Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens

 ' A grin that agitated his countenance from one auricular organ to the other'. 

A line from the novel.
Cover from the first edition.

 Well after reading The Pickwick Papers my blogs' title, especially the word, mediocrity, immediately fills my little head! As I have clearly stated in my last Dickens review I am most certainly not a literary scholar in any way. I spent many a year ( not to mention many a dollar! ) in gaining my degrees (which I have been too useless to put to good use! ), and read literature for pleasure. The problem is now that I have a literature blog going I find myself in the unenviable position of feeling totally inadequate for what I'm attempting! How can such a mediocrity as myself even begin to write a review on one of the true masters of the English language for instance???!

 The answer quite simply is..??..hmmm!! It is certainly an interesting position and I admit to real troubles in how to write anything worth while or of note. Where to start? Here is as good place as any...Charles Dickens was only a mere boy/man of twenty four when he penned the 830 pages of The Pickwick Papers. It is an astonishing thing to behold that such a young man could write such a satirical, observant, and humorous work. 

 I wrote in my very first post on this blog, Oliver Twist, that I read that novel first instead of The Pickwick Papers because it was a shorter, simpler Dickens work to start off with. In hindsight I made the right decision because Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop helped me ease into such a long novel as this proved to be. The fact I read it in four days didn't make it any shorter I can certainly tell you! Again in my Oliver Twist post I stated I initially wanted to read all of Dickens' works in order but with Pickwick being so long I felt it was better to start with Oliver Twist as it was shorter and easier to manage first up when entering the world of Dickens. My desire to read all his novels in order is in dis-array as I have read his second novel first, his fourth novel second, and his first third!!

 I now have the undisputed Dickens masterpiece, Bleak House, left to read. I can almost hear the theme from Jaws in my ears as it circles me ominously from my ward-robe just waiting for me to pick it up and savage my little mind!!!! Near on 900 pages, it is going to be a literary challenge of the highest order. I'm glad I have three previous Dickens novels under my belt as a warm up!

 To call The Pickwick Papers a novel isn't entirely correct though. Dickens wrote it in instalments and published each as a serial which were then later published together to make a novel. It is again a re-mark able achievement considering his age. As you read the Pickwick Papers this eye on the so-called 'human condition' from such a young man is even more remarkable. Dickens uses the character of Mr. Pickwick as his own voice. He says Pickwick was naturally curious about people, but in all reality you can translate the name Pickwick for Dickens. I think in Pickwick Dickens is looking at himself much as Samuel Pepys did in his famous diary. I felt it was Dickens doing a self analysis on himself and how he viewed the going ons of the world.

 Pickwick is much older than Dickens is being somewhere in his fifties, but I think Dickens is using this as a smoke screen to disguise Pickwick as himself. In saying that Pickwick is certainly a stand alone character and one of the most memorable in English literature. He is portly, with a good nature, but sometimes prone to outbursts of anger against pettiness and straight out stupidity. He has an eagle eye for humanity and carries around a small note book in which he writes about the everyday people he meets. Dickens describes him as a man who is a 'contemplater of human nature'. 

 Throughout the novel Dickens has Pickwick travel throughout England and witness all the events and going ons of the time. During said travels he sees a political rally and subsequent the election, a cricket match, meets a snobby foreigner, talks of drunks ( 'if I felt less like a walking brandy bottle, I'd be less staggery this morning' ), the rich, greed, con men, and such like.. It is all every day stuff and yet Dickens adds his own satirical take and eye of those involved. Not all of it is complementary, but when you analyse each character Dickens is really showing the down sides of humanity rather than the up.

 The novel is a very gentle comedy and Pickwick is involved in numerous escapades of hilarity and farce. And yet behind the humour Dickens shows how these are just ordinary everyday events that happen to us all. At one stage Pickwick loses his hat in a gust of wind. Dickens describes vividly Pickwick's chase of it and describes all the pitfalls of a portly man doing so. He says to chase too hard will see the chaser accidentally step on the hat, and too slow is to lose it all together. It has the feel of farce but we see this in our daily lives. Pickwick and a companion then have a rather funny escapade with a recalcitrant horse with a mind of its own!! Needless to say hilarity ensues! Very much like the horse out of The Old Curiosity Shop.
Mr. Pickwick chases his hat!

 Pickwick then moves on to a cricket match where there is much bluster and proverbial BS spun. It is actually an interesting view of cricket in the early 19th century as it is barely recognisable to our modern game. Dickens describes how the players fielding virtually just spread themselves out piece meal. Field placements there were none!! Also it was a game played by the wealthy and was riddled with snobbery. Pickwick wasn't very impressed with what he saw!

 He then moves on and sees a political rally between the 'Blues' and 'Buffs'. Dickens himself through Pickwick quite presciently looks at politics and all its trappings. As a scene it is very good and one I particularly enjoyed as the tete a tete of the candidates ensured and how local papers were divided among both camps and slung lies and slander at each other. It may be the 19th century but nothing has changed!! Politics is still the 'demon profession' as it was in Dickens time and he describes it superbly through satire and humour.

