Pickwick Papers

But for the grace of God

Every Christmas my family and I read aloud Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And every Christmas we thoroughly enjoy it and are impressed with how applicable it is to the world today—maybe even more so than when it was written. I guess it is like how I imagine really good wine that gets better with age to be (I have to rely on supposition because the family purse will not allow for gustatory examination).

However, another of Dickens’ works, The Pickwick Papers, points even more to a central challenge for me at Christmas and throughout the year. The challenge is to avoid rash judgment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say on the subject: “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved” (2478).

In The Pickwick Papers, Mr. Jingle (roving actor) is an unethical Mr. Pickwick (gentleman founder of the Pickwick Club); similarly, Job Trotter (Jingle’s servant) is Sam Weller (Pickwick’s valet) gone bad. Both Jingle and Pickwick are likeable characters when introduced, as are Trotter and Weller (although it is not possible for Trotter or any other character in the book to compete with Weller when it comes to likability). Pickwick accepts Jingle at face value (as Weller—with some reservations—does with Trotter) when the two initially meet, and offers him his friendship. This friendship is promptly abused. When seeking redress, Pickwick and Weller appear constrained by the truth and ethical conduct in doing so, while Jingle and Trotter appear to have a free hand because lying is always on the table for them. In short, Jingle and Trotter are a fallen Pickwick and Weller, and what—but for the grace of God–the other might be.

However, it becomes apparent just how enslaved Jingle and Trotter actually are. They have to go under assumed names with assumed respectability. They energetically hide their real identities, because to identify them is to displace them and start the process of deception anew. They seek the darkness because their deeds are evil. They view the truth as a liability—woe unto them. In sharp contrast, Pickwick and Weller are free to be known and loved.

Jingle and Trotter’s characters becomes known to Pickwick and Weller early on after Jingle abuses the trust of Pickwick and his friends. Pickwick and Weller admonish Jingle and Trotter, pursue them, and eventually have them completely in their power. Their meeting in the debtor’s prison to which Pickwick voluntarily surrenders himself (and in which Sam Weller contrives to remain in order to be with his master), and where Jingle and Trotter have been justly incarcerated, is intensely powerful. Jingle and Trotter acknowledge that the punishment they are experiencing is just. Pickwick’s form of revenge is to extend mercy and aid to Jingle, as Weller does to Trotter. Jingle and Trotter are corrected with love, and are saved.

Personally, I am a proficient rash judger. Take motoring as an example: if someone cuts me off while I’m driving, I tend not to automatically think that perhaps a baby is about to be born, that there is a medical emergency in progress, or that perhaps the person is desperately late for a plane. No, that moron is clearly a moron who got in his car with the sole intention of impeding my progress. I do not say out my window, “I am sure you had a good reason for choosing that moment to proceed, but if it by chance you were not paying sufficiently close attention to my location on the road I would encourage you, for the sake of our respective loved ones and ourselves, to be more mindful of the importance to safeguard the precious gift of life with which God endowed us.” Never you mind what I actually say. Oddly enough, on those rare occasions when I act judiciously in such circumstances, I feel good for having done so. My more usual course of action leaves me brooding and unsatisfied. Pickwick and Weller’s merciful response to their nemeses is satisfying; an eye for an eye would ruin everything. Like the quote on rash judgment from the Catechism, we are denied one course of action so that we may attain something better.

This Christmas, let there truly be peace on Earth and good will toward men; avoiding rash judgment is the key to this prayer being answered. Let us assume good will on the part of our neighbour. Let us allow that a person who holds views repugnant to us might actually believe what he is saying. If he is wrong, correct him with love.

A very Merry Christmas, and God bless us—everyone.

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