The comedy of “Pickwick Papers”

I’ve long felt that there are, broadly speaking, two distinct types of comedy. One is dark, and takes seriously the tragic aspects of human life. The other is a celebration of the joys of life, and is pure sunshine. Of course, there are many different shades of grey in between, but firmly in the former category we have, I think, Gulliver’s Travels, Dead Souls, Waiting for Godot, Steptoe and Son; in the latter, we have As You Like It, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Code of the Woosters, Dad’s Army. And, I think, Pickwick Papers.

In this latter type of comedy, the author has to judge the extent to which the darker aspects of life are acknowledged. Something such as The Importance of Being Earnest chooses to ignore such aspects completely. The Jeeves & Wooster stories feature a fascist demagogue, and, although he is presented as a blighter, there is no reference to the horrors of fascism, as that would have fatally compromised the delicate comic balance. In Dad’s Army, references to the Blitz, to shortages and to rationing, and, naturally, to the Nazis across the channel, are unavoidable, but once again, the horrors of those dark days are not evoked, as those horrors are not the point of the programme. In Pickwick Papers, Dickens does acknowledge the darker aspects of life – most especially in those marvellous chapters set in the Fleet debtors’ prison. But the focus is on joy, on friendship and on fellow-feeling, on the warmth and conviviality of human relations. To Dickens, these things are important, and life would be diminished if we were to overlook them. As he comments towards the end of the novel:

There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them.

For many people, it may appear trivial or shallow to focus on the joys of life and banishing – at least up to a point – the dark shadows. But I don’t know that I’d go along with that. Dickens obviously believed in the importance of acknowledging human goodness, and of celebrating what life had to offer. And if it is claimed that doing so presents a one-sided view of life, it may also be argued that no single work of art can present every single aspect of life; and that the unrelievedly gloomy tragedy presents a view of life that is every bit as one-sided as something such as this.

Speaking for myself, I can think of nothing more joyous or life-affirming than Pickwick Papers. True, it is not a profound work – in the sense that it doesn’t depict the inner lives of its characters; and nor does it explore any great moral or psychological or even social theme. The novel also has its flaws: the characters are full of life and vitality as long as they’re presented in a comic mode, but as soon as they are presented as romantic lovers, they become merely insipid and dull. (This applies both to male and to female characters, and is a problem that besets much of Dickens’ work right up to his very late novels.) And, since there is little quite as subjective as laughter, I can imagine there will be many who simply won’t respond to Dickens’ very idiosyncratic sense of humour. But for those – like myself – who do find this sort of thing funny, the 800 or so pages just whizz by.

The novel started off as a series of linked sketches, and although a narrative momentum of sorts does develop after a while, it never quite loses its freewheeling quality. If, say, Dickens fancies writing a few chapters describing Christmas celebrations at Dingley Dell, he just goes ahead and does it: it doesn’t bother him whether or not the plot demands it, or whether it advances our understanding of the themes or characters, or anything like that. (And those Christmas scenes, incidentally, are a delight: I think it’s thanks to this novel that we have, even now, Christmas cards depicting horse-drawn carriages travelling through the snow.)

The comic characters and situations are (to my sense of humour, at least) wonderful. Sam Weller is possibly the original “chirpy Cockney” and we first see him working at the inn:

“Number twenty-two wants his boots.”
“Ask number twenty-two whether he’ll have ‘em now, or wait till he gets ‘em”

Sam’s father, Tony, is, perhaps, an even finer comic creation. And there’s Jingle, of course, with that marvellous staccato delivery:

“Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in …”

Much later in the novel, we see Jingle again in the debtor’s prison, starving and close to death. He still has the same delivery, but what he delivers now is quite different:

“Nothing soon – lie in bed – starve – die – Inquest – little bone-house – poor prisoner – common necessaries – hush it up – gentlemen of the jury – warden’s tradesmen – keep it snug – natural death – coroner’s order – workhouse funeral – serve him right – all over – drop the curtain.”

Some will see this as an example of Dickens the Social Reformer, or Dickens the Social Commentator. To me, it seems more like Dickens the Artist. For if Dickens really is proposing social reform, it’s hard to see what reform it is he is proposing. The debtors’ prison is obviously a foul and evil place, but Dickens has no alternative proposal on how to deal with debt; and neither does he consider the point that if all debt were to be excused, the economic foundation of society would collapse. But it’s not Dickens’ purpose to consider such points, or to propose social change: what he does in these chapters is to chronicle human misery, and, being the artist that he is, he does this with the same narrative techniques and the same rhythms of speech that he had earlier used for comic effects. The effect is devastating.

Indeed, if we were to look into it closely, we could ask where the now retired Pickwick became wealthy in the first place: it certainly wasn’t by benevolence and by throwing his money around. But we aren’t, I think, intended to look at this novel in such terms: it isn’t a social treatise, and Dickens – despite the repeated vehemence with which he is described as a “social writer” – is not writing a sociological tract: he is writing a comedy, albeit a comedy that acknowledges and at certain points depicts some of life’s darker shadows. And he is celebrating all that is best and most generous about humanity.

