A “retired man of business”, Mr. Pickwick has formed a club (named after himself), the purpose of which is little more than to poke about the countryside, observing its inhabitants and ways of life. Based on the success of a monograph published by Mr. Pickwick – “Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats” – our hero decides to extend his travels, and, with three other “Pickwickians” – Mr. Winkle, Mr. Snodgrass and Mr. Tupman – sets off for what turns out to be a long series of extraordinary, but largely unanticipated, adventures.
The humor throughout the book is by turns broad and subtle, but always sure-handed. Take, for example, an incident that occurs early in the book. Mr. Winkle, in a case of mistaken identity, is challenged to a duel by an army doctor. He is utterly baffled as to why he has been called out, but, in order to uphold his honor, he grimly agrees to the challenge, knowing full well that his prospects of escaping serious injury, or even death, are remote. Yet, though his commitment to face this trial is sincere, he hopes that he may avoid the ultimate necessity:
[H]e reflected that if he applied to Mr. Snodgrass to act as his second, and depicted the danger in glowing terms, that gentleman might possibly communicate the intelligence to Mr. Pickwick, who would certainly lose no time in transmitting it to the local authorities, and thus prevent the killing or maiming of his follower.Mr. Snodgrass, however, maintains a maddening obtuseness when it comes to reading between the lines:
’Snodgrass,’ said Mr. Winkle, when they had turned out of the public street. ‘Snodgrass, my dear fellow, can I rely upon your secrecy?’ As he said this, he most devoutly and earnestly hoped he could not.Fortunately, the case of mistaken identity is cleared up before Mr. Winkle is compelled to exchange shots with Doctor Slammer, so the comic aspects of the episode are untainted by innocent blood.
‘You can,’ replied Mr. Snodgrass. ‘Hear me swear –‘
‘No, no,’ interrupted Winkle, terrified at the idea of his companion’s unconsciously pledging himself not to give information; ‘don’t swear, don’t swear; it’s quite unnecessary.’
Mr. Snodgrass dropped the hand which he had, in a spirit of poesy, raised towards the clouds as he made the above appeal, and assumed an attitude of attention.
‘I want your assistance, my dear fellow, in an affair of honor,’ said Mr. Winkle.
‘You shall have it,’ replied Mr Snodgrass, clasping his friend’s hand…’I will attend you…’
[Winkle] was astonished, but by no means dismayed. It is extraordinary how cool any party but the principal can be in such cases. Mr. Winkle had forgotten this. He had judged of his friend’s feelings by his own.
‘The consequences may be dreadful,’ said Mr. Winkle.
‘I hope not,’ said Mr. Snodgrass.
‘The doctor, I believe, is a very good shot,’ said Mr. Winkle.
‘Most of these military men are,’ observed Mr. Snodgrass calmly; ‘but so are you, ain’t you?’
Mr. Winkle replied in the affirmative; and perceiving that he had not alarmed his companion sufficiently, he changed his ground.
‘Snodgrass,’ he said, in a voice tremulous with emotion, ‘if I fail, you will find in a packet which I shall place in your hands a note for my – for my father.’
This attack was a failure also. Mr. Snodgrass was affected, but undertook the delivery of the note as readily as if he had been a twopenny postman.
‘If I fall,’ said Mr. Winkle, ‘or if the doctor falls, you, my dear friend, will be tried as an accessory before the fact. Shall I involve my friend in transportation – possibly for life!’
Mr. Snodgrass winced a little at this, but his heroism was invincible. ‘In the cause of friendship,’ he fervently exclaimed, ‘I would brave all dangers.’
How Mr. Winkle cursed his companion’s devoted friendship internally, as they walked silently along, side by side, for some minutes, each immersed in his own meditations! The morning was wearing away; he grew desperate.
‘Snodgrass,’ he said, stopping suddenly, ‘do not let me be balked in this matter – do not give information to the local authorities – do not obtain the assistance of several peace officers, to take either me or Doctor Slammer, of the 97th Regiment, at present quartered in Chatham Barracks, into custody, and thus prevent the duel! – I say, do not.’
Mr. Snodgrass seized his friend’s hand, as he enthusiastically replied, ‘Not for worlds!’
The book is filled with characters, major and minor, and among those that were destined for literary renown was Sam Weller, perhaps second only to Jeeves in the Pantheon of personal servants. A bootblack employed at an inn, Weller so impresses Mr. Pickwick with his solid good sense and cheerfulness, that the latter hires him on the spot to serve as his gentleman’s personal gentleman. Weller’s cockney shrewdness, and undeviating loyalty to his master, are a great boon to the intelligent, but occasionally naïve, Pickwick. Weller’s teasing, yet affectionate, relationship with his father is also one of the many joys of the novel.
The expansive population of the book includes two unflappable con men, Albert Jingle and his companion, Job Trotter, who ultimately get their comeuppance (and a chance at redemption) via incarceration in a debtors’ prison; and two of the sharpest and most unscrupulous lawyers – Dodson and Fogg - to be found anywhere in fiction.
And, last, but not least, there is the omnipresent hero, Mr. Pickwick. He is much buffeted by curious and unforeseeable circumstances - for example, having caught his swooning landlady in his arms, he is subsequently sued by the woman for breach of promise (the courtroom scenes, alone, are worth the price of admission). Yet, sustaining him in his travails, is his firmness of character, his humaneness and charity, his tolerance and good humor. He is rightly respected, and even reverenced, by his friends, and by this reader, as well.
As is typical with Victorian-era comic novels, all is made right in the end; however, Dickens, a great critic of the many social injustices that prevailed at the time, still managed to give us a harrowing look at the institution of the debtors’ prison, and of the tragic lot of those inmates who lacked the means to obtain “extras” (like decent food and warm clothes). And, as is also the case with some of Dicken’s novels, he contrives to work in a few free-standing short stories, related by very minor characters introduced specifically for the purpose (one of the yarns is a supernatural tale, the theme of which faintly foreshadows Dickens’ later classic, A Christmas Carol).
This has been a big, sprawling review, but I suppose it was necessary because it deals with a big, sprawling novel that is, itself, a self-contained world that offers innumerable opportunities for continual discovery, instruction and, above all, laughter. Very highly recommended.