Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens

Chuzzlewit cvr

Martin Chuzzlewit was published in nineteen monthly parts, the last a double, between January 1843 and July 1844.  Not generally regarded as one of his major works, it still has its pleasures, though more in the language and characterisation than the plotting.  From the title – The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit – it sounds as though it is going to be a picaresque novel, but for a start there are actually two Martin Chuzzlewits, grandfather and grandson; and there is a typically broad cast, in the following of which the reader loses sight of both Chuzzlewits for long stretches.  Dickens handles his characters with aplomb, and unevenness in structure is made up for by their vividness: Tom Pinch, John Westlock, Mark Tapley, young Bailey, Poll Sweedlepipe, Mrs Lupin, poor old Chuffey, and especially the less savoury, Mrs Gamp, Montague Tigg, aka Tigg Montague, Chevy Slyme, the ghastly Jonas Chuzzlewitt, and especially Seth Pecksniff, who is Shakespearian in his sanctimonious hypocrisy; all supported by the richness of the minor characters, not least the Chuzzlewit relatives.  The only significant disappointment is the angelic Ruth Pinch, whom Dickens, treating her with a measure of ironic affection, overdoes in the shy and retiring stakes to the point of saccharine blandness, (the similar Florence Dombey in Dombey and Son was given more steel, and works far better as a result).  Young Martin’s love interest Mary is also underwritten, while Dickens has more success with the misses Pecksniff, who are well-rounded figures, initially much of a muchness (Merry and Cherry) in their supercilious disdain but whose respective fates evoke very different responses in the reader.

As Dickens notes at the start of his introduction to the ‘Cheap Edition’, the major theme of the novel is selfishness, how it grows from small beginnings to monstrous proportions, and the negative consequences, for self and others, in all their variety.  This affects all sectors of society.  Some individuals, notably young Martin, find redemption from their self-centredness, and the novel can be seen as a Bildungsroman charting his social and moral development; others, such as Pecksniff, do not, and he suffers for his rigidity.  At its extreme end, selfish greed is the direct cause of a murder and a suicide.  The novel’s touchstone is Tom Pinch, a man unusual in the extent of his unselfish nature, always ready to think well of others, and even when the scales fall from his eyes and he sees Pecksniff for what he truly is, he is not made sceptical about humanity in general.

Young Martin and Mark’s sojourn in the United States introduces yet another vivid cast, few, though with honourable exceptions, having any positive attributes despite just about all of them being ‘remarkable’ in the estimation of their compatriots.  The American section shows a bitterness and disgust in its writing missing from the rest of the novel.  It is unsubtle parody, targeting uncouthness (spitting out chewing tobacco particularly), boasting, and unscrupulous behaviour.  One can see already the seeds of arrogant American exceptionalism, complacently assuming that life in the US must be better than elsewhere, particularly in England.  The Americans are mostly greedy and exploitative, self-absorbed, with an inflated sense of their own importance, and hypocritical in condemning undemocratic conditions elsewhere, though not having any experience of them, while themselves living in a slave-owning society.  The conscienceless grasping land agents are ready to cheat Martin and Mark by selling them worthless, disease-ridden property in a place called Eden (and the Americans are not shown to have much of a sense of irony, taking themselves too seriously for that) from which the two Englishmen are not expected to return alive.  They do manage to return, as do two fellow emigrants, but the latter lose all their children to the pestilential swamp in which Eden is situated.

Going to America is the turning point for young Martin.  Having suffered much on the expedition, relied on others in his sickness, and been relied on in turn, he realises his past selfishness had taken others for granted, and his newly acquired self-knowledge makes him more considerate for the rest of the novel.  Dickens was not much bothered at this point about the impact on sales as the Americans had an insouciant disregard for such niceties as respect for copyright, though he appended a fawning postscript in 1868 when, back in the US, he was keen to note how much everything had changed for the better in the past 25 years.  He may have been considered harsh in his assessment of the country in the 1840s, but there are no faults here that young Martin would not have found at home, with the exception perhaps of the excessive spitting.  After all Tigg Montague is running a Ponzi scheme and does not hesitate to ruin his victims, just as Martin and Mark are cynically sold a worthless piece of land.

Like Zola later in his Les Rougon-Macquart sequence, Dickens explores the relationship of heredity and environment in the formation of character.  Various individuals, associated by blood or by circumstance, are paired to examine how traits are not fixed but are capable of change.  Most obviously the two Martins are paired by their shared name: the grandson says, in his newly acquired self-knowledge, that he had learned his selfishness from his grandfather, though Dickens indicates that we are responsible for our own destinies and cannot divert the blame to scapegoats; meanwhile grandfather too comes to see the error of his ways, and the folly of trying to direct the fates of others for one’s own ends.  Young Martin is also paired with his uncle, Jonas, to show that while one can change for the better, it is not inevitable, Jonas remaining unredeemed.  Pecksniff’s daughters Merry and Cherry initially appear to be equally unpleasant, but whereas Merry is tested by a brutal husband and acquires wisdom, and earns the compassion of others, Cherry continues in her self-absorbed ways, and when jilted goes back to live with her sottish father as a shrewish spinster.

Nor is environment a straightforward determinant of someone’s qualities.  Mrs Gamp is shown to be selfish and self-serving, whereas Mrs Todgers, from a not dissimilar background, is compassionate, though Dickens is careful to find mitigating reasons in Mrs Gamp’s background to help the reader appreciate how such a person comes into being, and Mrs Todgers is not above telling her boarders what they want to hear for a quiet life.  These portraits have broad application – as Dickens puts it in the introduction to the Cheap Edition, ‘What is substantially true of families in this respect, is true of a whole commonwealth.’  The lessons one can draw are unclear, but he seems to consider attitudes to be the result of a complex interplay between innate disposition and circumstance.   It is possible to improve the former and rise above the latter if one has the will to do so, though for some it is easier than others, and it is better done as part of a community than as an isolated individual.

The novel is slow to get going, but after the American interlude Dickens finds his rhythm, blending the multiple plot lines as he contrasts the good with the wicked.  After a leisurely exposition the ending seems hastily contrived (the title of the final chapter may be a clue: ‘Gives the author great concerns.  For it is the last in the book’).  Old Martin, who has hitherto been a marginal presence, becomes a kind of deus ex machina, solving problems in a satisfactory manner.  His transformation feels particularly unconvincing after his shabby treatment of young Martin, perpetrated because the younger man had pre-empted his grandfather’s desire to bring him together with Mary, having the temerity to fall in love with her without sanction.  Old Martin meanwhile had conceived a ridiculous plot to show Pecksniff up as manipulative by dissembling a vulnerable old man in the villain’s clutches.  Why would anyone go to such lengths to prove a point?  The occasional coincidence can feel clumsy as well.  With all these faults it is easy to forgive Dickens because to criticise him for failing to adhere to a realistic approach would be carping when the narrative is so generous in disseminating in its pleasures.

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