The Pickwick Papers Summary
The Pickwick Papers Summary by Pete Orford
The Pickwick Papers, or to give it its full title, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, tell the adventures of Samuel Pickwick, gentleman, and his three companions: the optimistically romantic Mr Tupman, the hapless sportsman Mr Winkle, and the aspiring poet Mr Snodgrass. Together with Pickwick’s cheeky but trusty servant Sam Weller, these members of the Pickwick Club travel around the South East of England getting into a number of embarrassing scrapes, many of them often instigated by the mischievous scam-artist Mr Jingle.
Over the course of the novel several characters fall in love, or find themselves unwittingly at the centre of other love intrigues. Each new scene and adventure introduces a diverse mix of caricatures to amuse the reader. Though Pickwick frequently finds himself in ridiculous positions, in each adventure he proves himself benevolent and beloved. However, the one misadventure which overtakes him is that of his landlady Mrs Bardell, who mistakenly believes Pickwick to have proposed to her, and takes him to court for damages.
While the first half of the novel is largely episodic – an indication of the manner in which Dickens began the work – the second half becomes more coherent and focuses predominately on the trial of Bardell vs Pickwick and its aftereffects. Pickwick refuses to pay damages on principle, and so is placed in prison, where he meets Alfred Jingle once again, and Mrs Bardell herself, who has been promptly placed in prison by her own lawyers when they are unable to claim their fees thanks to Pickwick’s obstinance. The story ends with Pickwick triumphant, not only free from prison but also assisting both friends and enemies towards better lives and new beginnings.
Key characters include:
Samuel Pickwick – the hero of the story is a seemingly foolish character: he is pompous and naïve, but also optimistic, believing the best in people, and as the story goes on we find this is not foolish at all, but an admirable way to see the world.
Sam Weller – Pickwick’s loyal servant, this lovable cockney often finds himself rushing to his master’s rescue.
Tracey Tupman – ‘the too susceptible Tupman, who to the wisdom and experience of mature years superadded the enthusiasm and ardour of a boy, in the most interesting and pardonable of human weaknesses – love.’
Nathaniel Winkle – ‘the sporting Winkle’ is not so great a sportsman as he boasts, and gets into a number of difficulties as a consequence.
Augustus Snodgrass - ‘the poetic Snodgrass’ is the most serene of Pickwick’s companions, although even he finds himself in the midst of a love-triangle!
Alfred Jingle – the book’s lord of misrule, this cheeky chap assumes a number of personas and ruses to get a free meal wherever he can.
Mrs Bardell – Pickwick’s landlady, who is as much a victim as he is of their misunderstanding and the court-case that follows.
This is Dickens’s first novel, and my favourite. It is easily the funniest. It is not nearly so well-structured and plotted as some of Dickens’s later works, but this is testament to the responsiveness of the piece, which began as planned serial about a group of sporting gentleman and evolved into Dickens’s masterpiece. It has a terrific energy to it, and its episodic nature makes it an easy entry point for people wanting to read Dickens. Of all Dickens novels, this is one that best utilises its serial publication; each number was released at the end of the month, where often they would find out what Pickwick had been doing in that time: at the end of February Dickens gives us a Valentine episode; in December we have a Christmas episode. Over the course of a year and a half Dickens’s readers got to know Pickwick and his companions as friends and regular correspondents. Pickwick mania swept the country, with several pieces of merchandise available to buy in addition to theatrical adaptations, unauthorised sequels, and Pickwick clubs.
Pete Orford is course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham. He is the author of The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’ Unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it (Pen & Sword, 2018) and Literary Lives: Charles Dickens (Blackwell-Wiley, forthcoming), and editor of Pictures from Italy and Dombey and Son (Oxford UP, forthcoming).
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