Summary and Analysis
At Eatanswill, a noisy, contentious election is taking place between the Blues and the Buffs. Each party does its utmost to frustrate and harass the opposition. The Pickwickians arrive in the middle of a shouting contest between a mob of Blues and a mob of Buffs, and Mr. Pickwick tells his companions to yell with the largest mob.
The Pickwickians locate Mr. Perker, now an election adviser for the Blues. Perker tells them about the underhanded tactics of both parties to gain votes, and he introduces them to the editor of the Blue paper, a pompous windbag named Mr. Pott, who invites Pickwick and Winkle to stay at his home. They accept and find that Mrs. Pott treats her husband with condescending sarcasm. Mr. Pott forces Mr. Pickwick to listen to old editorials, while Mrs. Pott takes an interest in young Winkle.
The next morning, election excitement is at fever pitch. As the two men prepare for the day's events, Sam Weller tells Mr. Pickwick of how his coachman-father dumped a group of voters in a canal. The Pickwickians are in the Blue procession, which is roughed up by the Buffs.
After the Blue candidate, Samuel Slumkey, shakes hands and kisses babies, the nominating and polling procedures get underway amid a deafening hubbub. There is a tie between Samuel Slumkey and his Buff opponent, Horatio Fizkin, which is resolved in Slumkey's favor when Mr. Perker bribes a final group of electors.
In the "commercial room" at the Peacock Inn at Eatanswill, Snodgrass and Tupman become interested in an argument about women, which induces a one-eyed bagman to tell a story about Tom Smart, a poor commercial traveler. Smart is caught in a terrible storm on the heath and barely manages to reach an inn, which is owned by a buxom widow. Tom Smart finds things extremely pleasant there, except for a tall man who is courting the widow. Smart covets the inn and the widow, and goes to bed drunk and disgruntled. He is awakened by an old chair that assumes the features of a sly, elderly man and that tells him how to get rid of the tall man, who is a scoundrel. The next morning Smart finds an incriminating letter, which he shows to the widow, who then decides to marry him. The bagman's listeners remain skeptical.
These two chapters contrast the frenetic exertions of an election with the relaxation to be had in a bar with an experienced storyteller. Dickens' coverage of the election is rendered in a coy, ironic prose that exposes the silliness of the event while pretending to take it at its face value. And in the following chapter the style is easy-going, colloquial, conversational, and it captures the moods of a hotel bar gathering especially well. The two prose styles are wonderfully balanced and show Dickens' growing finesse with prose.
The main point about the election is that there are no real issues, merely a lot of commotion, rudeness, and trickery. The two parties are identical; there is no choice or meaning in the election. Slumkey and Fizkin are like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. This fact makes all the passion and violence, all the chicanery and flattery, absurd. The ridiculousness of the event is epitomized when one of Slumkey's committeemen addresses a group of young boys as "men of Eatanswill" and delivers an oration.
At one point Dickens reveals another aspect of Mr. Pickwick's character — his gallantry. When Mrs. Pott waves to him from a rooftop he waves a kiss to her, which the crowd interprets as lechery. Mr. Pickwick becomes indignant, not because of the vulgar remarks about himself, but because Mrs. Pott's honor is slandered. In details like this, Dickens is building up a complex and appealing portrait of Mr. Pickwick.
However, Mrs. Pott's honor is rather flexible. She has taken a romantic interest in Winkle and spends much of her time with him — an interest that Winkle will have cause to regret. There is no compatibility between her and Mr. Pott. If he is a public lion, he is also a domestic mouse. Mr. Pott habitually talks an editorial jargon, as if he were addressing a crowd. One can understand Mrs. Pott's scorn for him and her regard for young Winkle. The themes of henpecking and cuckolding are an ancient source of humor, probably because men have always viewed women as the weaker sex. However, Winkle is innocent. Dickens could only go so far in suggesting impropriety, but the theme of henpecking will recur several times.
The bagman's tale is perfect for a "commercial room" (hotel bar) and an all-male audience; it assumes women are fair game, it has a leering shrewdness, and it shows how a little fellow triumphs over his flashier and taller rival. Tupman, who hears the story, must have been quite receptive to it after the rascally Jingle had just taken Rachael from him. Another contrast is implicit in this tale, which depicts a widow as being a defenseless, amiable prey for a man with pluck. In the novel widows are predatory, while men are the defenseless victims.
Time is given a severe wrench in Chapter 13, where Mr. Pott pulls out his files for 1828 to read two-year-old editorials to Mr. Pickwick. At Cobham in June 1827, Mr. Pickwick said the group would go to Eatanswill in a few days, and here three years have vanished. In this novel time has its warps and lapses, much as it does in surrealist literature.