The Pickwick Papers: An Introduction

Wherein we are introduced to the first of Dickens’ serial novels, The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club; with a glance at the context of Dickens’ life at the time, and the illustrations; and a consideration of whether or not Pickwick is a great novel; Finally, we have an overview of the whole of the reading schedule from 1 March through 11 April; with a look ahead to the coming week–AND SOME fOOD FOR THOUGHT.

The Pickwick Club, by Cecil Aldin. (The British Library.)

“The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club…”

The Pickwickians, by Frederick E. Banbery

Friends, during these dark times ~ perhaps most especially now ~ we could use a little Pickwickian light. And we are really in for a treat ~ a joyous, randomly rambling journey with some very lovable companions, notably the immortal Mr. Samuel Pickwick himself, his friends Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, Tracy Tupman, and Mr. Pickwick’s most loyal and lovable manservant, Sam Weller, one of the greatest literary creations of all time.

But first…

Monthly wrapper

General Mems

Please feel free to comment below this post for the first week’s chapters, or to use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.

No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us! Always and forever, a heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship for retweeting these and for keeping us all in sync, and to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such an online resource for us. And today, a very heartfelt thank you to a favorite Dickens scholar, Dr. Christian Lehmann, who has been sharing wonderful YouTube videos on each installment of David Copperfield (which I am looking forward to using in our discussions when we get there) and whose presentation for the Santa Cruz Pickwick Club (below) has helped me immensely in pulling this intro together!

A very hearty and warm welcome to our newest member, Steven R., who discovered us on twitter, and is likewise needing a little Pickwickian light! And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the schedule is in my intro post here. If you have been reading along with us but are not yet on the Member List, I would love to add you! Please feel free to message me here on the site, or on twitter.

By Frederick E. Banbery

A “Ray of Light”: Journeying with Boz, Phiz, and Pickwick

Pickwickian Travels, from the Charles Dickens Page:

“‘Pickwick,’ I have said, is a romance of adventure, and Samuel Pickwick is the romantic adventurer. So much is indeed obvious. But the strange and stirring discovery which Dickens made was this–that having chosen a fat old man of the middle classes as a good thing of which to make a butt, he found that a fat old man of the middle classes is the very best thing of which to make a romantic adventurer. ‘Pickwick’ is supremely original in that it is the adventures of an old man. It is a fairy tale in which the victor is not the youngest of the three brothers, but one of the oldest of their uncles.”

~G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men (69)

from The Charles Dickens Page

Dickens was still making a name for himself ~ mostly under the pen name, Boz ~ at the time when the publishers Chapman and Hall proposed that he write a longer work to accompany Robert Seymour’s illustrations. (Note that, originally, the main attraction was the illustrations.) Dr. Christian Lehmann says in the video shared below that the text is supposed to have been “a narrative that gets you from picture to picture.” Peter Ackroyd writes that Chapman and Hall looked to “repeat the success” they had had the previous year in their Squib Annual of Poetry, Politics, and Personalities, “which was more or less a vehicle for the cartoons of Robert Seymour.” Seymour wanted a writer to portray the adventures and misadventures of a certain “Nimrod Club” of unsporty sportsmen; Dickens, who had had a different notion and was not much interested in the idea proposed to him, ultimately kept the proposed theme alive in only one of the characters, Mr. Winkle, the “sportsman” who can as little ride a horse or shoot a rifle as he can play a less dangerous sport.

Mr Pickwick slides. Illustration by ‘Phiz’ (Hablot Knight Browne – 1815-1882) for Charles Dickens (1812-1870) Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, originally published in London, 1836-1837

Dickens had to work quickly. Peter Ackroyd writes: “He could not have worked so quickly if it had not been for his journalistic experience, however, and indeed there was a sense in which he saw The Pickwick Papers as a continuation in a higher key of his skills as a story-teller and sketch-writer” (Ackroyd 179).

Sadly, Seymour committed suicide after only the second installment. (The announcement of his suicide can be read here.) Dickens had some difficulties in finding another illustrator, mostly due to his dissatisfaction with Robert W. Buss’ illustrations for the third installment. Even Thackeray had a go! Claire Tomalin writes, “William Makepeace Thackeray, who had skill and ambitions as an illustrator, came to see Dickens with his sketchbook and offered to take on the task, but he was turned down, and the commission went to Hablot K. Browne, a young artist and neighbor, with his studio in Furnival’s Inn” (Tomalin 67). Browne, who took the published nickname “Phiz,” became a close collaborator with Dickens, and would produce some of the most iconic Dickensian illustrations. The dynamic duo of Boz and Phiz would be one of the great literary collaborations, and, as Dr. Christian says, their collaboration would contribute both ways, as they “both challenge each other to get better at their individual craft.” Dr. Christian’s passage on the illustrations is fantastic; borrowing from that, I’ll just share samples of the three illustrators ~ the final two are of the same scene, as Dickens had asked Phiz to redo it after Buss’ attempt. (This is in “gallery” mode ~ click on each for a larger view):

To see in full the absolutely wonderful introduction to the first 19 chapters of Pickwick by Dr. Christian (if you’re familiar enough with Pickwick already not to mind possible spoilers ~ otherwise, you could save it until the end of week two), with marvelous insights and a special focus on the history of the illustrations, I’d highly recommend this video from The Dickens Project/The Santa Cruz Pickwick Club. The group goes into discussion mode partway through, and I kept finding myself wanting to chime in, only to remember that it was a recording!

And what is Dickens’ “Pickwick Club,” anyway?

I doubt I’m the first to come to real Dickens-love because of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women early on. (The March sisters, along with our member, Lenny, were the biggest influences, along with my family’s life-long love of A Christmas Carol.)

Remember Chapter Ten…?

