In 1837 at the ripe old age of 25 Charles Dickens launched himself firmly upon the literary stage and in so doing launched upon the world the characters of Mr. Samuel Pickwick and his colleagues who joined the immortals of English fiction. Although Dickens’ art both deepened and broadened over the years, I still feel that The Pickwick Papers remains his greatest work of comic genius. For many readers it is quintessentially English in its genteel absurdity, good-naturedness and chaotic decorum of always “muddling through.”
The Pickwick Papers is a series of episodic adventures—an early 19th century sitcom. As such it is devoid of any real plot, but is compelling because of its characters, its dialogue and Dickens’ unerring knack of creating scenes and settings that come to life. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “no novel with a plot and a proper termination could emit that sense of everlasting youth—a sense as of the gods gone wandering in England.” And while we are all familiar with the pointed moral of Dickens’ wonderful Christmas Carol, I’d like to take in another aspect of the season, as evinced in this early work.
Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.
And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!
I encourage readers to join the company of Snodgrass, Tupman, Winkle, Weller and the other convivial members of the Pickwick Club in their rambles throughout London and the English countryside. They will agree that what makes Dickens’ art truly memorable is his underlying sense of decency and goodwill.