It’s probably been about 25 years since I first read The Pickwick Papers—one of Charles Dickens’ most delightful works. I can remember particular scenes so well, and some of his immortal characters, such as Alfred Jingle, the fat boy Joe, Sam Weller, Mr. Perker, and, of course, Mr. Pickwick himself—are alive in my mind as if I’d just met them for the first time.
Educator Eli Siegel spoke often about this great novel. In one lecture I had the pleasure of hearing, he spoke about how it stirred people when it was published: “The effect of the The Pickwick Papers on the public of then is one of the mighty things in man’s history. People felt this was different: there was a kind of laughter in this work that was different from previous laughter.”
I’d thought about assigning Pickwick to my high school English classes, but its episodic nature—and certainly its length too—kept me from doing so. I did, however, discuss excerpts on many occasions for various reasons. One reason was to have my students understand parallel construction, which Dickens used often and well. Here’s one (very famous) excerpt I especially liked discussing—and even my tough NYC high school juniors and seniors liked it very much. It’s from early in the book:
There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head; smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, which I used for nearly three decades, is based on this central principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The opposites most clearly together in parallel construction are sameness and difference, unity and variety, continuity and change. As different ideas are expressed with the same grammatical structure, we feel a coherence, a continuity, between or among them. Yet within even the same structure (as in the pronoun+verb+adverb phrase+adjective+noun in “he experiences so much ludicrous distress” and “meets with so little charitable commiseration”), there are nuance, subtle difference, syllabic and rhythmic variety. And with all the difference, the paired (in this instance) structures make for a sense of organization and unity that is very satisfying.
Students can feel—as we all can—that there’s so much going on in their lives, that things change unpredictably, and that there’s no pleasing organization that they can count on. They can also feel there’s too much sameness, and that nothing changes; they’re bored. I find it beautiful, exciting, and so hopeful that we can learn from grammar and from literature—as in this instance of parallel construction in The Pickwick Papers—that opposites don’t have to fight: they can be together in a way that makes us feel good.