The only thing I knew about Martin Chuzzlewit before going into it was that it was “the one where the main character goes to America.” Well, that’s true. But there is quite a bit more to this novel, which apparently Dickens thought was his best book but was his least-popular. Let’s see if I can tell you what I thought about it, myself.
This book is about an old man, Martin Chuzzlewit senior, who has gradually become a selfish miser. He believes that everyone around him is trying to get their hands on his fortune, and that his very existence corrupts the most innocent into grasping, greedy vultures who want him dead. Thanks to this unhappy way of looking at the world, he has adopted a young woman, Mary Graham, who is to be taken care of while he lives but is never to inherit, and has disowned his nephew, Martin Chuzzlewit junior, because Martin wanted to marry Mary (and thus foil Martin senior’s plan of not letting Mary inherit any of his money.)
The disowned Martin must make a living somehow, so he goes to become an architect with a relative of his, Mr. Pecksniff. Pecksniff, it is immediately apparent, is the worst and most despicable of hypocrites. He puts on an act of being generous, kind, religious, and just, but in fact every penny is squeezed, every angle is examined for his own well-being, and he’d drop-kick a puppy if it got him a better seat at the table. Pecksniff also employs a young man named Tom Pinch, who is genuinely lovely, and who can’t see any of Pecksniff’s bad qualities, mostly because he’s too nice himself.
Soon, Martin senior discovers that Martin junior has taken refuge with Pecksniff, and of course Pecksniff fires Martin, because there’s more advantage for him in scraping to the old man than there is in helping a penniless young fellow. Martin junior still needs to make a living so he can get married, so he takes himself — and Mark Tapley, a supernaturally cheerful local man who wants to set himself the challenge of being cheerful in the worst circumstances possible — off to America.
America! Land of the free (unless you are a slave), home of the brave (unless you are nearly dead from malaria or concocting land-hustle scams)! Dickens’s portrait of the new, raw, brash United States is a caricature with a few uncomfortable truths to tell. Everyone is “one of our finest men.” Everyone has a gun. Everyone eats as fast as they possibly can. All the buildings are uncomfortably brand-new. Everyone is out for your money. The women don’t know their place; they lecture and hector. Everyone talks about freedom and independence, even though slaves are everywhere.
Martin and Mark make their way to a swampy, malaria-ridden “town” called Eden (subtle, subtle), where both of them fall severely ill. Up until this point, Martin junior has been nearly as unpleasant a character as his uncle: proud, thoughtless, self-interested, scornful of generosity, mistaking goodness for naiveté. But when he sees Mark’s care for him in his time of need, and gives Mark the same care, things begin to change. It’s not an instantaneous transformation, but the scales have fallen from his eyes, and he begins to do the hard work of thinking of others before himself. This is part of the whole theme of selfishness and unselfishness in the novel, and who may or may not be redeemed, and how. It’s woven all throughout.
There is another plot line in the novel, as well, involving another Chuzzlewit relative, a pyramid scam, an abusive marriage, and a murder (!) but I won’t go into that in detail. I will say, though, that this line has some of the best writing in the novel, and some of the most exciting chapters. This book was a mix between the picaresque (with the travel to America) and a murder-mystery. What more could you ask?
This may not be my favorite Dickens novel, but it was highly entertaining, rewarding reading. And I was so pleased to find the source of some quotations I’ve always wondered about. “Who deniges of it?” (Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers) “Rough he may be. So air our Barrs. Wild he may be. So air our Buffalers. But he is a child of Natur’, and a child of Freedom; and his boastful answer to the Despot and the Tyrant is, that his bright home is in the Settin’ Sun.” (Jack and Jill, Louisa May Alcott — she quotes from this book elsewhere, too.) This last is part of a longer speech that is well worth reading.
I feel quite astonished that I only have one Dickens novel left to read — Barnaby Rudge! And then there is re-reading! I suppose it had to come to an end sometime. I have been planning to read a really good Dickens biography once I was done with all the novels, and the one I have on my list is the Slater biography. Is that one good, or should I go somewhere else?