G. K. Chesterton & My Initial Thoughts Upon Beginning The Pickwick Papers

In writing about Dickens, G.K. Chesterton says, " . . . ... the fault of Pickwick (if it be a fault) is a change, not in the hero but in the whole atmosphere. The point is not that Pickwick turns into a different kind of man; it is that "The Pickwick Papers" turns into a different kind of book. And however artistic both parts may be, this combination must, in strict art, be called inartistic. A man is quite artistically justified in writing a tale in which a man as cowardly as Bob Acres becomes a man as brave as Hector. But a man is not artistically justified in writing a tale which begins in the style of "The Rivals" and ends in the style of the Iliad. In other words, we do not mind the hero changing in the course of a book; but we are not prepared for the author changing in the course of the book."

The book changed because not only did its author change, but the focus changed when the suicide of its illustrator caused Charles Dickens to suggest to the publishers that the story now be about the illustrations serving the writing instead of the writing serving the illustrations. 

Having begun The Pickwick Papers only last week, I find myself amused by the picaresque style of Dickens' writing, but find myself longing for something of more substance and plot: works like David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or Bleak House. I cannot sit down and read The Pickwick Papers in the same way that I do Oliver Twist or A Tale of Two Cities. I find that, like candy, I can only eat this loosely connected novel in small bits, not all at once. This is not a meal. This is sweets. So I only read a few enjoyable chapters a day. 

I think I attempted to read The Pickwick Papers years ago but gave up because I wanted to read this satiric vignettes as a novel and grew bored with its lack of a strong narrative plot (much as I grew bored by The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy). 

American literary critic and Yale professor, Harold Bloom, adores The Pickwick Papers. As he has written about in a book entitled How To Read and Why?, Bloom states, "I re-read Dickens all the time, especially my peculiar favorite, which I've loved since I was a child, The Pickwick Papers." It is among the books he has returned to most over his life (along with In Search of Lost Time, Clarissa, and The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde). I don't see this happening in my own reading life. If I'm going to return to Dickens to reread one of his works, it will be those that I already do come back to because I love the characters and the stories so much. 

There are times I grow restless and bored with Pickwick, probably due to the fact that I have read Dickens' more mature and developed works prior to reading this. If, like the initial readership, I had come to Dickens through Pickwick, I might not be dreaming of the beauty of his prose and marvel as his ability to interweave complex narratives or create characters that are so unforgettable and memorable. 

That being said, there are moments in this work where I do find myself laughing out loud, such as in this dialogue:

"Hush. Don't ask any questions. It's always best on these occasions to do what the mob do."
"But suppose there are two mobs?" suggested Mr. Snodgrass. 
"Shout with the largest," replied Mr. Pickwick. 
Volumes could not have said more."

Or this one:

"She dotes on poetry, sir. She adores it; I may say that her whole soul and mind are wound up, and entwined with it. She has produced some delightful pieces, herself, sir. You may have met with her 'Ode to an Expiring Frog,' sir."

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

So I will wade through the digressions and the loosely strung together episodes in the hopes of gaining some appreciation of Dickens' first novel.

To read G.K. Chesterton's review of The Pickwick Papers:


  1. I tried to read Pickwick once and just couldn't get into it. Same with Candide... I wonder if humor just gets dated more quickly than drama.

    Off to read Chesterton's review now; thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi - I am the author of the novel "Death and Mr Pickwick", published by Random House in 2015, which tells the story behind the creation of The Pickwick Papers. One of my fans has just sent me a link to your page, which I enjoyed reading, and I shall post the link on my novel's facebook page www.facebook.com/deathandmrpickwick. I think, as Harold Bloom does, that Pickwick is a great work, but it works on completely different principles to normal novels. One of the truest things said about it is "Pickwick is not a novel, but a universe." None of Dickens's other works come close to Pickwick's 'vastness'. I also think that Pickwick has the greatest backstory of any work of fiction, so I do hope you will take a look at my own novel, too.

    Very pleased to see that you mentioned Chesterton. He wrote quite a lot about Pickwick, and made a very interesting statement, which relates to Pickwick's vastness: that you couldn't quite believe the novel had ended, you always thought there would be more pages.

    Best wishes

    Stephen Jarvis


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