The structure of The Pickwick Papers includes several non-diegetic stories — the diegesis of Pickwick, being the novel's depiction of England, and these non-diegetic stories coming (either orally or written) from various people the Pickwickians meet on their journeys. These non-diegetic stories are almost invariably dark, especially compared to the cheery tone of the diegesis. One tale stands out in comparison — "The Bagman's Story" (two other stories are not entirely dark — "The Parish Clerk" is a humorous tale, but the protagonist comes off poorly and the story is exceptional in that it is told by Pickwick himself, instead of an outside source, and "The Story of the Bagman's Uncle" is a lighter tale, but nonetheless deals with ghosts and murder). In "The Bagman's Story," the protagonist has an encounter with a (possibly imagined) animate chair, who tells him how to win the heart of a "buxom widow," thus allowing him to live out his life "happily ever after," as it were.

'At all events, Tom kicked the very tall man out at the front door half an hour after, and married the widow a month after. And he used to drive about the country, with the clay-coloured gig with the red wheels, and the vixenish mare with the fast pace, till he gave up business many years afterwards, and went to France with his wife; and then the old house was pulled down.'

Questions

Why are most of the stories so gloomy? Does Dickens use the extra-diegetic excursions to set off the bright, happy world of the Pickwickians? Which realm is fantastic — the Pickwickians' world, or the one they hear about in stories?

Why is "The Bagman's Story" the only really happy story heard in the novel? The subject matter of marriage is not unique to this story, as several of the others deal with it as well. There is nothing really remarkable about this story, except that all ends well. Why?

Does Dickens anticipate more modern strategies of fiction by leaving his novel's diegesis? The strategy of a story-within-a-story was not new, of course; and these non-diegetic stories are not the only ones told. However, they are the only stories that are actually given separate headings, and truly set off from the rest of the novel. These stories seem to take place in a truly different world — a fact stressed by the recurrence of supernatural or particularly violent themes. This strategy seems to at least anticipate modernism's fractured narratives, if not the more overt, "meta" techniques of postmodern writing.

Note: unless I missed one, the non-diegetic stories are: "The Stroller's Tale" (Ch. 3), "The Convict's Return" (Ch. 6), "A Madman's Manuscript" (Ch. 11), "The Bagman's Story" (Ch. 14), "The Parish Clerk — A Tale of True Love" (Ch. 17), "The Story of the Goblins who stole a Sexton" (Ch. 28ii), "The True Legend of Prince Bladud" (Ch. 35), and "The Story of the Bagman's Uncle" (Ch. 48).


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers Leading Questions

Last Modified 21 February 2003