“…as secret societies were the fashion, it was thought proper to have one, and as all of the girls admired Dickens, they called themselves the Pickwick Club. With a few interruptions, they had kept this up for a year, and met every Saturday evening in the big garret, on which occasions the ceremonies were as follows: Three chairs were arranged in a row before a table on which was a lamp, also four white badges, with a big ‘P.C.’ in different colors on each, and the weekly newspaper called, The Pickwick Portfolio, to which all contributed something, while Jo, who reveled in pens and ink, was the editor. At seven o’clock, the four members ascended to the clubroom, tied their badges round their heads, and took their seats with great solemnity. Meg, as the eldest, was Samuel Pickwick, Jo, being of a literary turn, Augustus Snodgrass, Beth, because she was round and rosy, Tracy Tupman, and Amy, who was always trying to do what she couldn’t, was Nathaniel Winkle” (Alcott, Part 1, Chapter 10).

Dickens’ own “Club,” rather than the Seymour-conceived “Nimrod Club,” is an adventurous little band of men whose mission is to make observations about people and places on their travels, and to write about various bits of scientific and natural interest. And they get into all sorts of scrapes in doing so.

Mr Jingle, by “Kyd”

Right alongside the Pickwickians, we meet characters like the con man Mr. Jingle and the warmhearted Wardles; enjoy the companionable, dozy humor of the fat boy and provide some interesting study for the unnamed “scientific gentleman”; we experience the great (ahem) “poet,” Mrs. Leo Hunter (Another dig at Leigh Hunt?), and her “Ode to an Expiring Frog.” With our Pickwickians, we survive trials: we manage to give a late-night scare to a house-full of ladies in our attempt to quixotically thwart a scoundrel’s plans; we venture into the wrong room in a maze-like hotel ~ in our stocking-cap, no less ~ to the detriment of our dignity; we submit to a court trial ~ because of a comical misunderstanding ~ for a “breach of promise” of marriage. The list goes on…

Many passages in the adventures of Mr. Pickwick can, to some degree, stand alone; it is not a typical novel in the sense of a concisely-plotted three-act structure, whose defined but limited subplots only connect to a larger story. Yet, in some strange way, things do connect, and characters that one thinks one has seen the last of, suddenly reappear and have a part to play.

Pickwick in Context

The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’ first novel, was published in installments from March 1836 to November 1837 by Chapman and Hall. Though not immediately a household word in its first few installments, the introduction of Sam Weller in the fourth number was largely responsible for its increasing popularity, and its readership skyrocketed over the ensuing months. Dr. Christian says that June of 1836 (the number when Sam makes his appearance) was “the most significant month in Charles Dickens’ life.” According to the Charles Dickens Page, its first number sold 500 copies, and it’s last installment sold 40,000. John Forster has it: “Of part one, the binder prepared four hundred; and of part fifteen, his order was for more than forty thousand” (Forster 129). Dr. Christian clarifies: of those in the original printing (1000) of the first installment, 400 were sold, and hence the decrease to 500 after the first installment. But with the introduction of Sam in Number IV, the numbers just kept increasing.

Without question, “Pickwick” and “Dickens” did become household words. Dr. Christian compares it to Game of Thrones in trying to give us the sense in which Pickwick became the topic of public and private conversation. Or as Claire Tomalin puts it in Dickens: A Life, “The names of his characters passed into the language…The voice of Dickens, offering fun and jokes, then switching to pathos, with a good peppering of indignation, seemed like the voice of a friend” (Tomalin xliii). And later, she writes, on Pickwick: “It was as though he [Dickens] was able to feed his story directly into the bloodstream of the nation, giving injections of laughter, pathos and melodrama, and making his readers feel he was a personal friend to each of them. Dickens knew he had triumphed, and this sense of a personal link between himself and his public became the most essential element in his development as a writer” (Tomalin 68-69). One of the epigraphs to her biography is the quote from George Gissing, almost thirty years after Dickens’ death:

“I suppose that for at least five-and-twenty years of his life, there was not an English-speaking household in the world…where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance, and where an allusion to characters of his creating could fail to be understood.”

And it really started with Pickwick.

Charles Dickens by Daniel Maclise, 1839. National Portrait Gallery, London

Dickens’ life during these nearly-two years was extraordinarily busy, and 1836 was to prove a turning point. He was married to Catherine Hogarth a mere three days after Pickwick‘s first installment was published. Late that same month, as we’ve discussed, the illustrator Robert Seymour committed suicide. The following January (1837), Dickens was simultaneously beginning the serial publication of Oliver Twist for Bentley’s Miscellany, while continuing the last half of Pickwick.

Amongst other things, Dickens’ first child was born on 6 January, 1837, and Catherine suffered from postpartum depression after; he saw his sister through an illness; he helped teach Catherine’s brother the immensely difficult shorthand that he had taught himself. Also around this time, Dickens was writing the libretto for the comic opera, The Village Coquettes, which was performed in December of 1836 ~ a venture which Dickens long after wanted to disown ~ and he composed a theatrical piece on one of our most recently-read Sketches, “The Great Winglebury Duel.” Dr. Christian mentions that during this period he was still very much involved in his journalism. (Did the man ever sleep?!)

Tomalin writes that, by the close of 1836, “Dickens was now committed to the following projects:

“…he had to continue Pickwick in monthly installments for another year; he had to provide a few more pieces for the Sketches; both his farce and his opera were being published and needed seeing through the press; he had promised a children’s book, ‘Solomon Bell the Raree Showman’, by Christmas; he had to start preparing for his editorship of Bentley’s Miscellany, which began in January and for which he must commission articles and also contribute a sixteen-page piece of his own every month; Chapman & Hall were hoping for a sequel to Pickwick; Macrone still wanted ‘Gabriel Vardon’ [Barnaby Rudge]; and Bentley was expecting two novels” (Tomalin 70).

Then, just before the one-year anniversary of the first number of Pickwick making its appearance, and just as the twelfth number was being celebrated, Dickens suffered one of the most significant losses of his life. John Forster writes:

Portrait of Mary Hogarth at 16

“His wife’s next younger sister, Mary [Hogarth], who lived with them, and by sweetness of nature even more than by graces of person had made herself the ideal of his [Dickens’] life, died with a terrible suddenness that for the time completely bore him down. His grief and suffering were intense, and affected him, as will be seen, through many after-years. The publication of Pickwick was interrupted for two months, the effort of writing it not being possible to him” (Forster 120).

