Summary and Analysis
Snodgrass and Mr. Perker hope that the jurymen have had a good breakfast, which means that they would be more likely to decide in favor of the defendant. At Guildhall, where the trial takes place, the Pickwickians, the lawyers, the spectators and the plaintiff are seated. Mrs. Bardell and her companions put on a little charade of misery. Mr. Justice Stareleigh, the judge, a small, fat, stupid, testy man, concerns himself with irrelevancies. And after a reluctant juror is sworn in, the trial begins.
Serjeant Buzfuz, the prosecuting attorney, tells of Mrs. Bardell's trusting innocence and Mr. Pickwick's villainy. He places a suspicious interpretation on Pickwick's casual notes to his landlady. Witnesses are called. Mrs. Cluppins eavesdropped on the conversation in which Mr. Pickwick "proposed." Winkle, who is badgered into confusion by the prosecution, adds further damaging evidence. Snodgrass and Tupman fare little better. Mrs. Sanders tells of circumstantial rumors. Finally Sam Weller cheerfully testifies that he knew nothing of the proposal, but he adds that Dodson and Fogg took the case on speculation, hoping to get money out of Pickwick. The case is summed up, and the jury finds Mr. Pickwick guilty, setting the damages at 750 pounds. On leaving, Mr. Pickwick says flatly that he would rather go to debtors' prison than pay.
The trial is one of the most marvelous comic set pieces in English literature. This is because Dickens understands the essential nature of a trial — it is a theater in which a contest takes place, a legal game with established rituals and rules. The game has nothing to do with justice or morality, except in a remote way; but it has everything to do with showmanship. In this struggle Mr. Pickwick's lawyers are hopelessly outclassed: Serjeant Snubbin has no life to him and Mr. Phunky is a nervous incompetent. Serjeant Buzfuz, for all the patent absurdity of his allegations, has a sound grasp of the nature and purpose of rhetoric, and his assistant thoroughly understands the tactics of cross-examination. They are playing for an audience, the jury, which will decide the winner. And they have a further advantage in that Mr. Pick-wick's lawyers are on the defensive.
The only thing in Mr. Pickwick's favor is the testimony of Sam Weller, whose self-possession allows him to deflate the prosecution's case with one lethal remark about Dodson and Fogg. Possibly it is this remark that causes the jury to cut the damages in half, but even so Dodson and Fogg seem happy with the trial's outcome.
Dickens uses small details to good effect. Serjeant Buzfuz makes a big issue of Tommy Bardell's marbles, items that have no bearing on the case whatever but are used, fatuously, to establish a homely sympathy for Mrs. Bardell and her brat. Comedy is also present in Buzfuz's erotic interpretation of Mr. Pickwick's menu. Buzfuz's rhetoric, in fact, is a literary burlesque of courtroom procedure. Dickens' verve in carrying it to extremes of absurdity makes it successful.
In this chapter, the time scheme is cleared up. It turns out that the Pickwickians began their travels the year before, in 1830, and that Mr. Pickwick "proposed" in July. This means that barely a month had elapsed before Mrs. Bardell started the lawsuit against him, surely a hasty decision on her part. With this new perspective, we can see that Dickens had forgotten his original date for the beginning of the travels, May 13, 1827. However, this perspective reinforces our sense of time in reading the novel as a series of successive adventures. But Dickens still telescopes time for his own purposes.