The Pickwick Papers | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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The Pickwick Papers | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

The Wardles host a party and Mr. Pickwick and his companions meet many people, including Mr. Wardle's elderly, deaf mother and the local clergyman. Mr. Pickwick is roped into playing whist with Mrs. Wardle and some others, and he struggles to keep up as they play a very competitive game. The other attendees play a more lively game, with Bella Wardle partnered with Mr. Trundle, Emily Wardle partnered with Mr. Snodgrass, and Rachael (the "spinster aunt") partnered with Mr. Tupman. The partnered couples flirt with each other, while Mr. Winkle amuses the company with jokes.

After the games Mr. Pickwick asks the clergyman if he has any interesting stories about the people and incidents he has observed over his career, and the clergyman is persuaded to tell the tale of "The Convict's Return." He recounts the story of a family. The father drinks heavily and abuses his wife and young son. As the son grows up, he becomes a criminal and is eventually transported (likely to Australia, although the clergyman does not specify) as a prisoner. His mother dies while he is serving his term. Years later, the son returns and is furious with the father whose mistreatment made their lives so miserable. He accidentally discovers his father, a broken man, and threatens him, but he cannot bring himself to harm his own father. There is no need because the father's shock at seeing his son again, and the stirrings of his guilty conscience, lead the father to drop dead at his son's feet. The clergyman concludes the story by saying that the convict worked for him, anonymously, until his own death a few years later.

Analysis

Dickens is famous for his jolly party scenes, and this is one of them. Mr. Pickwick is drawn into a game of whist with old Mrs. Wardle and two others, while the rest of the party plays a game called "Pope Joan." Pope Joan was a family card game, suitable for playing with large numbers of people or with younger people. Readers might think of this situation as comparable to a "grown-up table" and a "kids' table" at a holiday meal. Pickwick is seated with the grown-ups, playing whist, but the other table is having more fun.

Dickens also points out that Mr. Trundle and Bella Wardle play as a team, as do Mr. Snodgrass and Emily Wardle, and Mr. Tupman and Miss Rachael Wardle. In this era playing card games at a party offered a way for a couple to flirt while under the supervision of their guardians.

After the games Mr. Pickwick returns to his passion for collecting stories and hears a lengthy and serious tale from the local clergyman. Notice that Dickens does not present the convict's miserable childhood as an excuse for his criminal behavior in later years: Sigmund Freud, the psychologist who first introduced the idea that a person's childhood may shape his or her adult life, was not even born at the time The Pickwick Papers was written. Instead, Dickens blames the young man for failing to be a comfort to his mother. In spite of that, he holds out the consolation that the man was able to turn his life around: the young man did not kill his father, in spite of his desire for vengeance, and he served the clergyman well until his death.

Note that in the first two stories shared in The Pickwick Papers, drunkenness plays a major role. Dickens's attitude toward alcohol is ambiguous: Pickwick and his friends often enjoy alcoholic beverages and become intoxicated, which Dickens reports without criticism. At the same time Dickens includes these stories in which drunkenness ruins lives. Intoxication will play a role in later parts of the novel as well.

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