It will now be officially stated that the fickle farce has a new book which will be considered an official favorite of this here blog. Inasmuch as I have read a sundry number of books in my time; none has come close to producing within my soul the jollity with which this book produced; none has ventured to produced within me such a taste for the mock epic, for the not-so-fantastic adventures considered fantastic by the characters within the novels’ pages; none has reminded me so much as this one that many events of the life of human beings are rather inconsequential although deemed at the time to be of the utmost importance and so highly revered. I have once again – through this reading mind you – found that old ideal that requires us many times to laugh at the plethora of coincidental happenings in life, whether these be good or bad at the said time.
The book being surmised is indeed The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (his first novel), also know as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club – a club that joining is now on this writer’s bucket list. Though many loyal readers of this here blog post may be even remotely familiar with The Papers, it is important to give those who have no idea what I am referring to a general edification of said Papers. The account – for to call it a novel may not be such a precise definition – is a brief snippet of a man’s life and his various adventures in the small towns and inns in the countryside of rural England and the inner city of London. This man is indeed Mr. Samuel Pickwick, the General Chairman and founder of the Pickwick Club. The Club itself has many members, three of which are central to the story, or account. I will now describe these three characters, nay men, in an abstract of their lives instead of a full biography.
Perhaps the most important member of the Club at the beginning of the account is Mr. Tracy Tupman, a portly, middled-aged, romantic fellow who is altogether terrible at winning the hearts of the females. Then there is my personal favorite Augustus Snodgrass, a younger fellow who we are told is very poetic, yet we have no idea to believe at any one moment that he is poetic at all. Lastly, Mr. Nathaniel Winkle is another young man who is said to be an amateur sportsman and amateur he is for throughout the novel we see that he is anything but a sportsman. These three provide what becomes Dickens’ typical character – the absolute character that often becomes what many have described as cartoonish in their nature. Modern sitcoms do this very well (Seinfeld for one). Though each character comes across as nothing short of an idiot at the beginning of the novel, both Snodgrass and Winkle redeem themselves by the end.
Now, this particular history is not like novels in the sense that it does not follow one distinct plot line, but each event is, to a certain degree, independent of all the other events. Characters, of course, reappear, and as common in Dickens’ other novels, little subtle events come back to bite the hero, Mr. Samuel Pickwick. Pickwick himself is an interesting character. He is lauded as being great and morally superior to all other individuals, yet throughout the better part of the novel he does basically nothing to obtain this status other than show up with his name. A good example of the mock epic that I am here describing can be found in an advertisement for The Papers. (“Boz” is Dickens’ pseudonym, Seymour the artist).
It was reserved for Gibbon to paint, in colours that will never fade, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – to Hume to chronicle the strife and turmoil of the two proud houses that divided England against herself – to Napier to pen, in burning words, the History of the War in the Peninsula – the deeds and actions of the gifted Pickwick yet remain for “Boz” and Seymour to hand down to posterity.
And so Dickens has from the beginning placed The Papers on the same level as the great works chronicling the fall of the Roman Empire, the divide of the Tudor and Lancaster families (I believe this is what is being referred to), and the early nineteenth century Peninsular War. A thorough reading of the Chronicles of Mr. Pickwick will persuade the reader that the great man’s adventures are mere trifles compared to the aforementioned events.
This, nevertheless, is what makes the mock epic so humorous. Any writer can make a war story dramatic, few can make the chasing of one’s hat an epic art.
There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.
Again Pickwick, upon being addressed by the crafty Mr. Jingle in a conversation, displays the mock epic:
If any dispassionate spectator could have beheld the countenance of the illustrious man, whose name forms the leading title of this work, during the latter part of this conversation, he would have been almost induced to wonder that the indignant fire which flashed from his eyes, did not melt the glasses of his spectacles – so majestic was his wrath. His nostrils dilated, and his fists clenched involuntarily, as he heard himself addressed by the villain. But he restrained himself again, he did not pulverise him.
These small instances happen throughout the novel and consequently place the chronicle into the genre of mock epic. However, unlike other great stories in the lives of men, this one in particular does not fall into just one simple category. Lord of the Rings, clearly a fantastic epic, falls into one general category as does War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and others. Leave it to the epic Pickwick Papers to fall into multiple. With the addition of Mr. Samuel Weller, Pickwick’s servant who appears first in chapter ten, the novel becomes a bit of a satire as we see Sam constantly offering his two cents on the matters at hand – often, despite the vastness of knowledge that Pickwick attains to, giving the reader the best interpretation of the matters at hand. Weller, in my view, comes to be closely associated with Shakespeare’s Falstaff. His offhanded comments quickly make him one of the readers’ favorite characters, and he is often considered the most important character in the novel.
Lastly, it would not be appropriate to end discussion on this great novel without associating it as a farce. The story shows virtually no change in Pickwick’s character (though a change may seem to be taking place, Dickens described this as the reader getting to understand his eccentricities better as we often do after we meet people). Instead, much like a farce, it places our hero into certain situations which in their own respects offer social commentary. Dickens shows his brilliance in this work as he does in his others at displaying everyday events in such a light that we would not generally conceive them to occur. In this respect, Dickens has awakened in me that old feeling that we must simply laugh at life in many instances, for indeed at times it is often very farcical.
Alas! there are far too many instances for me to show you to give a just account to his work in this area. I assure you to simply read his work yourself. It is important to be aware that in reading Dickens (as with any nineteenth century writer) it is best to go very slow at first and to continue to do so throughout the read. If you do not pay special attention to each and every sentence, you will miss one point which will further confuse the rest of the novel for you. Unfortunately, I have once again fallen into the trap of desiring to find out what happens in the end over enjoying the read, and I feel I missed out on much of the humor. This all said, I cannot do justice to this great work of literature. This attempt must be done by you dear reader, so I give my fullest recommendation to read this epic account of a man, his three friends, and his servant keeping in mind that G.K. Chesterton himself praised the work as
the great example of everything that made Dickens great… It will always be remembered for its laughter, or, if you will, for its folly. A good joke is the one ultimate and sacred thing which cannot be criticised. Our relations with a good joke are direct and even divine relations. We speak of “seeing” a joke as we speak of “seeing” a ghost or a vision. If we have seen it; it is futile arguing with us; and we have seen the vision of Pickwick. Pickwick may be the top of Dickens’ humour; I think upon the whole it is… the broad humour of Pickwick he broadened over many wonderful kingdoms.