On May 12, 1827, the Pickwick Club of London listens to Mr. Pickwick's paper, "Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats." In order to extend the field of Mr. Pickwick's knowledge, the club votes for a traveling society that will consist of Samuel Pickwick, Tracy Tupman, Augustus Snodgrass, and Nathaniel Winkle. Each will have to pay his own expenses and send reports back to the club. A fat, elderly, bald man, Mr. Pickwick is facetiously presented as a profound thinker. Tupman is a fat, middle-aged ladies' man, Snodgrass is a poet, and Winkle is a sportsman.
The club chairman, Mr. Pickwick, climbs up on a chair to make a speech about his desire to benefit mankind through scientific knowledge and information about the danger of accidents in travel, to which a member called Blotton objects, telling him he is a humbug. Mr. Pickwick is angered by this insult and confusion ensues. At last things are straightened out when Pickwick and Blotton say they did not intend their remarks in the common sense but in the "Pickwickian sense."
The tone of this opening chapter is patronizing, pompous, and tongue-in-cheek. Dickens appears to be satirizing "scientific" clubs, since the object of the Pickwick Club seems to be one of contributing to "scientific" information. Mr. Pickwick, we infer, is a silly old fool surrounded by worshipful admirers. His paper on the Hampstead Ponds and tittlebats is absurd, one assumes, because the phrase "the theory of" is worded unscientifically; tittlebats do exist, however, and are small, bony fish.
Mr. Pickwick is full of self-congratulation in assuming that his work will benefit humanity and in exaggerating the dangers he will face in traveling. His benign aplomb is shaken, however, when Blotton calls him a humbug. A name-calling session ensues, which effectively destroys any pretense Mr. Pickwick may have had to scientific objectivity. His good humor is restored only when Blotton flatters him by saying that he meant "humbug" in a Pickwickian sense. "Pickwickian sense" is harmless nonsense, a means of retreating from an angry statement, yet it suggests the clubbish atmosphere and Mr. Pickwick's patriarchal role in the club.
Another element of this chapter is worth looking into — the aspect of boyishness. A club like this, all male, usually produces a resurgence of the boyhood spirit, somewhat as fraternities do. It is a snug refuge away from feminine influence, a place where men can be themselves and allow the boy in them free expression. This spirit continues unimpaired through the greater part of the novel, until prison and romance become prominent. Boyishness is stated as one of Tupman's traits, but it is also evident in the foolish title of Mr. Pickwick's paper, in the assumption that scientific doodling is of great importance, in the pompous and cumbersome initials attached to each name, in the appending of inappropriate interests to the main members (which is like calling a fat boy "Slats"), in Mr. Pickwick getting up on his chair to make a speech, in the vainglorious speech, in the name-calling that follows, and in the making-up. So far Mr. Pickwick's childish innocence has been emphasized, but his better qualities will emerge later.
Most of all, though, there is something callow in the inflated, condescending, facetious style of the chapter, which superficially mimics the minutes of a club. One suspects that this was an attempt on Dickens' part (he was twenty-four when he began writing Pickwick Papers) to enter into the spirit of the Pickwick Club, to project its jejune tone. In his heavy-handedness, we recognize that Dickens is but one step removed from the silly behavior of his characters. However, none of this is out of keeping with the youthful sense of fun that pervades the novel.