Pickwick Papers is one of the most popular novels of all time. Since its first publication in serial form in 1836 it has enjoyed an immense success. It inspired Pickwick products, literary imitations and plagiarisms, and state adaptations. Most "smash hits" are quickly forgotten, but this novel is still read for enjoyment by general readers. Moreover, in England today there are men who retrace the imaginary travels of the Pickwickians, as if to recreate the world of the novel. The reasons for its universal popularity are not hard to find. The novel is funny, easy to read, rich in characterization, humane and Christian in its values, lively and continuously entertaining — in short, a thorough delight. Pickwick Papers is a publisher's dream: the perennial best-seller.
This is essentially a serious novel, but its serious aspects are presented in the guise of comedy. Not that Dickens makes the reader swallow a bitter pill with a sugar coating of humor. The important values are precisely those that blend well with comedy. Pickwick Papers exalts the joys of travel, the pleasures of eating and drinking well, fellowship between men, innocence, benevolence, youthfulness and romance. Dickens achieves these values by presenting them against rather unpleasant realities. Comfortable travel is contrasted with the stagnant squalor of Fleet Prison. Good food and drink are played off against the grubby victuals and wine of prison. Male friendships are set off against predatory wives, widows, and spinsters as well as mean and unscrupulous men. Innocence and youthfulness are subjected to skepticism, knavery, and prison. And romance is contrasted with various schemes for mercenary marriages. As a result we get a full picture of just how valuable these qualities and conditions are. Through contrasts the reader comes to cherish goodness and simplicity as they are embodied in Mr. Pickwick. But, again, we experience them through the medium of comedy.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the novel is its masculine quality. It isn't simply that the great majority of the characters are male or that most of the women are treated unsympathetically. And certainly the major characters are not particularly aggressive, violent, or domineering. The masculinity of the novel rests mainly in the finesse and accuracy of Dickens' portrayal of male relationships. Women are shown either as sweet young objects of romance or as threatening middle-aged predators. They are either sentimental or comic figures and lack the reality with which Dickens draws men. Dickens understands men and delights in their eccentricities, but women are an unknown quantity to him. If a woman wants some idea of the world most men live in she could do no better than to read this novel.
Dickens did go on to write greater, subtler, more complex novels, but Pickwick Papers can be viewed as a testing ground for themes and characters in his later works, even if the plot is loose and rambling, closer in form to the picaresque novels of the eighteenth century than to Dickens' later novels or to the future development of the novel. The themes of money, incarceration, and fatherhood are treated extensively, but Dickens would take them up later and develop them to a high degree of virtuosity.
Dickens did not come to Pickwick Papers without literary precedents, fresh as it seems in the history of the novel. Behind the episodic form lay the work of Cervantes, Fielding, and Smollett. Behind the idea of the Pickwick Club and its leader lay the adventures of Surtees' Jorrocks. Behind the treatment of the law lay Fielding's depiction of legal corruption. The farcical scenes of men getting caught in nightclothes have their counterparts in Fielding and Smollett. The idea of a man going to prison on principle and changing into a wiser, better man was already used by Goldsmith in The Vicar of Wakefield. And in back of the treatment of various scenes lay a broad acquaintance with the theater and its techniques. In the case of Smollett, Fielding, and Surtees, Dickens changed their coarseness and brutality into a gentler kind of comedy. And he secularized the otherworldliness of Goldsmith's vicar. Although the sources are present, they are not obtrusive. And Pickwick Papers addresses itself to the reader as an original work — original in the sense that one finds a new prospect opening in the development of the novel and a fresh prose style to express it.
From a sociological standpoint, however, the novel has a serious deficiency. If politics and elections are treated scornfully as a species of nonsense that is useless for effecting good, how is the evil of a debtors' prison to be eliminated? By implication Dickens places hope of society's redemption in the private hands of philanthropists like Mr. Pickwick, rather than in institutions. But personal benevolence is totally impotent against bad institutions: Mr. Pickwick can do little to alleviate the misery of the Fleet. Dickens obviously feels that debtors' prisons should be done away with, but he burnt his bridges behind him in showing political action to be futile.
But Dickens was not a sociologist or a political economist. As a novelist he was much more effective in calling attention to social problems — like debtors' prisons — than he would have been in proposing solutions. He had the power to make his readers visualize Fleet Prison, which was much more effective in the cause of reform than any number of tracts. A novelist can muster the tides of public opinion, which Dickens knew better than any of his critics. He can arrange his fiction so that it produces indignation. Dickens was a reformer not by virtue of his intellectual ability but by virtue of the spell he cast over his readers, making them feel certain injustices as if they were their own.
If Pickwick Papers is a literary triumph, it is also something of a social triumph. Although there had been movements for reforming and abolishing debtors' prisons long before Dickens wrote this book, he helped give the movement the force of public opinion. He was assisted by a gentleman named Samuel Pickwick. Within about two decades, debtors' prisons no longer existed in London.