Mary Hogarth was only seventeen when she died. In Bentley’s, the notice went up (due to the break in Oliver Twist), according to Claire Tomalin, “that he was mourning the sudden death of a ‘dear young relative to whom he was most affectionately attached and whose society has been for long the chief solace of his labours'” (Tomalin 79).

Though Dickens’ knowledge of Mary was brief in terms of length of time, the impact of it was to last, and Dickens was never again to cancel any planned numbers of his serial installments. Dickens held Mary in his arms at the end, and “before he laid her body down he was able to remove a ring from her finger and put it on one of his own, and there it stayed for the rest of his life” (Tomalin 79). And it has often been noted that we would see something of Mary’s likeness in all of Dickens’ young women who are innocent and good and faithful, from Little Nell to Little Dorrit. (Something to note as we progress in his later novels.)

Is Pickwick a Great Novel?

Here’s another question to consider in our progression through Pickwick. In Charles Dickens, the Last of the Great Men, G.K. Chesterton, who had such a gift for looking at literature and the world at unlikely angles, argues that The Pickwick Papers is neither a good nor a bad novel, “for it is not a novel at all.”

It is worth quoting him at length again here:

By “Phiz”

“In one sense, indeed, it is something nobler than a novel, for no novel with a plot and a proper termination could emit that sense of everlasting youth—a sense of the gods gone wandering in England. This is not a novel, for all novels have an end; and ‘Pickwick,’ properly speaking, has no end—he is equal unto the angels. […] Even as a boy I believed there were some more pages that were torn out of my copy, and I am looking for them still” (Chesterton 59).

Even at the novel’s conclusion, Chesterton writes, we feel that Pickwick ~ the man, and the book ~ can’t possibly end.

“We know he broke out, that he took again the road of the high adventures; we know that if we take it ourselves in any acre of England, we may come suddenly upon him in a lane” (Chesterton 59).

It has been argued that Dickens creates a kind of English Don Quixote in the immortal Mr. Pickwick ~ and one not without his very own faithful Sancho Panza in the equally immortal Sam Weller. And we have John Forster backing up the idea:

“Sam Weller and Mr. Pickwick are the Sancho and the Quixote of Londoners, and as little likely to pass away as the old city itself” (Forster 132).

The immortal Tramp, with Jackie Coogan, in “The Kid”

I particularly love Dr. Christian’s comparison of Pickwickian adventures to those of Chaplin or Keaton. Might that be our closest modern parallel? After all, surely Chaplin’s Little Tramp is immortal ~ his profile, features, and silhouette as instantly recognizable as those of Pickwick himself.

Will the Tramp’s adventures ever end? I’d rather not live in a world where such a tragic event could occur.

Whether or not we can classify Pickwick as a “novel,” can we call it Dickens’ greatest work, or one of the “greats”? Or is it something more comparable to his Sketches, a part of something like Dickensian “juvenilia”? (Though I think our appreciation for these works has grown by leaps and bounds during our Club’s reading of it ~ just look at the rich commentary!) This is really the kind of question that defies any objective answer, and, if it is addressed at all, should really have its own separate post(s), and I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts in either direction as we move forward.

But just for an overall sense of the possible divergence of opinion, I’ll just mention a few notable examples.

Those who are better-versed in Dickens biography and criticism will hopefully correct or add to my thoughts here, and it is something I would love to discuss with our group: Do we have a dualistic mentality about the different periods of Dickens’ writing career? Almost a Sketch/Pickwickian period, versus Late/Dark Dickens? This is putting it too simplistically, but I do wonder if we sometimes compartmentalize the periods of his work, with its height usually being considered Bleak House. Of course, we all have our personal preferences. (Note for later discussion: I would love to see how one like Oliver Twist fits in here, because even though it overlapped with Pickwick, I can hardly think of a novel more different in tone from its predecessor ~ and perhaps this is one of the reasons why Oliver is my least favorite of his novels, and one which I’d like to appreciate more.) Perhaps we might consider the difference between Pickwick and Oliver as Dickens trying what many film actors do: to show his versatility ~ just as he did in the Sketches. As though Dickens were daring someone to ask, “Could the author of ‘Making a Night of It’ be the same one who wrote ‘The Drunkard’s Death’?”


George Bernard Shaw commented that Dickens “gave us no vitally happy heroes and heroines after Pickwick,” but adds: “begun, like Don Quixote, as a contemptible butt.” What do we think of this? Perhaps there is an argument there, if only because the Pickwickian universe is simply happier and more vital than most of life itself, and Mr. Pickwick himself is “equal unto the angels.”

And that brings me back to Chesterton again: he was in love with the joyous optimism of Pickwick, and seemed to prefer it to his later works, although he did consider ~ almost with a hint of regret ~ that at Bleak House Dickens was at the height of his powers. The anecdote about Chesterton’s humorous response to the question of the book he would take with him to the proverbial desert island ~ his immediate, witty answer being “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding” ~ apparently had a real answer to follow, which is less well-known, and the answer was The Pickwick Papers. Peter Ackroyd seems to have an affinity with his sensibility, and believed Chesterton was one of the greatest commentators on Dickens’ works.

Another of my favorite Dickens scholars, Dr. Pete Orford, tweeted about Pickwick as Dickens’ best work, and I wholeheartedly hope he wasn’t joking! (And the idea that Dr. Pete, that wonderfully whimsical supporter and mimic of the Goblin of Avignon ~ more on this when we get to Pictures from Italy ~ has a “nemesis” was equally delightful…)

John Forster, on the other hand, believed Pickwick to be inferior to Dickens’ later writing: “I do not, for reasons to be hereafter stated, think the Pickwick Papers comparable to the later books” (Forster 131).

Yet Forster describes so well the spirit that attracted so many to it, and to its author:

Sam Weller, by “Kyd”

“Genial and irrepressible enjoyment, affectionate heartiness of tone, unrestrained exuberance of mirth […] its wonderful freshness and its unflagging animal spirits” (Forster 130). And over and above all, “Its pre-eminent achievement is of course Sam Weller” (Forster 131).

