When his two-months' stay in Bath is finished, Mr. Pickwick returns to London. Three days later he is taken into custody by a rough, ostentatious sheriff and his helper. Sam Weller puts up a fight but is restrained by Mr. Pickwick. At the sheriff's office, Pickwick observes two young dissolutes. Mr. Perker arrives and attempts to dissuade Mr. Pickwick from going to prison but is unsuccessful. Perker then tells him they must wait for a writ of habeas corpus, which they obtain later that day. Mr. Pickwick and Sam are taken to the Fleet Prison for debtors. There, Pickwick has to undergo the humiliation of "sitting for his portrait," which means allowing all of the turnkeys to scrutinize him closely. Mr. Pickwick sees about getting a bed for the night and is at last incarcerated in prison.
The warder, Tom Roker, leads Mr. Pickwick through foul, dingy passageways to his room, insisting upon the excellence of the accommodations. Sam Weller observes that prison does not harm idlers but it wrecks honest men, and he tells of a mild, anonymous prisoner who became so habituated to prison that freedom terrified him. Mr. Pickwick sends Sam to fetch his belongings and goes to bed for the night. He is awakened by his intoxicated roommates, who are exceptionally boisterous. One fellow snatches off Mr. Pickwick's nightcap and puts it on a companion's head, at which Pickwick jumps up and punches him. Another disagreeable roommate, Smangle, suggests they all have a drink at Pickwick's expense. Mr. Pickwick agrees, and Smangle cadges some cigars as well. While Mr. Pickwick tries to sleep, Smangle boasts of his romantic fantasies for hours.
Mr. Pickwick has a choice: he can pay Mrs. Bardell's damages or go to jail. Neither alternative is pleasant. If he paid up he would be rewarding three mercenary people, Mrs. Bardell and Dodson and Fogg. It would imply that they were right and he was wrong. If he goes to prison the law still triumphs. It can inflict a permanently miserable life on him. But Mr. Pickwick chooses prison, presumably because he himself would rather suffer than abet wrong by paying up. And although there may be principle behind the decision, it is backed up by strong elements of stubbornness and pique.
Here Mr. Pickwick starts to learn the consequences of his principles. He is finding out just how formidable the law can be. A new step is taking place in his education: he is learning that scoundrels like Dodson and Fogg have the power to subject him to misery for the rest of his life. There is no question of good triumphing, as it did when Jingle was exposed. Mr. Pickwick is beginning to see that evil can win indefinitely, but he refuses to give in to it no matter what the cost.
These chapters show Mr. Pickwick's arrest and his initiation into prison, which are highly unpleasant. The air of comedy is almost entirely muted. Dickens emphasizes the filth, the shabbiness, the sadness, and the squalor of the people and their surroundings. When the mood of a novel begins to change it is a good idea to pay attention to the diction and tone of the descriptive passages. When Mr. Pickwick is led to his room, for example, adjectives like "dirty," "dark," "narrow" recur frequently and convey the claustrophobic, grave-like, airless prison setting. The diction can convey a mood, just as musical notes convey a melody.
In addition, the characters we meet are very unsavory. The sheriff and his aide seem like refugees from a penal colony. The young men in the sheriff's office are callous and despicable. The lame, ragged "bail" who accosts Mr. Pickwick is pitiable. The turnkeys are grim. Tom Roker extorts a good deal of money for cells and furnishings. Mivins, whom Pickwick hits, and Smangle are idle predators who thrive in prison. The human degradation of these chapters is sinister. Mr. Pickwick begins by thinking he can bear imprisonment with equanimity, but he soon realizes he is in a jungle of poverty, filth, misery, and rascality.
The difference between prison and freedom can be measured in two men: Smangle and Bob Sawyer. Both seem to flourish in conditions that would demoralize another person; both are dissipated and improvident; neither is above marrying for money. But Sawyer is a comic figure, while Smangle is distasteful. The difference lies mainly in their attitude toward Mr. Pickwick. Sawyer looks upon Pickwick as a pleasant companion, and Smangle sees him as a gullible person to be cheated. The scarcity of prison life determines Smangle's outlook, while the relative plenty available in the outside world determines Bob Sawyer's (even though Sawyer is quite poor).