Friday, June 11, 2010

The Pickwick Papers

A couple of days ago I finished re-reading Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. I think I last read it when I was in my late teens or early twenties, so very little of it remained in my head, except the odd and irrelevant stories that Dickens dots throughout the book. They're usually told by some character who has nothing much to do with the rest of the book, and who is invited by the other characters at that point to get on and tell a story. Few of these stories have any tonal connection with the book as a whole, and I can only assume they were put in to fill up space when Dickens was writing the novel in its original serial form.

The book has virtually no plot, and initially is little more than a series of episodes. However, gradually some form of over-arching story takes over, and gives the thing some (minimal) structure. The novel begins with Pickwick, a man on in years, retired from business and very well off, heading off on a adventures just for the sake of writing them up. And initially there's a narrator who gives the pretence of picking up Pickwick's adventures from his notebooks. This idea gets abandoned somewhere along the line.

Pickwick sets out with three younger men - Winkle, Snodgrass and Tupman. These three are virtually indistinguisable from each other, although something is made of Winkle's propensity to fall in love with any woman he meets. But they all suffer from Dickens' inability to make characters out of his young heroes and heroines - the young women in the story are equally indistinguisable, all being beautiful, delightful, charming and so forth, but totally lacking in personality.

But this hardly matters when put beside the people who do come alive in the story. Jingle, the 'villain' of the piece, initially, eventually almost comes to a sticky end; though we don't have great sympathy for him. However, his manservant, Job Trotter, becomes increasingly interesting as the story progresses, and is a reflection of the most vital character in the story: Sam Weller, who, along with his father, has most of the best scenes in the novel. Sam takes a while to arrive, but once he does the book never looks back. The later scenes with him and his father, a man gifted in his ability to mangle the English language almost beyond recognition, are the height of comedy.

Pickwick himself is a bit of an enigma: seen as the 'wise head' in many parts of the story, he's actually a total innocent, a cherub unfamiliar with the ways of the world. Much is made of his rotundity, and is inability to move quickly enough to get himself out of some situations (Sam usually has to hoist him along), but his rotundity is nothing compared to that of the 'Fat Boy' whose obesity causes him to drop off to sleep without blinking an eye - even while knocking continually on a door. Obviously neither of them have read up on the latest diet pill reviews.

The way in which Sam Weller becomes utterly loyal to Pickwick, his master, is almost a foreign thing to us these days. That someone should be employed yet virtually live no life of his own is a concept we barely understand. Job Trotter acts in a similar way to Jingle, with far less reason to do so.

And the other thing which is perhaps foreign - in some measure - is the constant drinking that goes on throughout the book. Pickwick is no late starter in the drinking sessions, but he's regularly accompanied by his three proteges, as well as a host of other men (and sometimes women) in drinking sessions that frequently put them all to sleep. And the two medical students - characters who are among the more unpleasant in the book - are basically alcoholics. Their antics are amusing, yet verge on the frightening.

There are two things that make this book stand out for me. Firstly there's the superb command of language - Dickens was only 24 when he began the book - and secondly, there is the wondrous array of minor characters. This book is loaded to the gunnels with them. Some get no more than a sentence, and yet still come alive. Others have several pages given to them, or are scattered at random moments throughout the book, and retain their individuality in extraordinary measure. Admittedly Dickens had a genius in this regard, but walking into the world of The Pickwick Papers is not like coming into the world of a novice writer. The major skills in which Dickens would be pre-eminent are there fully formed even at this early stage. Furthermore, his descriptive abilities are almost equally fully formed. In later books he uses this aspect of his gift in a much deeper way, so that description is not there just for entertainment but carries metaphor and theme and much more. Nevertheless, if Dickens had never developed beyond this point in terms of his writing style, he would still be regarded as one of the world's great novelists.


barrygalef said...

Very sharp assessment, thank you. I'm a bit more than half-way through my first reading, and agree with just about everything you wrote. I found this post, by the way, by searching for reactions to all the drinking in the book -- I'm trying to learn how exaggerated a picture he's painting of the drinking habits of that time and place. I've read that people in the U.S. drank copiously at that time, and wonder if people in England did, too. Of course, this is a comic novel, so I expect that the drinking is heightened for comic effect. Beyond that, though, I wonder if Dickens himself had a complicated relationship to alcohol. I'll keep looking.

Mike Crowl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Crowl said...

I'm not aware that Dickens himself had any particular drinking problem, and I suspect he was writing about drinking as it was at the time: a fairly common way of passing long evenings that didn't have much else in the way of entertainment. I've just finished Barnaby Rudge, and a good deal of the early part of the book is focused around a typical English country pub. However I'm not sure that there is as much drinking in that book, and I can't recall that it's as frequent in his other stories either, though of course it does turn up as being part and parcel of the lifestyle in those days.
Maybe you're right and Pickwick Papers does heighten the drinking for comic effect. It's a young man's novel, too, and perhaps that has something to do with it.