Do I keep putting Sam in bold? You’ll have to hold me back from mentioning him this week, as he won’t show up until early in our reading of next week. I’m afraid I’m a bit like Mr. Dick is with Charles I in David Copperfield… obsessed! (I cheered at Dr. Christian’s question, arguably the most important question today: “Is anybody in love with Sam Weller?” ~ and his obvious enthusiasm. Perhaps equally important: “Is anybody NOT in love with Sam Weller?”)

Pickwickian Reading Schedule

Our time is constrained by the overall schedule of massive reads within the two year time-frame. In many ways, Sketches was to be among the “slowest” and most drawn-out of them ~ yet even there we often had more to talk about than we had time for!

Some of us might want to go at it more quickly, especially if this is our main read, and just to get into the flow of the work, and get swept up in the narrative itself, without too many interruptions for analysis. But for those of us who are either, 1.) reading multiple books at once, or 2.) want to take a deep dive into themes, structure, the context of Dickens’ life at the time, etc, the timing might well feel constrained. I think we’re up for it! But let’s keep in touch on how the pacing feels.

I’ve organized the weekly divisions by some natural breaks ~ primarily based on the way the installments were published ~ but this will amount to reading the equivalent of several publication “numbers” or “installments” each week. (Thanks to our member Chris M. for her input on my drafted schedule!)

Week One: 1-7 Mar1-8Chapters 1-8 constitute the first three monthly “numbers” published in March, April, and May of 1836.
Week Two: 8-14 Mar9-20This is a longer segment, since we have an unequal number of “numbers” published for our 6-week reading format. These chapters constituted the serial numbers IV-VII, published in June, July, August, and September of 1836. NOTE: ENTER SAM WELLER IN #4!
Week Three: 15-21 Mar21-29Chapters 21-29 constitute numbers VIII-X, published October, November, and December of 1836.
Week Four: 22-28 Mar30-37These chapters constitute the numbers XI-XIII which were published in January, February, and March of 1837.
Week Five: 29 Mar – 4 Apr38-46These chapters were published in the serial numbers XIV-XVI (April, June, and July of 1837).
Week Six: 5-11 Apr47-57The chapters of our final week were published in numbers XVII-XX (August, September, and October of 1837).
6-week schedule for the #DickensClub reading of The Pickwick Papers

A Look-ahead to Week One of The Pickwick Papers:

This week, we read the content of the first three published serial “numbers” of Pickwick, Numbers I-III, or Chapters 1-8.

The Pickwick Papers, read by Simon Prebble

If you’re an audiophile, I would highly recommend the narration of the unabridged The Pickwick Papers read by Simon Prebble, one of our greatest audiobook readers. (Note: Mr. Prebble has read such works as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell ~ and brilliantly. Perhaps it was due to his reading of both that I came to realize that Clarke’s humor is even more akin to early-Dickens than to, say, Jane Austen.)

You can read the text in full at our dear Circumlocution Office if you prefer the online format or don’t have a copy. There are also a number of places (including Gutenberg) where it can be downloaded for free.

BBC’s The Pickwick Papers (1985)

For those who would like an enjoyable adaptation of Pickwick to supplement the reading, our dear member Boze put me onto the 1985 miniseries, which is, for now, available on Prime with a BritBox (I almost wrote: BritBoz!) subscription. Though the overall quality of these BBC miniseries has greatly increased over the years, one can’t hope for better, I think, than Phil Daniels’ Sam Weller, nor Patrick Malahide’s Mr. Jingle.

Food For Thought…

Dr. Christian calls Pickwick an “appetitive” novel. A novel, as he says, “obsessed with consumption” ~ of all kinds of things: information, experiences…”brandy”! What do we think?

More themes/motifs to possibly consider, from his presentation: light/shadow, the “sounds” of characters’ speech (e.g. Jingle); attention to detail/the importance of things many consider unimportant. (The “Theory of Tittlebats”…?)

I am so looking forward to reading your comments. Though we always could use the reminder, I feel as though we need now it more than ever:

“There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.”

Notes/Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Alcott, L. (1868). Part 1, Chapter 10: The P.C. and P.O.. Little Women (Lit2Go Edition).

Chesterton, G.K. Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men. New York: The Readers Club, 1942.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens, Vol. I. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.

Lehmann, Dr. Christian. “Santa Cruz Pickwick Club meeting 10/25/20.” YouTube: The Dickens Project, posted 26 Jan 2022.

Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.


  1. Thank you for the hearty welcome, and hi everyone! Will comment on the chapters when I’ve read them, but I’m looking forward to ‘a wery, wery good time’

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m so excited for this; I think I might order a physical copy. Have you been to Dickens’ home in Doughty Street, London? The room where Mary died is just haunting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw YAY! I’ve been especially excited for this one too 🙂 Yes, I’ve been there! More anon…

      Before you order a copy, I currently have an extra (that one with the pretty cover!) i could send you to keep ~ I think I picked it up more bc it’s so pretty, but I’ve just found another one that I like reading better. (I guess I just like the font better.) But if you’re interested, I’d better send pix of the type first, it has a slightly vintage, typewriter-style font which you may or may not like either for a long read! 😂


      1. Rachel, I would love that! although I hope this isn’t one of your prized copies, I don’t want to belatedly learn that I’ve nicked a beloved heirloom. I was browsing the Nonesuch editions of Pickwick online and they’ve all gotten so expensive; I should’ve snatched them up years ago when they were first printed. (I managed to get six of them and now can’t afford to complete the set). It will be good to own a Pickwick.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Boze, yay!! I’d be so thrilled for it to go to a good home ~ I’ll send you pictures of the type, just to be sure it looks okay for you ~ I was going to pass it along to a family member initially, but they’ve opted for the audiobook. No, it’s not in the least a family heirloom 😀 I bought it at a used bookstore, just because it was pretty! But a few weeks ago I found another used copy that I just like reading better, knowing Pickwick was coming up…

        I’ll email you a picture of the inside


  3. “I am ruminating…on the strange mutability of human affairs.” 🙂

    I just started diving right in for the first couple of chapters, and…gosh, so many laughs and smiles! Jingle is priceless. His bantering with Dr Slammer (!!) is so hilarious, and that little passage about Donna Christina is one of my favorites! Stomach-pump in my portmanteau–operation performed–father in ecstasies– (something like that!) And I was thinking at was *images* come to mind, flashes of images and disconnected sensory input come from Jingle’s staccato phrasing, all of which somehow make a whole picture! As a writer creating distinctive voices, it is absolutely masterful.

