If nothing else, one can come away with images of use in your daily lives. Read this book to understand the hypocrisy of Pecksniff and Mrs. Prigg's interesting friend, Mrs. Harris. These two things pop up as literary references all over the place. Now I finally understand the "Harris" reference in Murder on the Orient Express!
There are all sorts of deceptions and selfishness going on in this book, but by far, Seth Pecksniff is the most perfect character to be found of all Dickens' comic characters. There is a darkness in the profile of Mr. Pecksniff, but he is made to ridiculed, and Dickens does not let a chance pass to ridicule Pecksniff.
I want to digress a moment, for Dickens did as well -- there is a section where young Martin Chuzzlewit tries his fortune in America. And there is quite a bit of anti-American sentiment to be found in these parts (a fact which caused emnity between Dickens and the American public until he made his 2nd and final tour in 1870 or so). There are two reasons for this: first, Martin Chuzzlewit simply did not have the sales figures of previous novels. Anti-American books seemed to be "the thing" (just like diet books are popular today) in Britain, so he went for that. Secondly, Dickens had just been on a rather contentious tour of the U.S. in which he had been trying to make a case for international copyright. You see, the U.S. was the China of that day -- infamous for pirating works of people from other countries. Publishers in America had been printing their own copies of Dickens novels at cut rates (because they weren't paying Dickens or his British publishers anything!) When Dickens tried to make his plea for intellectual property rights, these same publishers of newspapers did a hatchet job of Mr. Dickens' reputation. So, basically, Dickens had an axe to grind.
In any case, feel free to skip all the Chuzzlewit in America bits. There is a moment of self-realization for young Martin, but it's not essential. All the essential action is going on in England, and Martin will return to finish business. There's also a pyramid scheme-like scam going on as part of a subplot, so now we've got two things involved in this novel that people think are debates of modern origin: intellectual property rights and bad financial info. Just remember, Napster and Internet stock tips are only the latest manifestation of old themes; at the very least, this book will remind you of that.
I just finished rereading Martin Chuzzlewit for the nth time (where n>1 (I've started keeping a tally on the back covers of books, so I can have a better idea how many times I've read something)), and upon finishing it I read Chesterton's afterword, and I read the introduction by whoever was doing the introduction for the Everyman's Library edition. The person who wrote the introduction had made the point that the novel seems mistitled, for very little of the book is given over to the story of Martin Chuzzlewit, in opposition to the books eponymously titled, such as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Barnaby Rudge. I want to dispute this statement.
First of all, the Dickens novels titled with names are almost never about that particular character. Oliver Twist does follow Oliver around, but the final action has little to do with him, and almost everything to do with the treatment of the poor in general. Oliver is pulled to-and-fro by various characters, but does little of his own volition (hardly surprising considering his age). The infamous "I want some more" line came from Oliver losing a lottery among the boys in the workhouse - one older boy was so hungry, that he said if he didn't get another helping of gruel, he'd probably start eating the other boys. So Oliver went up to get the extra serving for =someone else=. How about David Copperfield? Even David admits =at the very beginning of the novel= that he is not the hero of his own life. The only thing David does on his own is run away from the blacking factory. Everything else of importance -- the exposure of Uriah Heep, the reconciliation of the Strongs, the finding of Little Emily -- is done by other people. David simply watches everything go by. Barnaby Rudge? There are two Barnabys - the father, presumed deceased and involved in a shady murder, the son, a "natural" boy with an odd raven, who is caught up in the Gordon Riots by sheer accident and lies of ill-intentioned others. The book has other characters of much greater importance than young or old Barnaby - Barnaby himself is there to symbolize the innocence of some who are caught in revolution, and is put up against those who go into the rioting for personal profit as opposed to ideological motives. The only book titled after a character in which that character really is the most important is =The Pickwick Papers=. So if =Martin Chuzzlewit= isn't about Martin Chuzzlewit, one can't claim surprise. However, there are =two= Martins in the book - grandson and grandfather. Young Martin, who it's usually assumed the book is titled for (why? simply because he's young? because he has the adventures? (The full title is "The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit")) doesn't figure much - he is eclipsed by Mr. Pecksniff and Tom Pinch - even his companion Mark Tapley, ever trying to bring his jollity to bad situations, is given more time than young Martin. However, just because the grandfather is old and stays in England, doesn't mean that his life and adventures are not also included in the title.
