note that every figure connected with the law is portrayed as venal if not downright criminal, except Mr. Perker, who is merely a remarkably cold fish. Another feature of later works is the awkward treatment of women. The author’s attitude toward women is extremely ambiguous. Two of the women in the novel are unqualifiedly good. Sam’s Mary is described perennially as “the pretty housemaid,” and the fact that Sam loves her appears to complete the list of her virtues in Dickens’s view. As a character, she has neither depth nor ethical range; no more has Arabella Allen, the dark-eyed girl with the “very nice little pair of boots.” She is distinguished...

(This entire section contains 1097 words.)

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at first by flirtatious archness and later by a rather servile docility. The daughters of old Wardle first come to the reader’s attention in the act of spiting their unmarried aunt and never redeem this impression. Other female characters are rather poorly developed. None has, as do some of the male figures such as Jingle and Trotter, a human dimension.

The author’s sentiments about the institution of marriage are also curious. Mr. Winkle makes a runaway match, Mr. Snodgrass is forestalled from doing so only by a lack of parental opposition, and Mr. Tupman escapes after a ludicrously close call. Mr. Pickwick, the great advocate of heart over head, however, is not and never has been married, and in fact, he shows his greatest strength as a character in his struggle for justice in a breach-of-promise suit; Mr. Weller, the other beneficent father figure of the work, makes no bones about his aversion to the connubial state: “’vether it’s worth while goin’ through so much, to learn so little . . . is a matter o’ taste. I rayther think it isn’t.”

Angus Wilson, among others, contends that Pickwick Papers, like most first novels, is autobiographical. There is evidence for this position in the fact that Dickens’s estimation of the women in his life also tended to extremes of adulation and contempt. More pertinent to the main thrust of the novel, which is the development of Mr. Pickwick from buffoon to “angel in tights,” and the concurrent development of Sam, is the author’s relationship to his father, whom he adored. The elder Dickens’s imprisonment for debt in 1824 was the great trauma of the author’s childhood; it was made the more galling because the author, the eldest son, was put to work at a blacking factory and able to join the family circle in the prison only on Sundays. Scarcely more than a child, he felt unable either to aid or to comfort his father in his distress; at the same time, he felt that his father had abandoned him to a harsh world.

As a young man, Dickens wrote into his first novel an account of those times as he would have wished them to be. Mr. Pickwick is the epitome of those qualities of Dickens senior that so endeared him to his son, which included unsinkable good spirits and kindness that did not count the cost. To these, Pickwick adds financial sense, ethical sense, and a sensitivity to the best feelings of his spiritual son, Sam Weller. Sam, in turn, bends all of his cockney keenness of eye and wit, courage, and steadfastness, to the service not only of this ideal father unjustly imprisoned but also of his immensely endearing shadow-father Tony Weller. Clearly, this material has its roots in Dickens’s life, but it is just as clear that his genius tapped a universal longing of sons to see their fathers as heroes and themselves as heroic helpers.

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Pickwick Papers