    Interesting that both of the first 2 chapters start out with the image of light/the rising sun. (And how, during Winkle’s near-duel, he notices the sun going down, and considers that he himself is about to go down with it…) But the light references are mostly related to Pickwick himself. Similarly, this wonderful passage, as Pickwick, arriving in Rochester with his friends and Jingle, descends into a drink-heavy stupor: “Like a gas lamp in the street, with the wind in the pipe, he had exhibited for a moment an unnatural brilliancy: then sunk so low as to be scarcely discernible: after a short interval he had burst out again, to enlighten for a moment, then flickered with an uncertain, staggering sort of light, and then gone out altogether.”

    The words about Mr Pickwick are so often related to light and breadth, expansiveness ~ “Mr Pickwick’s comprehensive mind…” “general benevolence” etc.

    Oh, the scene where poor Winkle is interiorly cursing Snodgrass’ loyal friendship, for committing himself to do exactly what Winkle is asking ~ rather than what he REALLY wants! It is absolutely brilliant. And that tiny character, so perfectly has his moment in the sun, Payne (appropriate!), who is determined that a duel should go on, and keeps making plays for it…

    Oh Dickens…!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Rach: The quote you mention above with Jingle’s various responses to too much alcohol, sputtering like a gas lamp, is an extraordinary simile. I was going to quote it but you beat me to it. It is, indeed, a beaut!

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  4. In your introduction to Pickwick you ask the very same question that one of my “students” just asked in my virtual Dickens class: “Does Dickens ever sleep”? Of course, CDs’ “Night Walks” are famous, and there are many quotes about his walking. He confesses to Forster in 1854, ‘if I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish’. There are many references to sleep issues in his characters. In Pickwick you have the sleepy Fat Boy for instance. And there is this quote in Pickwick, “Every one has experienced that disagreeable state of mind, in which a sensation of bodily weariness in vain contends against an inability to sleep.” [Mr. Pickwick] “tossed first on one side and then on the other; and perseveringly closed his eyes as if to coax himself to slumber….”

    So does Dickens sleep much, it seems to me, not that much. Did he have a sleep disorder? Here is an interesting brief paper from a medical professional as related to Dickens:


    Liked by 1 person

  5. For some reason the web link did not work. Apologies. Here is what you can Google:
    Historical Note
    Charles Dickens: ()bserver of Sleep and Its Disorders
    J. E. Cosnett

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Like our Wren I’ve just read the first couple of chapters and found the same delight in all the things she did. I haven’t read Pickwick since I was 18 (some ‘mumble mumble’ years ago) and certainly didn’t get the Charles I reference of a king losing his head in Whitehall back then. I’m sure that will happen a lot going forwards!

    Also, knowing London well now, I can pinpoint where the Golden Cross coaching inn used to be. Would the members here like me to try to post photos of the named parts of London as we go along?

    I think it’s in Ackroyd’s Dickens biography where he describes Dickens, on getting his contract for Pickwick, joyfully running round Westminster Hall in delight. I always think of this whenever I’m lucky enough to be in there 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Steve ~ don’t you absolutely LOVE the Ackroyd Dickens bio? Both Boze and I love that one…wish I could “tag” someone here in WP the way one can on twitter…

      I would absolutely Love to see those photos!!!! If you can’t post in the comments, but would like to share it as an actual blog post, I can help with that…but it’d be inevitably a “public” post, just so long as you don’t mind that…? Anyway, I’d love to see them. I’ve been to London, but most of the trip was spent elsewhere and we had very little time in the city itself; so, besides the Dickens Museum, the most concentratedly Dickensian parts I saw were in Southwark, Little Dorrit-related.


  7. Just a Test to see if my post will be posted. Earlier today it only posted two sentences. Alas, Alack!


  8. As I begin to work my way through the opening chapters of PICKWICK, I’m initially beginning to see it as an extension of the SKETCHES, particularly with its juxtaposition of the” light” with the “dark,” light being something like pure comedy and the dark represented by something we could call pure tragedy. Moreover, many of the sketches seemed to be a kind of amalgam of the two poles, containing elements of both ends of the pole, or sometimes leaning more in one direction than the other.
    “The River,” for example, leans more in the direction of pure comedy, very slapstick, comically sarcastic, and only hints at possible tragedy–children fall into the water, etc. On the other hand, “The Drunkard’s Death,” is pure hardcore, realistic tragedy with no comic intervention at all.

    Much of early PICKWICK–which I’ve read so far, is lovely comedy (as Wren has suggested),–and with its imagery points to the “light” end of the narrative spectrum. But strangely, and wonderfully, there are elements that hint of possible darkness; for example the “duel” which Slammer intends to have with Tupman moves toward what might have been a horrible mistake (with Winkle as the victim, etc.) doesn’t come off at the last moment. Here, the wiley Boz pulls the narrative backwards and Slammer makes up with Winkle and the rest of the “Club.” Comedy, but oh so close to tragic misunderstanding.

    This sort of narrative movement from one pole to the other, from a near miss avoiding tragedy, to another near miss avoiding comedy is the stock characteristic of Chaplin’s Films–something that Rachel/Wren has nicely pointed out in her intro to PICKWICK. Comedy juxtaposed with tragedy runs rampant in Chaplin. We only have to think of the reality behind Chaplin’s ideas for probably his best known film, THE GOLD RUSH, to understand how he works his comedy. The underlying fact that this classic film is built on is none other than the tragedy of the Donner Party.

    As I think over the early tragic segment of PICKWICK, “The Stroller’s Tale” I’m again reminded of the aforementioned “Drunkard’s Death.” “The Stroller’s Tale” is pure tragedy as narrated by the dismal man. Here is part of his opening commentary:

    “‘There is nothing of the marvellous in what I am going to relate,’ said the dismal man; ‘there is nothing even uncommon in it. Want and sickness are too common in many stations of life to deserve more notice than is usually bestowed on the most ordinary vicissitudes of human nature.'”

