Friday, May 13, 2011
402. Marvin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens
History: This book is considered the last of Dickens picaresque novels. It was originally serialized between 1843-1844. Dickens himself proclaimed Martin Chuzzlewit to be his best work, but it was one of his least popular novels. Like nearly all of Dickens' novels, Martin Chuzzlewit was released to the public in monthly instalments. Early sales of the monthly parts were disappointing, compared to previous works, so Dickens changed the plot to send the title character to America. This allowed the author to portray the United States (which he had visited in 1842) satirically as a near wilderness with pockets of civilization filled with deceptive and self-promoting hucksters.
Plot: Young Martin Chuzzlewit was raised by his grandfather and namesake. The senior Martin, a very wealthy man, has been long convinced that everyone around him is after his money, and so takes the precaution, years before the book begins, of raising an orphaned girl, Mary, to be his nursemaid, with the understanding that she would be well cared for as long as he lived, but upon his death be thrown out onto the streets, penniless. She would thus have great motivation to care for his well-being and safeguard him from harm, in contrast to his relatives, who want him to die. However, his grandson and heir, Martin, falls in love with Mary and wishes to marry her, ruining the senior Martin's plans to keep her uninterested in his fortune. He demands his grandson give up the engagement, but the latter refuses, prompting his grandfather to disinherit him.
Young Martin decides to sign on as an apprentice to Mr. Pecksniff, a talentless, greedy, pseudo-pious poseur who periodically takes in students to teach them architecture, while actually teaching them nothing, treating them badly, living grandly off their tuition fees, and having them do draughting work that he passes off as his own. He has two vain, spoiled, mean-spirited and pseudo-pious daughters, Mercy (Merry) and Charity (Cherry). Unbeknown to young Martin, Mr. Pecksniff, also a relative of Chuzzlewit, has actually taken the grandson on in order to establish closer ties with the wealthy grandfather, thinking that the grandfather's gratitude will gain Pecksniff a prominent place in the will.
While with the Pecksniffs, the younger Martin meets and befriends Tom Pinch, who is in some ways the true protagonist of the novel. Pinch is a gentle, kind-hearted soul whose late grandmother had given Pecksniff all she had, believing Pecksniff would make a grand architect and gentleman of him. Pinch is so virtuous that he is incapable of believing any of the bad things others tell him of Pecksniff, and always defends him vociferously. He also has a sister who is a governess in London. Pinch works for Pecksniff for exploitatively low wages, all the while believing that he is the unworthy recipient of Pecksniff's charity. As the novel opens, we briefly meet John Westlock, Pecksniff's student, who sees the value of Pinch and the evil of Pecksniff, and parts ways from the household.
When Grandfather Chuzzlewit hears of his grandson's new life, he demands that Mr. Pecksniff kick the penniless young Martin out, which Pecksniff promptly does. Then, the senior Martin moves in with Mr. Pecksniff and slowly appears to fall under his complete control. During this sojourn, Pinch falls in love with Mary, but does not declare his love, knowing of her attachment to the young Martin.
One of Martin senior's greedy relatives is his brother, Anthony Chuzzlewit, who is in business with his son, Jonas. While somewhat affluent themselves, they live miserly, cruel lives, with Jonas constantly berating his father, eager for the old man to die so he can get control of his inheritance. Anthony dies abruptly and under suspicious circumstances, leaving his wealth to Jonas. Jonas then woos Cherry Pecksniff, who is very flattered and receptive to his attentions, while insulting and arguing constantly with Merry, whom he refers to simply as "the other one." He then abruptly and cruelly declares to Seth Pecksniff that he wants to marry Merry, and jilts a furious Cherry. During their courtship, Merry continues to tease and abuse Jonas verbally, enjoying her power over him. He in turn responds to this teasing affably, muttering that he will get his revenge once they are married. This indeed happens: after their marriage, he seriously physically and emotionally abuses Merry. Her personality changes from that of a giggly, flighty girl to a crushed and frightened woman. Cherry delights in Merry's pain.
Jonas, meanwhile, becomes entangled with the unscrupulous Montague Tigg and joins in his pyramid scheme-like insurance scam. Introduced at the beginning of the book as Montague Tigg, he is a dirty, petty thief and hanger-on of a Chuzzlewit relative, Chevy Slyme. Tigg has changed his name to Tigg Montague and transformed himself into a seemingly fine man after cheating the young Martin Chuzzlewit out of a valuable pocket-watch. He uses the funds from the watch to buy fine clothes, rent a distinguished-looking office, and purchase other false signs of success and good breeding. This façade is enough to convince investors that he must be an important businessman from whom they may greatly profit.
At this time, Tom Pinch, after years of devoted service, finally comes to see his employer's true character when Mary tells him of Mr. Pecksniff's unwanted advances and mistreatment of her. Pecksniff, having overheard the conversation between Tom and Mary, falsely accuses Tom and demands his resignation. Pinch goes to London to seek employment, and rescues his governess sister Ruth, whom he discovers has been mistreated by the snobbish family employing her. The two set up housekeeping together. He renews his friendship with John Westlock, who has recently come into an inheritance. Pinch quickly receives an ideal job from a mysterious employer, with the help of an equally mysterious Mr. Fips.