The crux of the novel is this: both Martins are extremely selfish, for different reasons. Young Martin simply thinks only of himself - when considering his relationship with Mary Graham, he only talks about the hardships =he= has endured in being kicked out of his grandfather's home - not of any of the mental and emotional anguish which Mary has to deal with. Young Martin takes advantage of Tom Pinch's generosity - always taking the best seat in front of the fire, and being shielded from the wind by Tom Pinch's spare form. Old Martin is selfish in a few ways - he is a rich man, and he is suspicious that every person wants his money and is kind only so that they can get a piece of it. But being old, and in care of two separate children (Mary and young Martin), used to directing their lives, used to having servants, he also will not stand for opposition. He is selfish in that he does not think of other people as people, but simply as beings who want something from him. For both Martins, the world, as they see it, is centered on them. And the men confront each other over young Martin's engagement with Mary, the impossibility of a two-centered circle forces a separation. Both must experience life apart, and have adventures, to realize their obstinacy and wrong-headedness is doing harm mostly to themselves, but also to Mary.
Young Martin leaves for America, with Mark Tapley in tow (as he thinks). Martin learns to think of others after he has squandered Mark's own savings and when Mark fall deathly ill in the swampy frontier, where Martin thought he'd make his fortune being a domestic architect. In Martin's own illness, and especially during Mark's, Martin learns to think of others and others' hardships. He realizes that he didn't give his grandfather the respect he deserved. That though he was not wrong in opposing him in the matter of being engaged to Mary, he had no need to be so harsh and uncompromising. Especially, he learns that he was certainly not the superior in his relationships with Mary and Tom.
Old Martin leaves for Mr. Pecksniff's house, suspecting the evils in Mr. Pecksniff's heart, and fully intending to prove it through trial. But he also learns to find honesty and true feeling devoid of selfishness and greed, when he comes up against Tom Pinch. Old Martin gives up having his own way, so that people are shown their true selves in interacting with him. Mary is always kind, as is Tom. When young Martin returns, he is trying to make amends for his harshness, and lets his grandfather know he still loves and respects him, even in this reduced (or so he thinks) state. Mr. Pecksniff goes from being a pompous windbag taking advantage of his student's mediocre premiums, to a man bent on taking all of Mr. Chuzzlewit's fortune, and one who has no qualms of getting involved in a false insurance company, intending to bilk the working poor of their money in fraudulent policies and loans.
Both Martins learn to quit thinking of themselves as the measure of all the world, and they start noticing the people around them as people, deserving respect and consideration. Other characters also undergo changes - Tom Pinch learns to think less of other people and a (very) little more of himself and his rights; Tigg Montague/Montague Tigg goes from a slumming, mediocre beggar to a con man of the highest degree; Mark Tapley learns that the friendliness he finds everywhere originates in himself, and that there's no reason to roam to search out greater experiences in life; Mrs. Todgers finds there's more than the simple commercial interest to think of all the time; Jonas Chuzzlewit goes from discontent expecter to a cowardly murderer.
Still, the main changes to be seen are in the Martins - they are the ones who deliberately seek their particular adventures, young Martin to America and old Martin to Pecksniff's. Theirs is the biggest change of character - everyone else merely experiences a change of situation, and a development of the potential that is already there. The Martins change situations for other people so that their full character comes into bloom.
So, in short (as Micawber would say), I think the novel admirably titled.
Back to Reviews pageMary Pat Campbell, last updated 11 June 2001