    Obviously we have another kind of “exemplum” here, Christian or not, which must be truly sobering for the members of the “club” and the other listeners–and, by extension, us readers. We are jolted from the “comic” doings of our cozy club into a wider consciousness of the world at large. I’m thinking, then, that this is more than “interpolated tale,” and that it functions as a kind of warning, or foreshadowing, of what could lie in the future for our Dickensian travelers. The final sentence says it all:

    “Want and sickness are too common in many stations of life”

    Here we are introduced to the darkness embedded in the “papers” and are forced to think, as readers, about the vagaries of life as we and the Pickwickians will come to know them! Thus, I’m wondering if, given what we have learned from the “Sketches” and even with this short piece from the opening chapters of PICKWICK, we are beginning to get a sense of Dickens’ “world view.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, absolutely, Lenny ~ the Stroller’s Tale is a great example of where the comedy turns to tragedy/education for the Pickwickians…perhaps one of the first real moments of expanding their view of the world, at least in this adventure. It will be interesting to discover/rediscover how their “education” (again, another sort of Pilgrim’s Progress?) …well, progresses, and concludes.

      Loved your allusion to The Gold Rush ~ yes! When Dr Christian had mentioned about some of these comical Pickwickian stunts being akin to Chaplin or Keaton, a lightbulb really went off for me…the closest parallel I could think of to such an immortal character in modern times, is the Tramp…and Chaplin has such a purely Dickensian sensibility, I’ve always thought. Of course, both the Tramp and Pickwick might be likened (although on such a different level!) to our modern shows that have a kind of “traveling angel” motif. But doesn’t it seem like, in the traveling angel scenario, the characters don’t necessarily grow and change, themselves? That’s not always the case. And I think certainly not with Pickwick…I think (but am eager to revisit this, related to the education idea above) that we Will and Do see change, en*light*enment?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rach:

        Of course I’m thinking more directly of specific sequences in THE GOLD RUSH where comedy descends into tragedy in the NOT SO subtle “comic” moments like the shoe/shoe string/spaghetti episode: the Tramp and his friend are starving, literally, and they decide to eat their shoes–and the Tramp/Chaplin riffs with the shoes strings a la eating spaghetti. This is, at first, truly comic, the audience laughs, but then the laughter begins to quiet as the realization that the moment is really awful: they are eating shoes, the Tramp trying to make the best of it, but his friend is really suffering through the entire ordeal. We only have to look at his facial expressions to sense the agony he’s feeling! And they are freezing in their little cabin, to boot. At some point in this sketch harsh reality begins to seep in. Tragedy is just around the corner. Possible cannibalism is next! The chances are they will die either of starvation or hypothermia. And behind all this is the specter of the Donner party: the allusions are too obvious to not “see.”

        A SUBTLE incidence in the same film, is a “simpler” moment on the dance floor, where the Tramp becomes entangled with the dog leash; the expected comic riffs take place, with the complexity of the comedy building–until the Tramp is pulled down by the dog onto the dance floor. The audience within the film laughs at these falls and we outside the film audience laugh as we watch all this, but then we get a medium close-up of the Tramp’s face, and we realize there is nothing funny about this. He’s hurting psychologically and physically. Sore and embarrassed.

        So, what I’m seeing in Dickens–up to this point–are similarities to the subtle and not so subtle humorous/tragic/borderline “tragic” moments we have experienced while watching a Chaplin film. There are “incidental” moments, like the riffing with the narcoleptic “fat boy” which at first seem funny, as Wardle is continually having to wake him to do certain tasks on the coach–prepare for lunch, etc.–but also for other kinds of assistance. It’s on-going and at some time during all these moments of the boy’s “call-to-duty” we, as readers, just sort of tire of the comedy and begin to feel sorry for the boy, and begin to see him as suffering from some kind of severe handicap. In this regard, I connect him with the Tramp on the dance floor, being pulled about by the dog. In fact, these SUBTLE comic moments happen when the “victim” is affected by situations not in their control.

        The NOT SO SUBTLE moments of course take place in the stories that are told to the Pickwickians and their friends, and they are absolutely tragic. And they involve, usually, a man sinking into some kind of alcoholic induced depression, beating his wife and neglecting his children, and dying. These are–as far as we know–stark representations of reality, given to us as vividly as the episodes of starvation and partially frozen bodies in THE GOLD RUSH. But there are moments involving the “Club” members themselves that seem to be warning “shots”–and could operate as reminders of real tragic possibilities: Tupman is shot, coaches and carriages are continually overturning and crashing, horses threaten to break loose or maim. At the outset this is comic stuff, but how many coaches need to crash before tragedy rears its ugly head?

        Liked by 1 person

  9. In between reading chapters of “Pickwick” I’ve been reading a lot of criticism and commentary on it, looking for interesting quotes & information to share. So far I’ve found that there are many different “takes” on the work. Is it a messy happy accident? Did, and if so when did, Dickens manage to get control of the project? Is it a novel or an extended sketch? Is it a mock-heroic tale, a quest, an allegory? Is it transcendental, mythological, spiritual, humanistic? Perhaps its greatness comes from its being so difficult to qualify on the one hand and yet so easily understood on the other. There is no mistaking the joy of life that exudes even in the face of misadventure or misfortune – the looking beyond the serious to find the silliness – that exists within these Papers. This is not to say we shouldn’t deal with the serious, only that we shouldn’t take it so, um, seriously!

    What critics seem to agree on is that Mr Pickwick’s is the hub around which the events reported in these Papers occur and through the course of his travels he will come to be surrounded by “other, more delimited, and thus more colorful individuals [who will] bring him adventure” (Woloch 134). It is through these other, often minor characters that Pickwick “observes” or experiences the world (135). Therefore, I humbly suggest that while we read please pay attention to the host of minor characters Dickens/Boz throws our way. There are upwards of 190 named characters in “Pickwick” and each of them is there for a reason.

