Monday, March 2, 2015

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens


After nearly two months, I've finally completed The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.   For the past few years, I've been trying to work my way through all of Dickens' novels.  This is the penultimate novel on my list; now, I'm only missing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  

For those who don't know, this is a picaresque tale about Mr. Moses Pickwick, a financially comfortable gentlemen of a certain age, and his three friends (Tupman, Winkle, and Snodgrass) and their adventures and misadventures as they travel around England in the 1820s.  Along the way, Pickwick hires a young manservant, Sam Weller, who in my opinion is the real star of the novel -- frankly, I wish the book was entirely about Sam. 

Published in 1837, it is Charles Dickens' first novel, which began as loosely related comic stories.  Originally, they publishers wanted them written to accompany illustrations of hunting sketches in a monthly magazine.  The stories began to evolve and eventually became a more cohesive novel.  It's interesting to see the transition from vignettes to an actual narrative story with a plot, but honestly, the first third or so were kind of a slog.  After about 200 pages it really began to pick up, but I was tempted a few times to just give up altogether.

I was glad I stuck with it, because it really is worth reading.  Comic characters and caricatures are really Dickens' strength -- this is all the funny bits of Dickens, without the melodrama and the drippy ingenues.  There are some truly hilarious parts in this novel.  Pickwick and his friends get into all kinds of scrapes, and it takes the quick-thinking, streetwise Sam to get them out of trouble.  Apparently Pickwick and Sam are sort of a British version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  


Pickwick took a lot longer to complete than I expected.  I listened to nearly all of it on audiobook, and at one point, I had to take a break, because it was starting to drag.  The first third kind of meandered, though there were a few bright moments.  This is one of the few classics on my to-read list that the library owns on audiobook, and it's 25 discs, more than 32 hours total.  My commute to work is about 15 minutes, so unless I go out for lunch or have to drive to another library branch for a meeting, it takes me almost three days to get through a single disc.  Also, I took a break for about a week to listen to Mary Poppins.  (I did read other books in print -- during the time it took me to listen to this audiobook, I finished reading about twelve other novels.  I'm not joking.)

One thing I didn't care much for was the occasional digressions Dickens takes into stories and tales told within the novel, which really just seemed like filler.  I don't know if Dickens was close to his deadline and needed more words, or if they were actually part of the original plan, but some of them really dragged.  The only one I really liked was Chapter 29, "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," which I found interesting because it seemed like an early version of A Christmas Carol.

There are also hints of future Dickens in the narrative, including long-term residents of debtors' prison, like in Little Dorrit, plus the biting satire of the court system in Bleak House.  Dickens also gets some good digs about lawyers.  I'm glad I finished it, but because it's sort of uneven, I don't think I'd count it among my favorite Dickens works -- it's definitely above Hard Times and Dombey and Son but not nearly as good as Oliver Twist and Bleak House.

I'm counting this as my Very Long Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

11 comments:

  1. This was the first book of Dickens that I read, and really my first Victorian novel. I had been intimidated by the Victorians without knowing much about them really. I was surprised at how easy this was to read, and it gave me confidence in tackling the Victorians. But I'm glad I didn't start with Henry James!

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    1. Victorians are long, but some of them are much easier to read than I expected. I think my first Victorian was Jane Eyre and I loved it. I myself am not a Henry James fan -- just hated The Turn of the Screw.

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  2. Such a beautiful cover! Thanks to your Back to Classics Challenge, I've read my first Dickens.

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    1. I'm glad you've discovered Dickens! He's become one of my favorite writers.

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  3. I found reading about how you took on the challenge of getting through the book to be just as interesting as your thoughts about the book. Congratulations on finishing The Pickwick Papers!

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    1. Thanks! I sometimes wonder if my anecdotes are just boring.

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  4. Pickwick is one of my favorite Dickens' novels--probably because it was one of my first and I read it through a couple of times as a teen. Anyway, I just adore Mr. Pickwick and Sam. I actually liked the mini-stories embedded in the main one--but then to me they were in keeping with the meandering pace in which plot takes a distant second in importance to characters.

    One little question--you said that Moses is Mr. P's first name but I would swear it's Samuel. Did I miss something?

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    1. No, it's definitely Moses. The only Samuel in the book that I remember is Sam Weller. Sam's father sometimes refers to him as Samivell, because he doesn't pronounce his Ws.

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  5. I nearly made this one this years Dickens, but in the end I went for David Copperfield. I do like Dickens when he's a little darker but great characters and an absence of drippy ingenues sounds wonderful

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    1. I did love the absence of the drippy ingenues, but the female characters in Pickwick are hardly developed at all. I think Dickens had some serious issues with women.

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  6. I guess I need to be more patient with Pickwick Papers. My previous attempts fell short due to boredom within the first 100 pages. It just could be that this early Dickens and I are not compatible.

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