Study Questions for The Pickwick Papers
In this first novel, how does Dickens structure the narrative? How does the novel compare to other novels you know? What are the various strands of the narrative, and how do they interact? You might want to measure your ideas against Dickens's own--take a look at his thoughts about the novel in his prospectus (Appendix A), his 1837 preface, his 1847 preface (Appendix B), and his 1867 preface (also Appendix B).
The novel purports to be based on the "papers" of the Pickwick Club, edited by our narrator. How does this fiction sustain itself? Who are the authors of these "papers"? If the fiction breaks down, where does it do so, and what are the effects for the novel as a whole?
At numerous points, Dickens inserts a story told by one of the novel's characters--"The Stroller's Tale," "The Story of the Convict's Return," "A Madman's Manuscript," and so on. Do these interpolated narratives serve a function in the novel? Do they relate somehow to the main narrative strands?
As a good comedy should, this novel ends with marriages. But how is marriage as an institution characterized in the novel?
If the novel is a comedy, it also has its dark moments. Where do these appear, and how do they qualify our overall understanding of The Pickwick Papers?
Is social class an important issue in this novel? If so, in what ways?
How would you characterize Dickens's portrayal of Samuel Pickwick at the beginning of the novel? Is this view sustained throughout the text? Is the Pickwick of the opening pages--"The eloquent Pickwick, with one hand gracefully concealed behind his coat tails, and the other waving in air to assist his glowing declamation: his elevated position revealing those tights and gaiters, which, had they clothed an ordinary man, might have passed without observation, but which, when Pickwick clothed them--if we may use the expression--inspired involuntary awe and respect" (ch. 1)-- presented in the same way as the character in the closing chapters--"He is known by all the poor people about, who never fail to take their hats off as he passes with great respect; the children idolize him, and so indeed does the whole neighbourhood" (ch. 56)?
Many critics argue that Sam Weller's appearance is a turning point in the novel (see, e.g., the introduction in our edition). If so, why?
In his own time and in ours, Dickens has been renowned for creating lively, memorable characters. Who are his most successful characters in The Pickwick Papers, and why are they so? Are there any that are unsuccessful? How does Dickens use language and speech to help define character?
Dickens introduces the topic of benevolence in this novel, a practice to which he will return in most of his subsequent works (see, e.g., Perker's summary of Pickwick's behavior in chapter 52). What exactly is benevolence? What is its social utility? Its personal values?
In what ways is Bardell v. Pickwick central to the plotting of the novel? How does Dickens characterize the law and the court system? (That the "sharp" lawyers are named Dodson and Fogg might be worth remembering.)
This book is topographically specific to a great degree. The action opens with Pickwick looking up and down Goswell Street. The club members then move to Rochester. We can follow much of the action on a map, in fact. Why then is Dickens coy about several locations, especially Dingley Dell and Eatanswill?
The novel is concerned to a large extent with movement from one place to another. What are some of the ways in which this movement takes place? How is the movement described?
Our edition indicates when the different numbers begin and end. What must it have been like to read this novel "in parts"?
In what ways do the illustrations punctuate the text?