Charles Dickens Challenge: The Pickwick Papers

As you may recall, last year I decided to set myself an extra reading challenge this year. I'm aiming to read 50 books in 2014, but I also wanted to finally get round to reading the works of Charles Dickens. This became my Charles Dickens Challenge, and I'm now reporting back on the first book in the challenge (and the first book Dickens wrote), The Pickwick Papers.
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For those who haven't read it, The Pickwick Papers is the story of the titular Mr Pickwick, who together with his companions Mr Tupman, Mr Snodgrass and Mr Winkle sets out to explore the nature of humanity in contemporary England for one year and report back to the members of the Pickwick Club. Along the way they meet a cast of characters, including the comically villainous Mr Jingle who often causes trouble for the Pickwickians and Mr Pickwick's longtime friend Mr Wardell.

Dickens originally started out writing short piece for magazines, and many of his novels were originally published in serial format (as was common for novels in the Victorian era). This is still fairly evident in the structure of The Pickwick Papers; it often feels like a series of sketches strung together rather than having any coherent plot, with characters disappearing and reappearing every few chapters and the scenarios getting increasingly more outlandish. It always seemed like Dickens was trying to cram in just one more adventure before the end, so it felt simultaneously dragged out and then, when the ending did come, like it was all tied up too neatly and done in a bit of a rush.

However, it does have one of my favourite characters in all literature: the wonderful Sam Weller, who the Pickwickians meet at a pub in London and who Mr Pickwick takes on as a servant and companion. Constantly bungling his pronunciation and mixing his metaphors, but with unwavering loyalty to his master - to the extent of getting himself arrested so he can stay with Pickwick in a debtors' prison - Sam is a fantastic comic creation and often brings much of the humour when things are getting a little too serious. The scenes with his father are particularly brilliant, with the two of them bouncing off each other constantly. That said, there are some great moments for the other characters, particularly in the early chapters with Mr Winkle's lack of sporting prowess and Mr Tupman's romantic misadventures.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Pickwick Papers. Yes it was a bit of a slog at times (it's 760 pages), but it made me laugh out loud on the bus several times and in terms of the imaginative scope it's just breathtaking. The characters leap off the page as fully-rounded people - a feat in itself - and you become immersed in their world, feeling like you're saying goodbye to old friends when you reach the final pages. It's certainly different from the stereotypical image of Dickens, in that there's a lot more humour, but also foreshadowing the themes of some of his later books which I'm looking forward to seeing more of. Next up: Oliver Twist.

Have you read The Pickwick Papers or any other Charles Dickens novels?

2 comments:

  1. I'm currently reading the Old Curiosity Shop, and Pickwick Papers will be next, because I usually prefer to read author's works chronologically. It sounds fun! Sometimes I think that I enjoy sketches stringed together more than a solid narrative in a book.

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    1. It's really interesting to see the themes of Dickens' writing developing. I'm about three-quarters of the way through Oliver Twist and, although you can see the continuation of the debtors' prison scenes in The Pickwick Papers in how Dickens talks about the awful situation of London's poor, how quickly it moves to that is quite surprising.

      The Old Curiosity Shop is a little way down my list - I've got Nicholas Nickleby to read first - but I am already steeling myself for one particular scene in it (which I won't mention just in case of spoilers)...

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