Charles Dickens is, without question, one of the world's very finest authors. Few scribes can match his talent with the English language, and reading one of his novels is as much gliding through and savoring a progression of delightfully constructed prose as it is following the adventures of his alternately charming or despicable characters. Such is certainly the case with The Pickwick Papers, Dickens very first novel.
The Pickwick Papers is a hefty tome indeed by today's standards, weighing in at well over 700 pages. Originally, it was not published in its entirety, but rather as a series of 19 issues spanning 1836 and 1837. Still and all, the novel represents one of the author's "lighter" works, not so much as length is concerned, but with regard to subject matter. As Dickens grew older and continued to write, his works became more serious and reflective of his outlooks on social issues.
To be sure, some of those concerns are depicted in The Pickwick Papers, as well, but here Dickens tends to poke fun at various institutions rather than attack them wholesale as he would in later novels. For the most part, then, The Pickwick Papers is a character-driven vehicle, a light-hearted accounting of the adventures of a certain Samuel Pickwick and the "Pickwickians", an entourage of followers devoted to the aforementioned ever-proper gentleman.
And what a delightful lot they are. Mr. Pickwick, a middle-aged soul imparting his spirit to the younger members of the Pickwick Club, is always on the lookout for new experiences and understandings. In constant possession of a small notebook, he continually chronicles these doings in the "Pickwick Papers" that give the work its name.
Interestingly, we see in Mr. Pickwick a theme that would become common to Dickens, that of his disenchantment with the business of business and the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. Like Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, Pickwick spent many years in the pursuit of commerce and in so doing amassed financial security. Unlike Marley, however, Mr. Pickwick retired to a life of travel, to experience the human condition, to share his life with others, and to assist them both financially and morally as well as he could.
As a result, Mr. Pickwick becomes the center of gravity for his retinue, who are attracted to his steadfast devotion to principle and youthful state of mind. Gracious to his friends, magnanimous to his enemies, Mr. Pickwick is indeed the true friend some of us are fortunate enough to have and the rest wish they did.
Most of the other characters serve a supporting role to Mr. Pickwick, with the exception of his incorrigible servant Samuel Weller. Weller does not appear immediately in the work, but when he does his faithfully recorded Cockney accent and brilliantly hilarious wit endear him to readers at least as much as Mr. Pickwick. And it's clear he was a hit with readers of Dickens day, as he becomes increasingly important as the novel progresses.
Sam is quite the dichotomy: a man of little education who nevertheless is possessed of enormous intelligence and wisdom. His penchant for similes and metaphors is pure, unadulterated fun; his disrespect for authority (save the wishes of Mr. Pickwick) legendary, and his pureness of character exceeded only by his devotion to his master. In fact, the Weller character is so irresistible that Dickens gave us two, eventually introducing Sam's irascible father, Tony. When either of them is featured the reading is the antithesis of dull; when the two appear together one can't help but laugh out loud at their various hijinks.
Dickens manages to craft equally vibrant villains. The slippery Mr. Jingle is the first we meet, and in truth the most important. That is because he, like Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol", represents Dickens notion of hope and redemption, his belief that people can turn their lives around. The same cannot be said, however, for the scandalous lawyers Dodson and Fogg. These scoundrels would be right at home in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, no doubt running television ads narrated by Robert Vaughn seeking automobile accident suits. But in truth, they exist merely as a vehicle for the author to lampoon the entire legal establishment, which as we can see through Dickens brilliant accounts, has changed little indeed over almost two centuries.
And the legal trade is far from the only one examined in a less than positive light here. Dickens also ridicules the newspaper trade, the banking industry, the stock market, the judicial system, the country gentry, and most of all, the debtor's prison system. The latter should be no surprise, and in fact characters in several of Dickens novels spent time in debtor's prison, as Dickens own father did.
The format of the book is based on the serials, with loosely-tied adventures strung together at first. Increasingly, however, they become tied together through common plot threads. In addition to the adventures of the Pickwickians, the author includes a number of enchanting tales and stories. As the Pickwick Club travels the country, they meet an assortment of minor characters who serve as vehicles through which these stories are told, regaling our heroes with them at an inn or pub. Some of the tales have a supernatural air to them, again foreshadowing the future works of Dickens. And of course, the author's love of Christmas shines through in a chapter devoted to that revered holiday.
Delightful in its simplicity, insightful in its examination of the human spirit, and valuable as a window on the times, Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers is one of the most wondrous works you'll ever read. And no one will blame you if you have a lot of fun while doing it, too.