    For example, one of the earliest such colorful individuals is the shabby-genteel stranger named (in Chapter 8) Mr Jingle. Woloch explains Jingle’s effect and what will become a Dickensian trademark:

    “Mr Jingle is the first important minor character in Dickens, and he immediately grabs attention, pulling the narrative away from the novel’s supposed center. In the early chapters of “The Pickwick Papers” we can see the essential way that Dickens makes more of minor characters: not by rounding out their flatness or reducing their distorted nature, but, on the contrary, by extending their flatness in such a compelling way that it focuses the reader’s interest. It is worth paying close attention to these early scenes in “The Pickwick Papers”, not simply because they famously generated an unprecedented literary celebrity for Dickens, but also as they establish the durable paradigm for Dickensian minorness.” (133)

    In other words, Dickens uses the so-called superficial aspects (language, clothing, mannerisms, etc) of the minor characters to identify them as representative of some aspect of human nature, society or “ism”. Dickens’s richness lies in these characters created by his unmatched command of language. So, keep an eye on them for they will reveal much!

    Source: Woloch, Alex, “The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed, Chris ~ as I mentioned in my comment, even that “minor” character, Payne, has a brilliantly funny role to play. That’s one of the things I love about Dickens ~ and Chesterton and others have said similar, that his works not only pay attention to the poor and the common man, but they make the common so utterly distinctive. When (in Last of the Great Men) Chesterton talked about the truly “epic” or immortal characters that Dickens creates, he could think of only a few other authors who have created anything remotely similar; he used the example of Conan Doyle creating Sherlock…Sherlock is truly one of the immortals. But he points out that the difference there is that almost none, or none, of Conan Doyle’s minor characters are at all memorable. Whereas every time someone walks onto Dickens’ “stage” (my own image, I don’t think that is from GKC), he/she is utterly distinct, and often unforgettable. I’ll try to find the full passage at some point, but that’s the idea of it.

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  10. Oh Boy! There is so much going on in these early chapters of PICKWICK that in its complexity I have a difficult time knowing where to start. The comedy, in itself, is so prevalent and varied that it would take some time to classify the many features it displays. Comedy of incident, comedy inherent in dialogue, comedy in Boz’s description of dress, even a slice of Romantic Comedy (Tupman and Rachel)–and more! And, of course the various kinds of tragedy that mostly occur in the many “tales” are told by the “minor characters” that Chris and Wren have just discussed.

    It’s hard to put a label on some of these “comic” events, or succession of events that make up some of the narrative so far. But one series I find quite interesting is something I’m going to call the IRONY OF CIRCUMSTANCE. And I’m basically going to summarize a brief “set” of events and hope that others in the group will expand on what I say and perhaps help me with how to interpret my summary.

    It begins with the crazy antics of Dr. Slammer at the dance, when he challenges the Stranger to a duel. The name “Slammer”–is in itself so comically predictive, that we know something “nasty” and violent is bound to transpire between him and someone else at the dance. And of course it does–when he gets his back up over the Stranger and his flirtation and dancing with the woman of both their “dreams.” the Stranger becomes the “victim” of Slammer’s jealous rage, and is challenged to a duel. But this is just the beginning of the comic irony, because–as we know–it is Winkle who, despite his complete innocence of the matter–becomes the one who faces Slammer at the dueling site . Winkle, wearing the Pickwickian costume (worn by the Stranger the night before), is totally out of his element, as he faces the violent Slammer–who recognizes (at the last minute) that Winkle wasn’t the man with whom he had the set to at the dance. Just in the nick of time, the duel doesn’t happen. NO one is shot. This is part I of the irony of circumstance. But let’s back up a bit. It is Tupman who, ultimately is responsible for the clothing that the Stranger wears at the dance. In effect, he has “appropriated” Mr. Winkle’s uniform for the Stranger and in some way is liable for the huge mistaken events that have taken place. His good friend is nearly shot by the impetuous Slammer! How might Tupman “pay” for his mistake?

    Part II happens somewhat later and again it involves both Tupman and Winkle. Early one morning Mr. Wardle all but demands that Winkle (the resident “sportsman”), join him for a rook hunting and shooting escapade. Winkle does so and the results of their hunt add another layer of irony, for after Winkle suffers a “missfire” on his first attempted shot, he “missfires” in another way and shoots, “accidently”, Mr. Tupman in the arm. There are pellet holes and there is bleeding all of which leads to much suffering by Tupman, those who witnessed the accident, and Miss Rachel–who Tupman already has eyes for. The upshot of ALL this comic foolery is that the accident leads Tupman into the arms of Rachel (which leads to their thwarted “mini Romantic Comedy–but that’s completely another story). Here’s the deal: Because of Tupman, Winkle is almost shot by Slammer. Winkle, is obviously confused and angered (briefly) by Tupman’s “use” of his clothes at the dance, and shoots Tupman! Ok, its an accidental shooting, but the “irony of circumstance, really shows Winkle getting “even” by maiming Tupman. Tupman, then, becomes the victim, but also the apparent “winner” by engaging the sympathies and caring of the lovely Miss Rachel…. Comic Irony of Circumstance? Double irony? Triple irony?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lenny, I love your connecting the Tupman-Winkle almost shooting with the Winkle-Tupman actual shooting. I hadn’t caught that, but it is spot on and I’m sure exactly the connection Dickens wants made.

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  11. Reading “Pickwick” immediately after “Sketches” I notice how closely in style it follows in terms of topics and general action, yet how it builds upon it in terms of extended story, descriptive passages and character development. With a little more room to maneuver Boz can let his imagination and his language flow. We still have the mixture of light and dark episodes with the aptly-termed Interpolated Tales (The Stroller’s Tale, The Convict’s Return) momentarily interrupting the flow of the general action. Some similarities: The altercation with the cabman echos “Seven Dials”, “Omnibuses”, & “The Last Cab-driver, and the First Omnibus Cad”; Mr Jingle is one of Boz’s “Shabby-genteel People”; the duel between Dr Slammer and Mr Winkle is reminiscent of “The Great Winglebury Duel”; “The Stroller’s Tale” is “The Drunkard’s Death” revisited while “The Convict’s Return” is another take on “A Visit to Newgate”, “Criminal Courts”, “Meditations of Monmouth Street”, & “The Black Veil”.