 The humour also runs into some of the character's names. For instance Pickwick meets a foreigner of an un-specified country named Count Smorltalk...get it? Count Smalltalk!! Dickens has a quiet poke at the accents of foreigners through Count Smorltalk. Also Dickens calls one character Lord Mutanhead...get it? Lord Mutton head!! As a character he is rather air headed and Mutanhead suits him! Also he meets a purveyor of medicines who is of dubious character. Dickens calls him Nockemorf...get it? knock 'em off!! He sells medicine to the dying from whom he re-claims any which was unused, and sells it again and so on! He craftily picks his clients as one sure to die quickly though! Very subtle stuff and very humorous.

 The whole novel is full of such things. On his way Pickwick picks up man servant called Samuel who has lisp on his W's. He has an elderly father with the same lisp and their conversations are hilarious as they lisp away!! Samuel is a great character and actually as much a main protagonist as Pickwick himself. He is very loyal to Pickwick and shares in all the situations Pickwick finds himself in. Together they make the best reading in the novel.

 It is quite difficult to relate all Pickwick's observations but Dickens covers so much of the lesser traits of humanity. Pickwick goes to prison after refusing to pay some sharp lawyers his fine. So Dickens is looking at the shadier side of the law and how some lawyers use it for monetary gain rather than as upholding the law per se. Inheritance is examined as is the greed of relatives over the will, again it is the unpleasant nature of humanity Dickens is examining. But Dickens does it under the cover of humour. His character Mr. Jingle and his side kick are hilarious as two con artists that Pickwick is pursuing and eventually helps on to the right path in life. It is all feel good stuff and I like how Dickens has made it very light and humorous. He leaves his more serious look at humanity for his later works.

 Overall I enjoyed this the first of Dickens' novels but I have two issues with it. I found it a touch too long. Sure it was initially published as a serial but as a combined work the 900 pages by about the 700 page mark were too much. I struggled with the last 200 pages as it all began to feel a bit the same. I put it down for a week and then finished it off but I still think it too long.  Maybe some of the stories that Pickwick listens to could be edited out for brevity sakes. The second thing that really did annoy me after awhile was Dickens use of the word ' ejaculated'. The characters were almost every page 'ejacualting' their words. Using that word continuously really got to me and I cursed when ever I subsequently came across it. It is along novel but I think with Dickens command of the English language he could have inter-posed ejaculated more often with something else. I just couldn't escape what else that word connotes!! 

 Yes, quite an incredible feat of literature from such a young man. His eye for the human condition is staggering and all too true. So many of Pickwick's observations are as relevant about humanity today as they were in the 19th century. It shows that nothing much changes really. As a read it is amusing with some real chuckle out loud moments. I just found it a touch too long and difficult to sustain over 900 pages. I found towards the end the novel blended into itself as if Dickens was trying to stretch things out and add in as much as possible. But if you can read through it then you'll find this a very entertaining, humorous, and very observant satirical novel.

 Recommended as all Charles Dickens novels are!!


  1. Not something I would take on with ease but thanks for the review/story.

  2. Brent.

    Ha ha!! Dickens isn't that bad!! I love his work but must be in the right frame of mind to read him.
    Give Oliver Twist a try as it is shorter and a good story in the process!

  3. Must be an enjoyable read Pickwick papers by Charles Dickens. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

  4. Hi Rohit. Pleased you liked what I wrote! It is an excellent novel and an unbelievable debut novel from Dickens. I loved it and recommend it to anyone willing to give it a go.

  5. I am in the middle of reading 'Pickwick Papers' and find it the most acutely observed comedy that I have ever read. I have now read a lot of his novels from Oliver Twist to Bleak House. There are some 'weaker' novels such as Martin Chuzzlewit but even the weaker novels are as great as others' great novels. Bleak House is epic but is worth it. The one that surprised me was 'The Old Curiosity Shop'. That is Dickens' fairy tale and it is brilliant.

  6. Still to read 'Drood', 'Our Mutual Friend' and 'Little Dorrit' and 'A Tale of Two Cities'

  7. The Pickwick papers is an excellent comedy isn't it?! I chuckled my way through it. I have a copy of Bleak House but aren't in the mood for Dickens at the moment but will get to it. I also liked Curiosity Shop as well. But then I liked Oliver Twist also!

  8. I found a copy of the Pickwick Papers (in two volumes) when sorting out my spare room - and decided to read them. I am really enjoying them - possibly with it being split into two volumes makes it easier to cope with the amount of reading. I love all the detail of how they lived their lives, Dickens is just describing what is matter-of-fact and everyday life for the people of his time, but exotic history for the modern reader - a real glimpse into the past!