In a holiday mood, the Pickwickians take the coach to Muggleton, a ride everyone enjoys. They are met by Joe the Fat Boy, and from Muggleton they walk to the Wardle farm, where they are given a hearty reception. The Wardles are visited by several young women, friends of the Wardle girls, who have come to see Isabella married to Mr. Trundle. Winkle begins a romance with one of the young ladies, Arabella Allen, and Snodgrass is happy to see Emily again. The next couple of days are given over to the marriage and wedding breakfast, to card games, dancing, feasting, drinking and toasts, singing, flirtation, kissing games, and storytelling. Everyone is in the best of spirits.
Full of holiday gaiety, old Mr. Wardle tells the story of the goblins who stole a sexton. Gabriel Grub, a mean, misanthropic sexton, goes to dig a grave on Christmas Eve and beats up a little boy on the way. The work is hard, and when Grub rests to take a drink he meets the king of goblins, who accuses him of being a nasty, spiteful fellow. A short trial follows in which he is condemned by the goblins, who take him to an underground cavern and kick him mercilessly. They also show him scenes of life that exalt goodness, cheer, and beauty. The next morning he arises, a converted man, and leaves the area for ten years. When he returns, he is old, poor, but happy, and he tells what had happened to him.
One morning Mr. Pickwick gets up to find two medical students in the Wardle kitchen. Ben Allen and Bob Sawyer are ill-mannered, slovenly, high-spirited young men who, over breakfast, cheerfully talk of dissecting bodies. Winkle enters with his sweetheart, Arabella Allen, who is surprised to see her brother Ben. Winkle is jealous of Bob Sawyer's attentions to Arabella. Everyone goes to church, and afterward a skating party gets underway. Winkle demonstrates his ineptitude. The skaters are full of merriment until Mr. Pickwick falls through the ice. Eventually he is hauled out, and he rushes home to bed, where he drinks a quantity of punch, which saves him from illness. The following morning the festivities break up. Bob Sawyer invites Mr. Pickwick to a party in London; Winkle and Snodgrass take leave of their sweet-hearts; and the Pickwickians return to London.
These chapters are at the very center of the novel in both a literal and figurative sense. They celebrate Christmas, benevolence, gaiety, plenty, and friendship. While Dickens evinces Christian feeling, he has secularized Christmas. Here Christmas is primarily an occasion for a wedding, for large gatherings, for nostalgia and merriment. Its religious core, the birth of Christ, has been removed. What is left then is a multitude of activities and people designed to produce good feeling.
In a similar spirit, Isabella Wardle and Mr. Trundle are minor figures at their own wedding, which is viewed as a pretext for celebration. What Dickens wants to capture is the crowd spirit, the group mood to which everyone contributes his own special note. At the heart of this mass festivity is Mr. Pickwick, who almost seems like an allegorical emblem of generosity and good cheer. Opposed to him is the story figure of Gabriel Grub, who stands for meanness and cruelty. But even Grub must yield to the Christmas spirit. In these chapters Dickens lays hare the meaning of his novel in an abstract way. At times his own voice becomes obtrusive, and the characters tend to become symbols.
However, Mr. Pickwick resists Dickens' abstractions; he remains a living character. Women regard him as "an old dear" and they delight in mobbing him and smothering him with kisses during the fun. He is perfectly at ease in their company. Gallant, generous, gentlemanly, Mr. Pickwick is adored by women, even if he does not inspire a romantic interest.
The tale of Gabriel Grub shows a mirror-image not just of Mr. Pickwick but of the action of the whole novel. Grub begins by leading a harsh, constricted, miserable life. He is tried and punished by goblins. And he emerges a reformed man. Mr. Pickwick begins by leading a rambling, adventurous, amiable life. He is tried in court, goes to prison, and comes out a wiser, less exuberant man. He does not lose his benevolence, however. It simply takes a more purposeful form.
One does not object to Dickens' treatment of romance in this section. While Winkle and Arabella and Snodgrass and Emily are hopelessly pallid — deliberate nonentities like Isabella and Trundle — they have their place as romantic figures in the festive background. If Dickens uses a coy tone to portray them, it is kept subordinate to other features.
Bob Sawyer and the doltish Ben Allen are much more vivid after three pages than Winkle and Snodgrass will ever be. One can understand Mr. Pickwick's ready acceptance of an invitation to their party in London despite their boisterous vulgarity and shabbiness.