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The Pickwick Papers by Dickens: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we will focus on Charles Dickens's ''The Pickwick Papers.'' We will first examine some context on both Dickens and the novel's genre, and then we'll summarize the novel, pointing out its most memorable scenes and characters.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was an extraordinarily popular writer of the Victorian Period, which spanned the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Arguably the most influential novelist of the nineteenth century (Jane Austen notwithstanding), Dickens is best known for his memorable characters and intricate plots. Think about the twists and turns of your favorite movie or television show. It probably owes a lot to Dickens's innovative craft, which mixed realism with caricature and tragedy with comedy.

The Pickwick Papers


Many of Dickens's best known novels come from what is now regarded as his ''dark period.'' During this time, the lighthearted comedy of his early work gave way to harsh social commentary. You've probably heard of some of these novels, which include A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). Compared with the dark themes found in Dickens's later novels, the plot of The Pickwick Papers (1836) seems almost farcical. This novel, his first, demonstrates Dickens experimenting with building his own voice. The Pickwick Papers in many ways mimics the structures and themes of eighteenth-century novels, including works by Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding.

The Pickwick Papers
Pickwick Papers

The Pickwick Papers is a series of linear adventures, unlike the convoluted plots of Dickens's later novels. In other words, we follow our heroes from one stop to the next and meet interesting characters, rather than unraveling a mystery. The novel is a late example of the picarequese, a style of story in which we follow a rough, but still likable, hero through his adventures. The hero of The Pickwick Papers is Sam Weller, though Sam isn't always the focus of the narrative.


Samuel Pickwick is a kind gentleman who establishes the Pickwick Club, whose goal is to examine and research the stunning specimens of human life. Together with other members of the club (Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass and Tracy Tupman), Samuel sets off through the English countryside. The club members meet many curious people along the way and are joined for spells by other characters, including Mr. Wardle and Alfred Jingle, who is a sort of trickster figure. Sam Weller, the ostensible hero of the novel, does not appear until Chapter Ten. It's super confusing that the club has both Samuel Pickwick and Sam Weller. Dickens is known for this sort of thing. Readers must always be on their toes and able to distinguish characters by speech and mannerisms.

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