Summary and Analysis
Sam arrives with Mr. Pickwick's wardrobe the next morning and is about to come to blows with Smangle, when Smangle sees the clothes and craftily tries to obtain some. Determined to change rooms, Mr. Pickwick goes to see Tom Roker, who assigns him to a room with three dirty, sloppy ruffians. Mr. Pickwick learns from these three men that he can have a room to himself if he has the money. So he goes back to Roker and sublets a room from an embittered Chancery prisoner whose money has been drained off by the law courts. Having leased the cell, Mr. Pickwick goes to the poor prisoners' section to see about getting a man to run errands. There, among other specimens of dire misery, he encounters Alfred Jingle and Job Trotter. In extreme poverty they are shadows of their former selves. Mr. Pickwick is touched by their want and gives his former enemies some money. Returning to his room, Mr. Pickwick finds Sam waiting for him. Thinking that prison was no place for a young man, Mr. Pickwick tries to dismiss Sam but to continue his wages. While Sam disapproves of Mr. Pickwick's decision to go to prison, he refuses to hear of being dismissed and leaves quickly.
At the Insolvent Court, Tony Weller and his companions stop by to see an old friend tried. Tony converses with a seedy, self-advertising lawyer named Sol Pell. While jostling for position in the courtroom, Tony comes upon his son, Sam. Sam informs him that his wife is showing the effects of too much liquor. Tony replies that Stiggins is suffering the same complaint. Sam also tells him of Mr. Pickwick's decision to dismiss him. Both men think that Mr. Pickwick will be plucked clean unless Sam assists him. So Sam borrows 25 pounds from his father and gets Tony to file suit against him in order to be jailed for debt with Mr. Pickwick. Solomon Pell handles the case. And Sam goes off to prison, celebrating along the way with Tony and his friends. Then Sam confronts Mr. Pickwick with the news that he, too, has been imprisoned for debt.
Mr. Pickwick insists on learning who Sam's creditor is, but Sam refuses to tell and diverts him with a long, absurd anecdote about a man who destroyed himself on principle. Sam is given a room with a good-humored cobbler, who tells how he was imprisoned because of legal squabbles over an inheritance. Smangle goes to Mr. Pickwick's room soon after this, announces that three friends have come to visit, and obtains money. Tupman, Snodgrass, and Winkle enter the room in a sad mood. Winkle has something on his mind which is agitating him. The Pickwickians enjoy a substantial meal with several bottles of wine. As Tupman and Snodgrass prepare to leave, Winkle tries to say something to Mr. Pickwick but cannot get the words out. Sam, however, asks a favor of Winkle, fully aware of what Winkle is up to. Later Tom Roker, the warder, announces to Mr. Pickwick that the Chancery prisoner from whom he obtained the room is about to die. Pickwick goes to see the man and finds him, in his dying moments, hoping that the Lord will remember his suffering.
In a few days Tony Weller brings his wife and Reverend Stiggins to see Sam. Tony is very mirthful, having shaken Stiggins up considerably during the coach ride. Stiggins and Mrs. Weller settle down to an afternoon of heavy drinking, as they moralize on Sam's condition. On leaving, Tony whispers to Sam that he has a plan for smuggling Mr. Pickwick out in a piano and shipping him to America. Sam finds Mr.
Pickwick with Jingle and Job Trotter and is surprised to find them in such a wretched state. While Mr. Pickwick proposes something to Jingle, Sam treats Job Trotter to drink, over which Job expresses his admiration for Mr. Pickwick.
Later, in the prison yard, Mr. Pickwick becomes very distressed by the repetitive spectacle of misery, noise, dirt, squalor, and roughness of prison life. He decides to keep to his room, except for evening walks. And he keeps to this resolution for three months, while his friends try to persuade him to pay the damages.
The stagnation of prison is conveyed in a number of ways. Dickens tells us plainly at the end of Chapter 45 that the prisoners and the scenes are dreary repetitions of one another. Another indication is that people repeat the statements they have just made, presumably for emphasis, but the effect suggests a sort of mental vegetation. Finally, when Stiggins and Susan Weller visit Sam in prison they perform their act like windup dolls, moralizing and drinking. It is as if prison has cast a spell of stagnation on these two, and one can sense that Dickens no longer enjoys parading them about. The next we hear of them, Susan Weller has died and Stiggins gets his final comeuppance. In any case, the very state of being locked up is conducive to stagnation. After Mr. Pickwick makes his decision to avoid further contact with prison life, Dickens lets three months go by in one sentence so that he can pass on to the business of getting Mr. Pickwick out of prison.
The main emphasis of these chapters lies in how terrible a debtors' prison is, but Dickens conveys this with considerable verve. Dickens' success here lies in the multifaceted way he creates the prison atmosphere. Mr. Pickwick sees it as a pageant of degradation and filth. Sam and Tony Weller see it as a place that will cheat Mr. Pickwick of his eyeteeth. The Chancery prisoner sees it as a living grave. Susan Weller and Reverend Stiggins view it as the end of the road of bad morals. Smangle feels perfectly at home there. And Tom Roker views it as the whole of life, an earthly paradise in which he obtains preposterous sums from the prisoners for subhuman accommodations. Dickens' own opinion is also evident: a debtors' prison is a thoroughly unwholesome institution that ought to be abolished.
