With only SKETCHES BY BOZ to his credit, Dickens asked his publisher to allow him to present a free “range of English scenes and people,” and in PICKWICK PAPERS, his first novel, he does just that. There is little coherence to the Pickwickians’ journey. As they wander through the country, they repeatedly get into trouble because of their innocence. Pickwick in particular is the embodiment of simplicity and innocence--an angel in gaiters--and hence easily victimized. Yet his benevolence triumphs; he redeems both spiritually and financially those who seek to prey upon him.
Dickens reveals a masterfully light touch: The various incidents are comic in themselves, and the work itself is a comedy, presenting the triumph of goodness. Indeed, the work has a fairy-tale atmosphere.
Occasionally a darker tone does intrude. The nine interpolated stories present visions of poverty, madness, and drunkenness unrelieved and unredeemed by any benevolent angel in gaiters. Pickwick and his friends are able to leave debtor’s prison, but most of the inmates are not so fortunate. Legal chicanery, political corruption, and religious hypocrisy also cast their shadows across the landscape.
“Like another sun,” Pickwick keeps these shadows small, though, and the book is filled with cheerfulness. Dickens’ first and happiest novel, it hints at the themes that would preoccupy him for the remainder of his life.
Dexter, Walter. Pickwick’s Pilgrimages. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1992. A study of the actual places Mr. Pickwick visited in Dickens’ novel. The actual conditions he and his companions would have encountered illuminate the story. Particularly good descriptions of Rochester, Ipswich, Bath, Bristol, and Tewkesbury.
Dexter, Walter, and J. W. T. Ley. The Origin of Pickwick. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1974. A study of some of Dickens’ early sketches that were used, Pickwick Papers. Examines the publishing history of the early numbers of Pickwick Papers and Dickens’ early illustrators.
Fitzgerald, Percy. Bozland: Dickens’ Places and People. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Gryphon Books, 1971. A consideration of people and places in Dickens, with emphasis on Pickwickian inns and actual towns and locales depicted in Pickwick Papers. Examines Mr. Pickwick’s relationship to lawyers in the light of actual legal practice during Dickens’ time.
Lockwood, Frank. The Law and Lawyers of Pickwick. New York: Haskell House, 1972. A late Victorian study of the legal mores depicted in Pickwick Papers. Mr. Pickwick’s trial took place in 1827, a time before the legal reforms of 1843, which the author examines in relationship to the novel.
Noyes, Alfred, et al. A Pickwick Portrait Gallery. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970. A series of insightful character analyses of various members of the Pickwick Club by outstanding writers and critics of the first half of the twentieth century. Particularly good for Samuel Pickwick, Samuel Waller, and Mrs. Bardell.