Dickens went on to write more intricate and more sophisticated novels later in his career, some of which are, to my mind, amongst the finest of all novels. In comparison, this novel (like Oliver Twist that followed immediately afterwards – in many ways a dark counterpart to Pickwick Papers) is straight-forward, and lacking in complexity or depth. But it is a sheer delight, and I wouldn’t be without it. What a marvellous comic world to enter!

And in conclusion, let me leave you with a couple of verses from the “Ode to an Expiring Frog” by that renowned poet Mrs Leo Hunter:

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log
Expiring frog!

Say, have fiends in shape of boys,
With wild halloo, and brutal noise,
Hunted thee from marshy joys,
With a dog,
Expiring frog!

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6 responses to this post.

  1. A long time ago — you may remember this, H — we had a group read and discussion of The Pickwick Papers at the old Dusty Shelf forum (Gosh! That was a long while back… 2000-2001?). Anyway, you may also remember that I was not a big fan of Dickens at that time, having only experienced him via forced reading of A Tale of Two Cities in high school 25+ years prior to our discussion of TPP.

    I made it a point to really read that book during our group read at the DS. I found myself laughing out loud with nearly every turn of the pages; along with times where I teared up and sniffled a bit. The Pickwick Papers and our group discussion of it is probably the true reason that I became a Dickens fan… and a fan of Classic Literature, in general.

    I probably have Anna, Amy, you, Donna, Lex, Jimmy, D’artagnan, and a few others to thank for that wonderful experience back then. TPP still remains one of my all time favorite books. I have three copies of it here in my house. It will always be in my collection, I can assure you of that.

    For others out there unfamiliar with this slightly less dark, much more light and airy Dickens, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It changed my entire opinion of the man and his output. It actually set me on a decade-long course of exploring Classic Literature with a fire that I had not known regarding any genre before or since.

    Give it a shot…

    ~Eric

    Reply

    • Ah yes – I remember those days well. I didn’t take part in that particular group read, although I did write the notes for the later War and Peace group read – and, for no better reason than that I had them on my hard disc, decided to put those notes up here on the blog.

      I have been blogging on various books boards for many years, and I seem to have spent half my time defending Dickens! He was sentimental, he only created caricatures and not real characters, he couldn’t do women … those same old chestnuts keep coming p over and over, no matter how frequently one argues against them! I did write a post here on the kind of knee-jerk criticism Dickens tends to get (see https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2010/05/29/dickens-and-his-detractors/) . I’ve also written posts on A Christmas Carol, and one comparing Great Expectations to Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale. If you do a search on Dickens on this blog, these posts should come up. Dickens is a writer I can’t seem to stop talking about!

      Of course, it has to be admitted that Dickens wasn’t always at his best, and that when he was bad, even aficionados such as myself can find him well nigh unreadable. But each writer deserves to be judged by their best, and Dickens at his best really is something else.

      Like yourself, I find Pickwick Papers a sheer delight, but I can imagine that not everyone will respond to its quirky humour. Hard to imagine he was only 25 when he wrote it!

      Reply

      • And speaking of Dickens still…

        A couple years ago I sent you an email about a book that I had just finished reading. I was wondering if you had heard of it or possibly read it. It was Dan Simmons’ Drood –> http://www.amazon.com/Drood-Novel-Dan-Simmons/dp/0316007021

        It was thoroughly researched and written in an extremely entertaining way using Wilkie Collins as a 1st person narrator. You could also tell that the author was a reader of Ackroyd’s excellent bio of Dickens –> http://www.amazon.com/Dickens-Peter-Ackroyd/dp/0060166029.

        Unfortunately, I found out later that the idea of this novel was not very novel. Another author, a Literature professor at an American college had already written a series of books with the very similar theme… Collins narrating Dickens supposed real life adventures.

        Anyway, was wondering still if you had read Drood. I really think you’d find it entertaining.

        Regards, my friend.

        ~Eric

  2. Hello Eric, I have certainly made a note of the book, but, my spare time being what it is, I haven’t, I confess, got round to this yet. I have, of course, read what Dickens managed to write of Edwin Drood, and while he was clearly trying to emulate the work of his friend Wilkie Collins, I ca’t quite say it’s up to the standard of The Moonstone or The Woman in White. I haven’t forgotten your recommendation, though,and will most certainly give it a go.

    Cheers for now,
    Himadri

    Reply

  3. Hi, I have an essay to do on the Pickwick Papers and the was the first result that came up on Google. Thank you very much, it gave me a different view on the comedic features in the novel.
    Personally I have always loved Dickens and see his writing as humour filled and enjoyable. Thank you again for writing this post!

    Reply

    • Hello Lottie, and thank you for that. I love Dickens also, and there are several posts on him scattered throughout the blog. I think he was a considerably more complex author than he is often given credit for.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

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