The effect of prison is startlingly evident in Alfred Jingle and Job Trotter. Physically thin to begin with, they have become positively emaciated. And more important, they have lost their vitality, impudence, and cunning — everything that mattered. The pair seems like deflated balloons, lacking the buoyancy and mobility which was part of their essence. Hunger has robbed them of any urge to deceive. Indeed, in the poor prisoners' ward there is no point to deception, since everyone is in the same boat.
Once again Jingle's path crosses Mr. Pickwick's. Although Mr. Pickwick managed to expose Jingle at Ipswich, he made no impact whatever on Jingle's spirit. His triumph there was merely a matter of circumstance. But prison, in depriving Jingle of his impostures, prepares him for conversion. Prison becomes a test of morality, and Jingle's way of life cannot stand up to it. This development may be plausible, but the reader tends to resent it. For all his rascality Jingle was a source of delight. To make him vulnerable to morality is a sad disappointment.
Nevertheless, Dickens uses Jingle to show another development in Mr. Pickwick's education and character. In a world where one can be subjected to suffering for the rest of one's life, as the law can do to Mr. Pickwick, a man is at a dead end unless he can learn to forgive and show mercy. Jingle, of course, is the perfect recipient for Mr. Pickwick's forgiveness and compassion, since he had been Mr. Pickwick's nemesis for so long. However, Jingle had to be prepared to receive mercy, and the only way Dickens could do this was by deflating him, by depriving him of his old ebullience. Dickens was faced with a dilemma. He could use Jingle to show Mr. Pickwick's power of forgiveness, which the plot demanded; but to do so he would have to change Jingle's character completely. The solution may not be very satisfactory, yet under the circumstances Dickens did the best he could.
The basis of a debtors' prison was debt. Ironically, the prisoners have to pay for everything they get, for rooms, food, clothes, for errands they want performed. They even have to pay to keep unwanted room-mates from living with them. For the first time Dickens calls attention to the power of money. Previously in the novel we had taken money for granted: the Pickwickians had enough to lead a leisurely life. But from now on Dickens will not allow us to forget money. In prison Mr. Pickwick comes up against a hard fact, the humiliation of not having enough money. From this premise stems all the shabbiness, the filth, the graft, the sadness of the place. Mr. Pickwick can afford to detach himself from prison life because he has money. He can afford to view the Fleet as a pageant of distasteful or heartbreaking scenes because his money protects him. If prison depresses him very much, he still does not succumb to the squalor. One wonders how prison would affect him if he were suddenly penniless.
Just as one learns the value of money in prison, one also learns the value of friendship. At one extreme is the Chancery prisoner, whose bitterest complaint is that prison has placed him beyond friendship. He is an exile from the human community and so prison is like a living grave to him. At the other extreme is Mr. Pickwick, who befriends everyone, including Smangle. Mr. Pickwick is not just a superficial friend, however. His relationship with Sam is deep. He is perfectly ready to sacrifice his own welfare to see that Sam lives in a wholesome environment, and even though he tries to dismiss Sam he intends to pay Sam's wages. Further, after Sam has himself jailed for debt in order to serve Mr. Pickwick, he wants to pay off Sam's creditor. This kind of mutual loyalty is the epitome of friendship, and Dickens makes it believable. Friendship is one of the supreme values for Dickens. It gives a man dignity and transcends all the misery of prison. Above all, it cannot be purchased, which gives it a greater power than money. It is in his immense capacity for friendship that the reader comes to love Mr. Pickwick.
In Chapter 42, Dickens speaks of Mr. Pickwick as "our excellent old friend," implying that his character is an actual person with whom he and the reader have established a kind of friendship. In a sense, by following Mr. Pickwick's adventures and coming to love him, we have gained an honorary membership in the Pickwick Club.
Dickens' technique of characterization is relevant here. He presents his characters as we would normally experience them in life — through their appearance, gestures, and speech. We can picture them vividly. And after they have made several appearances and we have become involved in their various adventures, we tend to regard them as we would old friends. Even the obnoxious characters come to seem rather like disagreeable acquaintances.
If Mr. Pickwick has been growing, so has Sam Weller. Sam disapproves of Mr. Pickwick's decision to remain in prison, but he has himself imprisoned to serve Mr. Pickwick. Moreover, he behaves generously to Job Trotter, not because his master has already done so but because he has absorbed Mr. Pickwick's principle of mercy. Sam's development is a reflection of Mr. Pickwick's. And as Sam's relationship to his master deepens, so does his affection for his father, Tony. Sam has become involved in his father's domestic woes, and the two men see each other frequently now.
Tony Weller tells Solomon Pell that Sam is "a reg'lar prodigy son!" Pell corrects him, "Prodigal, prodigal son, sir." And Tony replies huffily, "Never mind, sir. . . . I know wot's o'clock, sir. Wen I don't, I'll ask you, sir." Tony is perfectly right; Sam is a prodigy son, both to him and to Mr. Pickwick. Tony has a penchant for seemingly incorrect words that are poetically accurate.