Still at Eatanswill, the Pickwickians are invited to a costume breakfast by Mrs. Leo Hunter, a wretched poetess who seeks celebrated acquaintances and who sends her husband as an errand-boy. Mr. Pickwick gets furious when Tupman says he plans to dress, inappropriately, as a bandit. But the quarrel is smoothed over, and the Pickwickians turn up at Mrs. Leo Hunter's party. The place is full of poseurs — minor celebrities dressed as they would like to appear but simply parading their silliness. Count Smorltork has a tenuous, malapropian grasp of English but he considers himself an expert on English life after a two-week visit. Alfred Jingle turns up disguised as a Mr. Fitz-Marshall, and he makes a hasty exit when he encounters Mr. Pickwick, who chases him to Bury St. Edmunds in order to expose him.
Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller arrive at Bury St. Edmunds and go to a large inn, the Angel. The next morning Sam meets Jingle's servant, Job Trotter, a cadaverous, tearful man. Job tells Sam of his master's scheme to elope with a rich girl in a nearby boarding school. Job Trotter then suggests a plan to Mr. Pickwick by which the girl can be saved. This involves Mr. Pickwick's waiting in the boarding school garden to surprise Jingle in the act. Mr. Pickwick acts accordingly and is caught in a terrible storm. He can only escape the storm by entering the boarding school, which is full of hysterical women. The women lock him in a closet full of sandwich bags, and he asks them to send for his servant, Sam, who arrives later with Mr. Wardle and Mrs. Trundle. Wardle is in the area on a hunting expedition, and he accidentally learned of Mr. Pickwick's presence. The trouble is straightened out, but that night Mr. Pickwick and Sam vow to get even with Jingle and Job Trotter for that trick.
Laid up with rheumatism for a few days, Mr. Pickwick manages to recover his good spirits. At the hotel he relates the tale of the parish clerk to Wardle and Trundle. A provincial schoolmaster named Nathaniel Pipkin falls in love with pretty Maria Lobbs and with her father's money. Maria teases him but without any romantic intent. She invites him to tea at her house when her terrible-tempered father, Old Lobbs, is absent. Maria's handsome cousin, Henry, is also at the party, and Nathaniel becomes jealous when he notices Maria's interest in her cousin. Old Lobbs returns and Henry and Nathaniel are hidden in closets, but they are discovered. Maria pleads for Henry, who shows himself to be honorable, and Old Lobbs consents to the marriage. The frustrated Nathaniel runs amok on the wedding day.
These chapters center on knaves and fools, rascals and fakes. Mr. Pickwick, having learned that dishonesty exists and that it can prosper, begins a career of combating it. Dishonesty begins appearing everywhere in various forms, from the pretenses of the costume party, to Jingle's alias, to Job Trotter's practical joke, to certain aspects of the interpolated tale. Mr. Pickwick, while he may be taken in by trickery, stands apart from it. And he finds an ally in Sam Weller to help him expose it.
Mrs. Hunter's party is a social error, since the idea of a costume breakfast is absurd. Costume parties are held at night, not in glaring daylight. Further, the costumes that the characters choose reveal their aspirations, which are out of keeping with their real nature. Tupman goes as a romantic stage bandit, although he is fat and fiftyish. Snodgrass goes as a troubadour, but he cannot write verse. Winkle dresses as a sportsman, though he has no coordination. The disgruntled housewife, Mrs. Pott, goes as the sun god Apollo. The browbeaten Mr. Pott goes as a fierce Russian judge. The simple-minded Mrs. Leo Hunter postures as the intellectual Minerva. To complete the absurdity, the costumes themselves are totally inaccurate.
Pretense, of course, is the key to Mrs. Leo Hunter's circle. Mr. Pickwick is the only one who wears his normal dress. He is incapable of imposture, and he dislikes it in his companion, Tupman, when it verges on the ridiculous. However, his companions are too absorbed in their roles to follow his example.
Dickens, incidentally, uses names to reveal a character's function. Leo Hunter means lion hunter, one who seeks celebrities. Count Smoritork, who mangles everyone's name, has a distorted phrase for a name: small talk.
The principal impostor at the party is Alfred Jingle, who uses the alias, Charles Fitz-Marshall. Amid the toadying and pretense, he enters his true element. The party is a milieu where a person can be anything he chooses, where character is fluid and amorphous. However, Jingle cannot enjoy this freedom long because he is recognized and frightened off by the one real person there, Mr. Pickwick.
From the humbug of Eatanswill society, Dickens moves to the budding friendship between Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller. Chapter 16 begins with Pickwick and Sam pleasantly conversing on master-and-servant terms to while away the journey to Bury St. Edmunds; it ends with Sam vowing to aid Mr. Pickwick in chastising Jingle and Job Trotter. Sam, as well as Mr. Pickwick, is fooled by Job Trotter, which wounds his pride. In this way Sam becomes involved in Mr. Pickwick's emotional life: they share the humiliation of the practical joke. They are still technically master and servant, but a big change has taken place. Both men have taken a protective interest in each other. They are now confederates.
Although he has a debilitating attack of rheumatism, Mr. Pickwick recovers his good spirits and sense of humor soon after the incident. Comedy depends upon the resilience of human nature, the ability to bounce back after serious setbacks. Comedy requires a sense of proportion, above all — the commonplace knowledge that one or two disappointments are not the end of the world.
The tale that Mr. Pickwick relates to Wardle and Trundle is rather light-hearted. Dickens borrowed the idea from Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but it fits its setting in the novel. The theme of deception is very prominent. Nathaniel Pipkin thinks he wants Maria Lobbs but really covets her father's money and power. Maria Lobbs leads him on, but she actually loves her cousin. The game of blind man's bluff at her party symbolizes Nathaniel's mental blindness. He is a butt who gets what he deserves. His mercenary intent is very similar to Jingle's, and the fact that Pipkin gets nothing probably soothes Mr. Pickwick's feelings after being outsmarted. A further irony is that Old Lobbs is a literary caricature of Wardle, who hears the tale.