The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.
Summary: Samuel Pickwick was a very successful businessman who has retired; like many who retire, he has to manufacture something to occupy his time, which he does by getting together with friends. This is the origin of The Pickwick Club, whose reason for being is to uncover and tell quaint and curious stories from all over. A good-natured, generous individual driven by interest in the curious and peculiar will inevitably have some difficulty with others taking advantage, so Pickwick ends up in a wide variety of complicated situations, including at one point getting sued for breach of promise due to the cunning machinations of some slippery lawyers and ending up in debtor's prison, despite being extraordinarily rich, because he refuses to give a penny to such dishonest lawyers.
The primary mode of storytelling here is episodic, and thus is character-driven rather than plot-driven. Since it draws on comedy conventions, courting and marriage come up a lot. Besides Pickwick, we follow his three close friends (the Pickwickians) and his manservant.
(1) Nathaniel Winkle: Winkle is the only remnant of the original proposal of comic stories about a sporting club; he is a sporting enthusiast but also consistently inept with a gun. He has a flirtatious relationship with Arabella Allen.
(2) Augustus Snodgrass: A poet who never finishes any poetry, he tries to marry Emily Wardle.
(3) Tracy Tupman: A good-natured, fat, middle-aged man who thinks of himself has something of a ladies' man, he gets outmaneuvered in his attempt to marry Rachael Wardle (Emily's spinster aunt) by a smooth-talking con artist, Alfred Jingle.
(4) Samuel Weller: A clever, cockney all-purpose handyman, Weller is hired by Pickwick early on as a manservant, and becomes central to helping Pickwick get out of his scrapes. He is actually what Tupman thinks of himself as being, and one of the key questions of his storyline is whether his flirtation with the pretty maid Mary (who is essential to getting Winkle and Arabella together) will ever amount to more than a flirtation.
To the extent that there is a unified story, it is structured by the indirect battle between the Pickwickians and their nemeses, Alfred Jingle and his manservant Job Trotter. Jingle and Pickwick are equal-and-opposite; their courses of life parallel each other almost exactly, but their personalities take them in different directions. Since Pickwick is innocent and inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, and Jingle is cunning and always scheming for advantage, Jingle generally has the upper hand when they cross paths, and, as you might expect, a key issue in the story is how Pickwick's innocent goodwill toward people will win out over the apparent advantages of Jingle's machinations.
The Pickwick Papers is very much about friendship, and I suspect one element in its enduring popularity is how well Dickens captures the combination of the absurd and the admirable that so often constitutes friendship-adventures that become stories worth telling, combined with his talent for exaggerating to comic effect. The episodic nature of the story, combined with its length, makes it the sort of book, however, that's probably best taken in small portions. We forget that these big nineteenth-century books weren't usually written to be read altogether but as serials; this is certainly true of The Pickwick Papers. Trying to read it all at once is a bit like trying to marathon through four or five seasons' worth of sitcom episodes. Repetitions that are charming recurring jokes when partaking serially can become merely repetitive in the marathon; details that are striking and enjoyable in serial can start blurring into the background in marathon; goofiness in small sips becomes a bit much in vast quantities; and so forth. With Dickens's skill, you still get something worth reading in large gulps, but it's still a work designed to be taken by the shot glass rather than by the beer stein.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book, in my opinion, were the occasional digressions, as the Pickwickians come across characters with their own odd stories, giving us a digression and a bit of a rest from the Pickwickian humor. "The Stroller's Tale" (Chapter 3), "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton" (Chapter 29), and "The Story of the Bagman's Uncle" (Chapter 49) are all excellent short stories in their own right. The Christmas chapters (Chapter 28 and following) were enjoyable as well, since Dickens really pulls out the descriptive stops, and Dickens is hilariously funny whenever lawyers are involved. I particularly appreciated Serjeant Buzfuz's attempt to argue that Pickwick had obviously been leading Mrs. Bardell on, given a note that said "Dear Mrs. B.—Chops and tomata sauce", since 'chops' and 'tomata sauce' could only be interpreted as affectionate nicknames, as well as the cunning with which Mrs. Bardell's lawyers establish the truth of the proverb that, come what may, the lawyers get their pay.
I also listened to the Mercury Theater on the Air's radio adaptation of The Pickwick Papers, which can be found here, here (#18), and here. It's quite faithful, since the episodic narrative means you can select which episodic events to use, but it likewise shows some of the difficulties of adapting the episodic narrative -- things just kind of go in random directions. It's really obvious, though, that the actors were enjoying themselves (the exaggerated features of Dickensian characters give radio actors a lot to work with, especially in a story like this that differentiates the characters by manner of speech) and once we get a coherent stretch, namely the breach of promise trial, things start picking up. Welles unsurprisingly plays a fast-talking Mr. Jingle, but given the structure of the work and the limits of adaptation, there's much less of him than you'd expect.
‘An abstruse subject, I should conceive,’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘Very, Sir,’ responded Pott, looking intensely sage. ‘He crammed for it, to use a technical but expressive term; he read up for the subject, at my desire, in the “Encyclopaedia Britannica.”’
‘Indeed!’ said Mr. Pickwick; ‘I was not aware that that valuable work contained any information respecting Chinese metaphysics.’
‘He read, Sir,’ rejoined Pott, laying his hand on Mr. Pickwick’s knee, and looking round with a smile of intellectual superiority—‘he read for metaphysics under the letter M, and for China under the letter C, and combined his information, Sir!’
Recommendation: Highly Recommended, although, again, you should probably take it in small portions.