The Pickwick Papers exemplifies the aspect of Dickens' genius G.K. Chesterton praised highest—his humor. By far the most disjointed of Dickens' novels (it isn't even really a novel so much as a collection of sketches involving the same rotating cast of characters), the adventures of Pickwick and associates are wildly comedic, ridiculous, absurd. No device is left unexplored, from slapstick to verbal wit to the downright bizarre, and Dickens turns each of them to a personal showcase of brilliance. Don't read this to be intellectually or morally stimulated, read it for amusement and pure hilarity.
Dickens was 24 when he published The Pickwick Papers serially, and it evidences the energy of youth. The uniting narrative follows the adventures of the Pickwick Club formed by Samuel Pickwick, the members of which are devoted to touring England by coach and bringing back reports to share with the others. In many ways this is simply an excuse to catalogue as many characters as possible, people like Alfred Jingle, Dr. Slammer and Joe the Fat Boy. While no one is as memorable as later Dickens creations (with the possible exception of Sam Weller), some of his craziest and most extreme caricatures can be found here.
For instance, Dr. Payne, a military surgeon who attends a duel just to see blood; Mrs. Martha Bardell, under the impression she is engaged to Mr. Pickwick and that he has somehow reneged on the deal; Mr. Slurk, editor of the Eatanswill Independent newspaper. The names are funny enough, but their characterizations are brilliant, all the more so because most of them exist only to entertain and not to convey any deeper meaning apart from the obvious satirical elements they embody. While his mature work was marked by profound social awareness and a sense of justice, Dickens' first novel is all the funnier by way of contrast for its lack of sobriety and thoughtfulness.
This isn't the best place to start if you've never read Dickens. Though he became arguably the greatest novelist of all time, this is clearly the work of a master not yet grown into his powers. It lacks the narrative cohesion and dark elements of a typical Dickens novel, as well as a measure of the stylistic grace. But it presages the genius-that-was-to-come with wild comedy and an already mature sense of dialogue that would later be essential marks of his work. And though Dickens surpassed himself with the novels that followed, The Pickwick Papers remains better than most other novels of its time, whether comic or serious.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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