The members of a quasi-scientific and philosophical club, led by an aging gentleman named Samuel Pickwick, embark on adventurous expeditions around Britain, which result in various comic mishaps and discoveries. The Pickwick Club of London, whose purpose and value is not entirely clear, decides to establish a clearer mission for itself and transforms into a society of intrepid travelers (though without leaving the relative comforts of England, of course), with the aim of encountering various curiosities and reporting on them to the other club members. Unfortunately, they are not the most competent group.
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Their leader, Samuel Pickwick, is a wannabe philosopher, but his constant attempts at high-minded philosophizing are worthlessly banal. Winkle is a horribly clumsy sportsman. Snodgrass believes himself to be a brilliant poet, but he never seems to write a single line; and Tupman is the self-declared Don Juan who fails with women at every turn.
Their adventures do not get off to a great start. The cabbie delivering them to their first destination believes they are informers and, once they arrive, immediately incites a mob against the hapless Pickwickians. They are only saved by the intervention of Alfred Jingle, a smooth conman, who joins them on the next leg of their journey to Rochester. Jingle, unsurprisingly, runs wild among the naïve Pickwickians. He gets poor Winkle caught up in a duel with an army officer, he contrives again and again to make Pickwick look foolish, and when Tupman falls in love with the sister of one of the Club's wealthy country hosts, Jingle simply elopes with her. Realizing the man they brought along has manipulated this woman, the Club feels obligated to return to London to essentially pay Jingle not to go through with the marriage.
Back in London, Pickwick meets Sam Weller, a cockney laborer who is the antithesis of Pickwick himself. Sam is physically strong, street-smart, and possesses an easy knowledge of the world and its inhabitants. Since the one thing he doesn't have is money, Sam agrees to become Pickwick's personal assistant/servant. Later, Pickwick runs into Mrs. Bardell, his landlady who has secretly always wanted to marry him; when Pickwick relates the news about taking on a manservant, Mrs. Bardell, always looking for some ulterior hints, convinces herself that he is subtly proposing marriage. She is so shocked and pleased, she faints right there – before things can be clarified.
With their business with Jingle concluded in London, the Pickwickians set out to resume their journeys. They witness an absurd local election, attend various parties in the countryside, and generally do nothing and see nothing of any real intellectual value to the Club. Pickwick soon receives word from a legal firm in London: Mrs. Bardell is suing him for breach of promise for not following through on, as she sees it, his verbal contract to marry her. Pickwick has no choice but to return to London once again to deal with this.
Mrs. Bardell's lawyers are savvy and unscrupulous, and they convince the judge of Pickwick's guilt. Pickwick, though, is outraged and refuses to pay the fines imposed by the court. So the judge has him thrown in debtor's prison. Pickwick is appalled by his time there – the daily miseries, the filth, the unchecked predations by fellow prisoners. He finds that Jingle, whose schemes finally caught up with him, is also rotting away at the prison. And soon, Mrs. Bardell – who without Pickwick's paid fines was unable to pay her lawyers – is thrown in as well. Pickwick has had enough. He not only agrees to pay his own debts, but also those of Mrs. Bardell and Alfred Jingle, allowing all three to be released from prison.
The novel ends in a kind of avalanche of marriages and sudden maturations of previously immature characters. And while Pickwick still does not end up marrying Mrs. Bardell, and the Pickwick Club is disbanded, he does become godfather to all the many children of his friends, old and new, and lives into a happy old age.
Best part of story, including ending:
Sometimes I forget just how over-the-top and melodramatic Dickens' novels are, but even so, this was a fun read, with all the typical Dickensian elements: absurd legal/civic institutions, inhumane prisons, and grotesquely outrageous characters.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene is when Pickwick, in a fury, refuses to pay the relatively minor fines levied against him by the court, knowing that this will see him thrown in jail. It was nice to see a real and honorably stubborn person beneath the naive doormat we'd spent most of the novel with.
Opinion about the main character:
Pickwick is a buffoon. But a likeable buffoon. He's the uncle who says and does stupid things during family holidays; in anyone else it would infuriate you, but in him, eh, it's just who he is, no use getting upset over it.
The Pickwick Papers are a humorous and gently sarcastic commentary on two particular aspects of society in England at the time Dickens wrote it: 1. laws dealing with breach of promise in a marriage situations; and 2. debtors laws and prison. As usual, Dickens manipulates context and personalities to draw his readers' emotions to his view of the situation, but regardless, the struggle of Pickwick against the false claim of breach of promise brougth against him and the interaction of the lawyers (none of whom, surprise, come of well), is priceless. A somewhat forgotten gem.
The review of this Book prepared by Kelly Whiting