Summary and Analysis
Mr. Pickwick remains adamant in his refusal to pay damages. On learning that it will be two months before he can be imprisoned, he decides to take his companions to Bath. He is accompanied by the Dowlers and listens to Captain Dowler advertise his own ferocity. At Bath the Pickwickians meet Angelo Cyrus Bantam, the master of ceremonies at a hotel. Bantam invites them to a ball, and Mr. Pickwick sends Sam for the tickets. Sam meets Bantam's snobbish footman and has some fun at his expense. The ball is fashionable and trivial, full of small talk, scandal, matchmaking, toadying, silliness, and glamour. Mr. Pickwick gets into a game of cards with three sharp, impatient socialites who intimidate him. He loses at cards and goes home to bed.
Since Mr. Pickwick and his friends plan to stay two months in Bath, they take private lodgings, which they share with the Dowlers. Life quickly settles into a pleasant routine centered on drinking mineral water. One evening Mr. Pickwick stays up to read "The True Legend of Prince Bladud," founder of Bath. One legend states that Bladud was cured of leprosy by the water of Bath. But the true story is that his father, the king, contracted a political marriage for him, while he had fallen in love with an Athenian lady. His father imprisons him, but Bladud escapes and flees to Athens, where he learns his sweetheart has married another. He ends up at Bath, where he wishes to die and is swallowed up by the earth. His tears are the source of the water of Bath.
Mr. Dowler falls asleep while waiting up for his wife, and she returns home very late. The door is locked, so the coachman sets up a heavy pounding that awakens Winkle, who comes to the door in his dressing gown and gets locked out. In embarrassment he tries to hide in Mrs. Dowler's sedan. Dowler awakes, thinking someone is trying to run off with his wife, and chases Winkle with a knife. Winkle escapes and prepares to leave at dawn, terrified by Dowler's threats.
Sam Weller is invited to a footman's "swarry" (soiree) by Bantam's footman, John Smauker. There is mutton and plenty to drink. The footmen all have a high sense of their own dignity, with which Sam has some good-humored fun. Each puts on airs but their low breeding keeps showing through. Sam, who is perfectly at ease, becomes the life of the party. The "swarry" ends in the morning hours with the footmen barely able to stagger home. The next day Mr. Pickwick tells Sam that Winkle has run off and sends him to find out where he went. Sam learns that Winkle went to Bristol. Mr. Pickwick then tells Sam to use any means to bring him back.
The fertility of Dickens' imagination seems endless. In these chapters he introduces us to more than a dozen new and distinct characters, yet each bears some thematic relationship to what has gone before. Dowler, for example, recalls Peter Magnus, another coach companion of Mr. Pickwick's. While Dowler is harsh and supposedly fierce, and Magnus is nervous and effete, they both get violently jealous and threaten duels when a Pickwickian appears to be involved with their women. Winkle himself seems destined to get caught up in these misunderstandings.
The ball at Bath recalls the ball at Rochester, except that this is fancier, more crowded with socialites. Dickens takes a satirical attitude toward the foolishness, empty conceit, bootlicking, matchmaking, and nastiness of high society. Over all of this presides Angelo Cyrus Bantam, a dapper, effusive, illiterate, snobbish, silly fellow, as the master of ceremonies.
As an author Dickens himself is very much like a master of ceremonies, introducing the reader to hundreds of characters, telling an endless succession of anecdotes, and seeing that the reader has a good time. Dickens' virtue is that he sees through pomposity, cruelty, hypocrisy, selfishness, and conceit, which is something that Bantam cannot do.
The footman's "swarry" gives us a worm's eye view of high society. In Chapter 35, Dickens looks down on it from a superior moral position; here he shows us how it looks from below, through the eyes of the brightly uniformed footmen, who aspire to social dignity. Again, the servants ape the masters. The footmen wrap themselves in a spurious prestige that derives from their uniforms, just as their employers wrap themselves in a spurious dignity that stems from wealth and position. Dickens uses Sam Weller as the measure of the footmen and their values. Sam feels at ease anywhere because of his democratic belief in his own intrinsic worth. He does not have to put on airs: he knows he can cope with any situation just as he is.
The legends of Prince Bladud are a light piece of nonsense that mimics public relations material for Bath. Nevertheless, it takes up two recurrent themes in the novel, that of father-son relationships and the question of a mercenary or a disinterested marriage. Beyond this, it mirrors the action which follows. As Bladud runs from a political marriage, Winkle flees because of trouble over a woman. And Mr. Pickwick unexpectedly becomes like Bladud's harsh father when he sends Sam to bring back Winkle by any means.