Mr. Pickwick rises at dawn in an exuberant mood and prepares for his first trip. While riding in a horse-drawn cab to meet his friends he takes notes on the cab-driver's fabrications about the horse. The cabbie thinks Mr. Pickwick is an informer, and on reaching the destination he rapidly strikes all the Pickwickians and arouses a crowd against them. However, they are rescued by a self-possessed and seedy young man with a glib line of patter. The stranger joins them on their journey to Rochester and regales them with outlandish impromptu anecdotes about his vast experience.
At Rochester the Pickwickians stop at a fashionable inn and invite the stranger to dinner. Everyone drinks a great deal, and all but Tracy Tupman and the stranger pass out. A dance is underway and Tupman loans the stranger Winkle's dress coat. Dunng the ball the stranger wins a wealthy middle-aged widow away from Dr. Slammer, a local army man. Infuriated, Slammer vows to take revenge.
The next morning a lieutenant looks for the man with Winkle's coat and finds Winkle, whom he challenges to a duel on Slammer's behalf. Winkle is unable to recall anything, but he fearfully accepts the challenge because he has his reputation to keep up. That evening, with Snodgrass as his willing second, Winkle goes to meet Slammer and fully expects to be shot. At the last moment Slammer calls off the duel because he sees that Winkle is the wrong man, and the two men part amiably.
Winkle and Snodgrass return to the inn to find Mr. Pickwick and Tupman with the stranger and a friend of his — a shabby, emaciated actor called "Dismal Jemmy." The actor tells a story about an alcoholic pantomime who beats his wife and son, goes from bad to worse acting jobs until he is unable to support himself, is forced back on his wife's care, and dies insane.
When the tale is finished the group is interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Slammer and two companions. Recognizing Tupman and the stranger, Slammer demands an explanation. Angry remarks follow, and Slammer and his friends leave with some cutting insults. Mr. Pickwick rushes at them in a fury, but he is restrained by his companions. Soon brandy restores equanimity to the group.
The Pickwickians go to nearby Chatham to see the army maneuvers and are buffeted by the crowd, fired on by the militia, and caught among several regiments in mock combat. They disentangle themselves to find Mr. Wardle, a country squire, and his family. Wardle invites them to share in the picnic. And while Snodgrass is attracted to Wardle's daughter, Emily, Tupman becomes enamored of Wardle's spinster sister, Rachael, who is jealous of her two attractive nieces. The pleasant outing ends at sunset with Mr. Wardle inviting the Pickwickians to his farm at Dingley Dell.
These chapters begin to delineate the Pickwickians by showing them in action. They are out of the cozy club atmosphere and on their own in the world at large. Mr. Pickwick's innocence is dramatized by the fact that he cannot see through the remarks of the cabman or the stranger. His followers are just as inexperienced. The stranger tells an absurd anecdote to each of them that deals with their special field of interest, and they are taken in. The comedy here rests on the exposure of pretensions. But the stranger has pretensions of his own to large possessions, a fat bankroll, wide experience, amorous conquests, and encyclopedic knowledge. The difference is that the stranger is fully aware of his pretenses, and as a result he has perfect self-possession despite his seediness. He can afford his grand, theatrical make-believe because he has nothing to lose by it. Yet the Pickwickians, who have their individual reputations to keep up, are subjected to embarrassments.
This is the point of Winkle accepting Slammer's challenge to duel even though he has no recollection of the insult, and of his doing everything possible to prevent the duel. Winkle must accept because he is a sportsman, and he must get out of it because he has no skill with a gun. The stranger, though, just brushes off Slammer's challenge with impertinence. The humor lies in Winkle's appeal to Snodgrass to get him out of his predicament, which has to be indirect to keep up appearances, and in Snodgrass' willingness to go through with the duel because a duel is "poetic." Two reputations are at stake. This situation could be grim, except that we know Slammer would not recognize Winkle. Thus potential tragedy is converted into the comedy of discomfiture. This, incidentally, is not the last time Winkle will inadvertently get into trouble over a middle-aged woman.
Each Pickwickian is suffering from a hangover when "Dismal Jemmy" appears with his tale about the alcoholic pantomime. His story shows a world that is antithetical to comedy, a world where the relations between people are fearful, vicious, and paranoid, where family ties are tenuous, and where the literary style is lurid and melodramatic, like Poe at his worst. Dickens uses the story to show the dark side of alcohol and balances this against the light, comic side of liquor at the chapter's end, where it soothes everyone after the fight with Slammer. Dickens celebrates drinking despite hangovers and alcoholism — it fosters comradeship and good feeling.
Still another contrast is implicit between the stroller's tale and the Pickwickian world, that between viciousness and innocence. The drunkard of the tale is a calamitous father, while Mr. Pickwick is fatherly and protective toward all of his companions, and he is ready to fight when they are insulted. John, the drunkard, is self-destructive, but Mr. Pickwick continues on his innocent, fatherly way. Comedy implies survival.
This chapter also presents another pairing of opposites, which prepares us for the next chapter — the Pickwick group and the army group consisting of the covetous Slammer, the trouble-making Payne and the officious Tappleton. These army men are anti-Pickwickian, motivated by base instincts, ready for trouble, and yet with a clubbish solidarity. In just two chapters Dickens defines the Pickwickians against an adventurer, the stroller's tale, and army clubbism. There is real concentration beneath the diffuse, episodic surface of comedy.
In Chapter 4, Dickens measures the Pickwickians against an anonymous crowd of onlookers, against the anonymous army regiments (both of which threaten their limbs and lives), and then he lets them find their true element in the hospitality and rich life of the Wardles. The Pickwickians stand out from both the anarchic mob of onlookers and the precision of army maneuvers. In the Pickwick Club there is coherence but everyone can maintain his own individuality. The coherence is based on boyish innocence, which is inimical to mob assimilation or army standardization. That these two elements are presented together and threaten the Pickwickians equally shows a remarkable dramatic intuition on Dickens' part.
After their rough exposure to hostile forces, the Pickwickians find a congenial group with which to mix, and the two groups pair off beautifully: Pickwick and Wardle, Tupman and Rachael, Snodgrass and Emily. From the haven of Wardle's barouche the army maneuvers become a pleasant diversion from courting and picnicking. Mr. Wardle has room for everybody — even for Joe the Fat Boy, who is useless, greedy, and somnolent. We have a glimpse of life as a feast, a place where one's trials are rewarded. The invitation to the Wardle farm, in fact, is like an invitation to a terrestrial heaven.
In these three chapters, which take us out into the fresh air of the open road, the heaviness which marks the first chapter is dissipated in a style that is colloquial and vivacious. Mr. Pickwick remains somewhat undeveloped, and a jarring note occurs when he approves, in his notebook, of a soldier who wounded a barmaid when she refused to serve him any more liquor and who goes back the next day ready to overlook the incident. This sentiment, while opposed to benevolence, is characteristic of boyhood. One senses that Dickens is feeling his way with Pickwick, but at this point Pickwickianism is a larger reality than Mr. Pickwick.