Young Martin, meanwhile, has fallen in with Mark Tapley, a kind man from the inn in the town where Pecksniff lives. Mark, a satirical character, is always affable and cheerful, which he decides does not reflect well on him because he is always in happy circumstances and it shows no strength of character to be happy when one has good fortune. He decides he must test his cheerfulness by seeing if he can maintain it in the worst circumstances possible. To this end, he decides to accompany young Martin Chuzzlewit as his unpaid servant (indeed, he uses up his life savings paying for things for Martin) as he makes his way to the United States to seek his fortune. The men travel to America, and then attempt to start new lives in a swampy, disease-filled settlement named "Eden" by the corrupt hucksters who sell him land there. Dickens uses the scenes set in America to make many humorous observations about the generally low, degraded or silly character of the American people. Mark and Martin both nearly die in Eden of malaria. Mark finally finds himself in a situation in which it can be considered a virtue to remain in good spirits. But the grim experience, and Mark's unselfish care nursing Martin back to health, changes Martin's selfish and proud character, and the men return to England, where Martin is resolved to return penitently to his grandfather, humbled and changed. But his grandfather is now apparently under Mr. Pecksniff's control and rejects him coldly (to Pecksniff's glee).
Mr. Pecksniff also becomes financially involved in Montague Tigg's insurance scam through the intervention of Jonas, who is being blackmailed by Tigg, who has acquired some kind of information on Jonas. The information is not revealed until the end of the book, but it is implied that he has evidence that Jonas killed his father.
On his return to England, Young Martin is reunited with Tom Pinch. At this point, Jonas Chuzzlewit murders Montague Tigg when the insurance scam is failing, in order to prevent him from revealing the information he's been using as blackmail. Meanwhile, Tom Pinch discovers that his mysterious benefactor/employer is old Martin Chuzzlewit. The elder Martin reveals that when he saw the ends to which greed would take one (in the case of Jonas and Anthony), he decided to sit back and pretend to be in doddering thrall to Pecksniff, while he carefully planned to give everyone enough rope to hang themselves with. He soon realized the evils of Pecksniff and the good of Pinch. Together, the group confronts Mr. Pecksniff with their knowledge of his true character. Mr. Nadgett leads the group to the discovery of Jonas as the murderer of Montague. They also find out from Anthony's devoted employee Chuffey that Jonas did not murder his father, but did plan to murder him, and in fact thought he had (with poison), when really the father died of a broken heart when he realized his own son wanted him dead. Martin also reveals that he was angry at his grandson for becoming engaged to Mary because he had all along planned to arrange that particular match, and felt his glory had been thwarted by them deciding on the plan themselves, instead. He realizes the folly of that opinion, and Martin and his grandfather are reconciled. Martin and Mary are married, as are Ruth Pinch and John Westlock, and the other characters generally get what they deserve, good or bad. Tom Pinch, however, remains in unrequited, undeclared love with Mary for the rest of his life, never marrying, and always being a warm companion to Mary and Martin and to Ruth and John. The goodness of his heart is such that he is glad to see his loved ones happy, even though he does not partake of this joy himself.
Review: The novel was (and is still) seen by some to contain attacks on America, although Dickens himself saw it as satire, similar in spirit to his "attacks" on the people and institutions of England in novels such as Oliver Twist. Americans are satirically portrayed as snobs, windbags, hypocrites, liars, bores, humbugs, braggarts, bullies, hogs, savages, blackguards, murderers and idiots; and the Republic is described as "so maimed and lame, so full of sores and ulcers, foul to the eye and almost hopeless to the sense, that her best friends turn from the loathsome creature with disgust". Dickens also attacks the institution of slavery in America in the following words: "Thus the stars wink upon the bloody stripes; and Liberty pulls down her cap upon her eyes, and owns oppression in its vilest aspect for her sister"
There is a certain quality or element which broods over the whole of Martin Chuzzlewit to which it is difficult for either friends or foes to put a name. I think the reader who enjoys Dickens's other books has an impression that it is a kind of melancholy. There are grotesque figures of the most gorgeous kind; there are scenes that are farcical even by the standard of the farcical license of Dickens; there is humour both of the heaviest and of the lightest kind; there are two great comic personalities who run like a rich vein through the whole story, Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp; there is one blinding patch of brilliancy, the satire on American cant; there is Todgers's boarding-house; there is Bailey; there is Mr. Mould, the incomparable undertaker. But yet in spite of everything, in spite even of the undertaker, the book is sad. No one I think ever went to it in that mixed mood of a tired tenderness and a readiness to believe and laugh in which most of Dickens's novels are most enjoyed.
Opening Line: “AS NO LADY OR GENTLEMAN, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.“
Closing Line: “As it resounds within thee and without, the mobile music, rolling round ye both, shuts out the grosser prospect of an earthly parting, and uplifts ye both to Heaven!”
Quotes: “Let us be moral. Let us contemplate existence.”
“But charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.”