13 January 2010

Review: The Pickwick Papers

At Thanksgiving dinner, I mentioned to my Uncle and Aunt that I was planning on reading War and Peace over my winter break. Much to my surprise, the two of them hated the book, and thus the idea. So, thoroughly rebuffed, I asked what they would recommend. I got The Iliad and The Odyssey (yes, it's practically criminal that I haven't read them before, but I have new copies that I got for Christmas, and that will be remedied soon). But then they said "read The Pickwick Papers."

Now it was my turn to act disgusted at a book. "Nope. I hate Dickens," I told them. My Aunt persisted, and told me this was like no other novel Dickens ever wrote. The line that sold it for me was, "It's like Dickens was on uppers when he wrote it." How could I say no to that? You'll find the review after the break.

After finishing the mammoth book (875 pages in the edition I had before switching over to the Kindle), I'm glad they convinced me. It's a sprawling novel, definitely in the picaresque tradition, and at times it drags. That said, it has some of the best characters I've ever come across in literature. Mr. Pickwick is the esteemed leader of a club named for him, and the novel chronicles his journeys through England over about a year and a half.

But the character that I liked most was also my biggest shock. When the back cover noted that there was a character with a cockney accent, I knew I would hate him. Nothing is more annoying to me than when an author writes an accent and leaves me to parse through it (See: Dracula). So imagine my shock when Sam Weller became my favorite character in the book. His accent is written out, but easy to understand. That's all I ask for. Take note, authors, if you're going to write an accent, use Sam Weller as your model.

The other reason I was shocked to find I liked Sam was because he reminded me so much of one of my least favorite literary figures: Sancho Panza. Both sidekicks to wandering heros, both love to spout aphorisms, and both figure themselves to be witty. The difference is that Dickens pulls this off. He is actually raucously funny throughout the novel, and I found myself laughing out loud a few times.

Now, all of this is not to say the novel had no faults. At times, it tended to ramble too much. Dickens kept a fairly tight reign, and you could tell that even he understood his characters were often too prosaic, as in this example describing Mr. Snodgrass revealing his love:
...it afforded him an opportunity of acknowledging, before their mutual friends, that he loved Mr. Wardle's daughter deeply and sincerely; that he was proud to avow that the feeling was mutual; and that if thousands of miles were placed between them, or oceans rolled their waters, he could never for an instant forget those happy days, when first - et cetera, et cetera.
This was one of the points I laughed out loud. You can almost hear Dickens yelling at his narrator: "GET ON WITH IT!!"

This book really is fantastic. I do need to learn that picaresque novels (this, Don Quixote, etc) tend to annoy me at times, so I should try having some secondary reading material on hand. But if you haven't read it, go out and get a copy (or grab a public domain version online) and give it a look.


  1. A likable Dickens character?!?!?!?1

  2. Shocking isn't it? And he wasn't overly likable (see: Li'l Nell), which was a nice breath of fresh air.