    My favorite quote thus far is when Mr Pickwick looks out upon his street from his chamber window on the morning of his journeys and muses: “‘Such’ thought Mr Pickwick, ‘are the narrow views of those philosophers who, content with examining the things that lie before them, look not to the truths which are hidden beyond. As well might I be content to gaze on Goswell Street for ever, without one effort to penetrate to the hidden countries which on every side surround it.’ And having given vent to this beautiful reflection, Mr Pickwick . . . headed out into the world of these adventures.” Here is the crux of “The Pickwick Papers”, and even if it did not begin as a proper novel, it does have THIS as a unifying theme.

    A comment on the concept of “Pickwickian sense”, the term Mr Blotton uses to excuse or explain his use of the word “humbug” in response to Mr Pickwick’s opening speech. “Pickwickian” has two definitions – (1) of or like Mr Pickwick, especially in being jovial, plump, or generous; (2) Pickwickian can also refer to words or their senses being misunderstood or misused, especially to avoid offense ( The second definition, as Mr Blotton uses it, allows for complete subjectivity. Whatever is said can be said with no offense, as long as it is qualified with “in the Pickwickian sense”. The hearer, if unsure of one’s meaning, is then free to assume no offense is meant regardless of what was originally intended. It is an absurd concept. It is also an instance of Dickens’s prognostication of catchphrases. On prominent display on Mr Winkle’s coat is a button with “a bust of Mr Pickwick in the centre, and the letters ‘P.C.’ on either side”. Today “P.C.” stands for “Politically Correct”, a term whose meaning oftentimes is not too far off from “in the Pickwickian sense”. While I understand we should not offend through our words, I also understand that invoking political correctness can become a way to mask or muddy meaning to either deflect or assign blame. I think this is the point Dickens is making with Mr Blotten, but I like the first definition of Pickwickian better.

    Field Day & Bivouac – I’m thinking Dickens is commenting on the absurdity of the mock battle, of how serene the soldiers seem in the presence of the peaceful citizens, and how enamored the citizens are of the soldiers. It’s all so sanitized as opposed to actual war. Yet, how easy it is for civilians to get caught in the middle as Messrs Pickwick & Winkle & Snodgrass do. I also liked the mixing of the military maneuvers with the romantic maneuvers going on in the Wardle barouche – “astounding evolutions” indeed!

    Which brings me to Miss Rachael Wardle, that “a lady of doubtful age” who shamelessly competes with her nieces for the male attention. Her family insists on thinking her ridiculous, which she is, but she has no trouble bewitching Mr Tupman, who is more than ready to be under her spell. She & Tupman make a lovely (old) couple and are content, until the twin monkey wrenches of the Fat Boy and Mr Jingle step in to complicate things. More on this as the situation develops.

    I also like Old Mrs Wardle who makes me think of my mother who passed away at, she insisted, 100-1/2 yrs old – so exact a portrait, the selective deafness, the “looking carving knives” at people, her competitive game playing, everyone fawning over her to stay in her good graces but ultimately failing because she’s too shrewd, even though she dotes on them all in turn.

    And ending with a particular Dickensian quote: “And the benevolent clergyman looked pleasantly on; for the happy faces which surrounded the table made the good old man feel happy too; and though the merriment was rather boisterous, still it came from the heart and not from the lips: and this is the right sort of merriment, after all.”

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  12. Wow Chris! A monumental analysis–which deals in great depth with each of these issues/themes. And you give all of us in the “club” so much to think about and extrapolate from. It’s so filled with goodies that I just have to respond a bit.

    Your opening analysis of the similarities between the “Sketches” and the novel is really helpful and opens the door for much further thought and broader analysis if anyone in the group wished to take on such a gargantuan task. Great research here! I DO hope that we will continue to use segments of the “Sketches” as a valuable reference point for ideas that recur in this (and other novels?) novel!

    “Pickwickian sense’ is still a hard concept for me to understand, so I’ll have to ruminate further on your explanation….

    “Field Day and Bivouac” is really quite a controversial piece and actually exists as a metaphor for what tragically happens during a war–with the myriad of collateral damages wrecked on the populous of the country being invaded. Oh God, how that is so true, tragically, in Ukraine today. In this military exercise, Pickwick ALMOST experiences tragic “collateral” damage, but still does emotionally and physically “suffer.” This moment is COMIC in its execution, but the Wily young Mr. Dickens knows full well the ironic, multi-layered implications of this segment. As I think further about it, it DOES have “societal” suggestions, or why else would Dickens spend such a large part of this chapter dwelling on the details of the military drill, the “club’s” comic/worried response to it, and the near miss that Pickwick experiences. Thanks for bringing this key moment to our attention….

    So much has been said about Pickwick’s “child like ” INNOCENCE, but your quote from the novel regarding his “philosophical” bent appears to call this general notion about him into question:

    “‘Such’ thought Mr. Pickwick, ‘are the narrow views of those philosophers who, content with examining the things that lie before them, look not to the truths which are hidden beyond. As well might I be content to gaze on Goswell Street for ever, without one effort to penetrate to the hidden countries which on every side surround it.’ ”

    This excerpts appears to point toward a much more complex personality than we as readers may tend to view in him. The above experience with the Bivouac does show him an “innocent” victim of the maneuvers, but there are other things he IS more acutely aware of. We’ll have to see how his character develops as the novel moves on! In the meantime, Chris, this is SUCH a relevant quote that hints at our protagonists’ multifaceted character.

    And then you get to Miss Rachel Wardle and her romantically susceptible “character.” She is subject to the overtures of the “Club’s” would-be Lothario, Tupman, and true to form, his inclinations are going to be thwarted by (as you say) “the twin monkey wrenches of the Fat Boy and Mr Jingle ” Aww yes, Mr. Jingle is now showing his true nasty self with the help of the “ferocious” fat boy, who in telling old Mrs. Wardle about the kiss between Tupman and Rachel really exhibits an “evil” side.

    Gads, Rachel, you’ve already stimulated, with your fine analysis, a ton of ideas which we can draw on for more meanings!

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