54 pages 1 hour read

Charles Dickens

Pickwick Papers

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1836

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Summary and Study Guide


The debut novel of British author Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (commonly known as The Pickwick Papers) was first published as a series by Chapman and Hall between 1836 and 1837. The Pickwick Papers chronicles the adventures of the members of the Pickwick Club, a group of travelers who journey around England and share their experiences. Because of the original serial format of the novel, the chapters contain individual but interconnected episodes charting the club’s exploits. The novel highlights several themes: The Inequity of the Justice System, Friendship and Loyalty, and The Enlightening Effects of Travel.

This study guide references the Project Gutenberg illustrated e-book edition.

Content Warning: This text features discussions of sexual assault, enslavement, suicide, abduction, domestic abuse, racial and ethnic slurs, sexism, racism, antisemitism, fatphobia, and xenophobia.

Plot Summary

The Pickwick Club has four primary members: founder Mr. Pickwick, a friendly retired businessperson and philosopher; Tracy Tupman, a self-confessed “womanizer” who never seems to have any luck with women; Augustus Snodgrass, a poet unable to write poetry; and Nathaniel Winkle, a clumsy and inept athlete.

It’s May 1827, and the Pickwick Club’s first adventure takes them to Rochester. On the way there, however, an irate cab driver thinks they’re spies and lashes out at them in a grand tirade. A man named Alfred Jingle helps them out of the predicament and joins them on their journey. Jingle, a wily fellow, gets naive Winkle involved in a duel with a volatile military man known as Dr. Slammer.

Their next adventure lands the four in Chatham, where they encounter Mr. Wardle, a country squire. After accepting an invitation to Wardle’s farm, they play cards and cricket, tell stories, and hunt. Tupman develops an affection for Wardle’s unmarried sister, Rachael, while Snodgrass falls for Wardle’s daughter, Emily. However, Jingle again upsets the situation by running off to elope with Rachael. Pickwick and Wardle follow the couple to London and bribe Jingle to stay away from Rachael, thereby preventing the marriage.

Now back at home, Pickwick hires a cockney valet, Sam Weller. Later, when Pickwick tries to explain to his widowed landlady, Mrs. Bardell, about hiring a valet, he doesn’t describe the situation clearly, and Mrs. Bardell misunderstands, thinking that Pickwick is proposing marriage. She passes out in his arms as Tupman, Snodgrass, and Winkle walk into the room.

Sam’s father, Tony Weller, warns of the pitfalls of marriage, a subtheme throughout the novel. Tony’s wife has been spending time with another man, so his aversion to matrimony is seemingly justified when Mrs. Bardell files a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Pickwick for not following through on his proposal.

The club travels to Eatanswill, where Pickwick and Winkle stay with a local newspaper editor, Mr. Pott. They attend an absurd costume party hosted by a local writer, and there Pickwick sees Jingle. Pickwick follows Jingle all the way to another town and learns that he’s planning another elopement, this time with a young lady from a nearby boarding school. However, this information proves incorrect, and Pickwick falls ill with rheumatism. After recovering, he accompanies the other club members on a hunting trip to Bury St. Edmunds. There, he learns of Mrs. Bardell’s lawsuit against him. Pickwick returns to London to defend himself.

However, the group again encounters unexpected circumstances when Pickwick learns that Jingle fled to Ipswich, so he, too, travels there, hoping to expose Jingle. Confusion ensues at the local inn, and Pickwick is dragged to a courtroom presided over by the tyrannical Mr. Nupkins—who, as luck would have it, is a friend of Jingle’s and whose daughter has sparked Jingle’s interest too. Pickwick exposes Jingle as a philanderer, and the judge sets Pickwick free.

The club celebrates Christmas at the Wardle farm. Snodgrass continues to woo Emily, much to Wardle’s consternation, and Winkle woos Arabella Allen, a friend of Wardle’s daughters.

Bardell’s lawsuit goes to court on Valentine’s Day, 1828. The judge finds Pickwick guilty, but Pickwick refuses to pay damages. He has two months to pay up, so in the meantime, the Club heads to Bath. Another mix-up occurs, and Winkle ends up in Bristol, where Arabella is staying with her brother, who doesn’t approve of Winkle. Pickwick and Sam go to Bristol to help Winkle track down Arabella so that he can confess his feelings for her.

Once back in London, Pickwick is put in debtors’ prison for refusing to pay court-ordered damages to Mrs. Bardell. In prison, Pickwick discovers that Jingle is a fellow inmate. Pickwick takes pity on Jingle and helps him. Eventually, Mrs. Bardell is sent to the debtors’ prison because she can’t pay her lawyers. Pickwick forgives her and pays both of their debts as well as Jingle’s. Winkle marries Arabella in secret and asks Pickwick to help him smooth things over with their respective families.

In Bristol, Pickwick breaks the news to Arabella’s brother, Ben, about her marriage to Winkle. Buoyed by a generous helping of spirits, Ben begins to accept the idea. Pickwick then travels to Birmingham to tell Winkle’s father of the marriage, but Winkle’s father doesn’t respond favorably.

At home in London, Pickwick pays for Jingle to start a new life in the West Indies. Snodgrass and Emily plan to elope, but Pickwick would rather see them married in the warm and supportive atmosphere of his new home. Therefore, he intervenes, selling Wardle on the idea of Snodgrass as a son-in-law, and they hold a family wedding at Pickwick’s house. With Pickwick’s help, Sam the valet finds love and marriage with a maid named Mary. Eventually, the Pickwick Club ceases operation, and Pickwick settles down in London but continues to visit all his friends and godchildren.