Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

martin chuzzlewitComin’ to America…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Old Martin Chuzzlewit’s greedy relations have always assumed that his grandson and namesake will inherit the bulk of his wealth. But when young Martin falls in love without his grandfather’s consent, the subsequent breach between them leaves the way open for all the rest to try to flatter, sneak or threaten their way into old Martin’s good graces. Meantime young Martin must make his own way in the world, a hard lesson for a young man who has never given much thought for anything beyond his own comfort. When old Martin makes it difficult for him to get on in England, young Martin decides to seek his fortune in the youthful United States of America…

Apparently on publication in serial form, this one didn’t take off as well as Dickens’ earlier novels, and I can see why. At first, as we meet all the horrible relatives, it’s quite hard to see who is to be the hero – they are all so unlikeable, including the two Martins. The major theme of the book is selfishness, perhaps more self-centredness, as each character is out for what he or she can get. The book is populated by grasping Scrooge-like businessmen, hypocritical flatterers and people whose pride gets in the way of their ability to make compromises. Tom Pinch, the put-upon assistant of one of the many Chuzzlewit relations, Mr Pecksniff, is the only main character who is purely good, and frankly he is such a doormat one wants to give him a good shake and shout “Man up, Tom, for goodness sake!” However, once Dickens has created all his characters, he then allows the circumstances in which they they find themselves to change them. And, as is always the case with Dickens, redemption is available for those characters willing to seek it.

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.

Dickens’ method of writing for serialisation meant that he often reacted to how early instalments were received by his public, and this book is a major example of that. While he clearly had the main arc of the story mapped out, apparently the decision to send young Martin off to America was made mid-way through in order to revive flagging sales. I’m not convinced it was a great decision – the whole American bit feels tacked on and unnecessary, although it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some great descriptive writing. Martin, accompanied by his servant Mark Tapley, finds himself at the mercy of the unscrupulous hucksters who prey on the immigrant dream of finding a land of golden opportunity. Ending up instead in a disease-ridden swamp, Martin has a chance to discover the meaning of true friendship, while Mark has at last found a place where he can find some merit in being jolly in the face of adversity.

The inaptly named Eden, young Martin's American home. By Phiz.
The inaptly named Eden, young Martin’s American home. By Phiz.

It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to a certain constitutional Judge, who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle, that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man: and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain Patriot, who had declared from his high place in the Legislature, that he and his friends would hang, without trial, any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city.

Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and very funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British – and furthermore I spent a miserable couple of weeks last year in the company of the much more vilely rude Mr Twain as he travelled Europe and Asia in The Innocents Abroad, so hey! I was kinda glad to see Dickens do it the other way round, and so much better! Joking(?) aside, Dickens was surprised by the reaction of the American public, feeling that his satirisation of their society wasn’t significantly different to the way he satirised people and institutions in England. True, I feel, but somehow it does read more offensively because of his position as an outsider to their society. I’m not sure he meant to convey the impression that America was inferior to England – given his lowly opinion of the people who abused their power in England, I doubt it. But it nevertheless comes across that way, particularly when he brilliantly (and repeatedly) mocks the never-ending boast of “freedom” coming from men who kept and cruelly abused slaves. Dickens subsequently made a kind of apology to America (more than Twain ever did to Europe, as far as I know) and requested that this apology be always printed at the end of the book.

Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.

Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression...
Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression…

For me, the book is much better when it stays in England, and fortunately the American interlude is relatively short. Some of the great Dickens characters are to be found here. Mr Pecksniff, the arch-hypocrite and flatterer, is superb – not quite as overdrawn as Dickens’ characters can sometimes be, making Tom’s belief in him more credible. Sairey Gamp, midwife and layer-out of corpses, with her invisible friend Mrs Harris, her ubiquitous umbrella, and her liking for a little sip of alcohol – just to wet her lips occasionally – is monstrous and comical simultaneously, a combination only Dickens could pull off so well. Jonas Chuzzlewit is one of the great evil characters, and the scenes relating to him in the second half of the book show Dickens at his dark and terrifying worst.

Did no men passing through the dim streets shrink without knowing why, when he came stealing up behind them? As he glided on, had no child in its sleep an indistinct perception of a guilty shadow falling on its bed, that troubled its innocent rest? Did no dog howl, and strive to break its rattling chain, that it might tear him; no burrowing rat, scenting the work he had in hand, essay to gnaw a passage after him, that it might hold a greedy revel at the feast of his providing? When he looked back, across his shoulder, was it to see if his quick footsteps still fell dry upon the dusty pavement, or were already moist and clogged with the red mire that stained the naked feet of Cain!

Of course, there is romance and one of Dickens’ never-ending parade of nauseatingly sweet young heroines – this time, Tom’s sister, Ruth. But I must say the love scenes in this one are done mainly for humour and that works so much better than some of the sickly sweet love affairs in later books (yes, I am thinking of David Copperfield and Drippy Dora).

Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff...
Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff…

Despite the rather slow start and the detour to America, for me this still ranks up there as a truly excellent novel. While it took me a bit of time to warm up to any of the characters, as they developed I became fully invested in wanting to see the goodies reach a happy ending and hoping the baddies would get their just desserts. The second half in particular, with its mixture of evil, justice and redemption reaches close to being some of Dickens’ best work. The sheer quality of Dickens’ writing always takes my breath away – it reads as if written so effortlessly and yet his descriptions of both place and people are unique, insightful and often unforgettable. A true master of his craft – I’m glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

66 thoughts on “Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

  1. I watched a couple of episodes of Dickensian over the festive season and, funnily enough, I was thinking precisely of Martin Chuzzlewit as one of the novels I would like to revisit (and Barnaby Rudge, which at the time went completely over my head).


    • I started watching Dickensian but then missed a couple and haven’t got around to catching up. It’s so long since I last read this one that it really felt as if I was reading it for the first time, and I think I rated it more highly this time around. Especially when it got to the darker bits in the second half…


  2. Dickens certainly was skilled at pointing up what he saw as flaws in society (British and American) and calling attention to them. You’re quite right, too, FictionFan, about the theme of redemption in a lot of his work. As Dickens’ writing style, it is skilled – seeming effortless, but you know it wasn’t. And he created some memorable characters.


    • Yes, it’s funny that it reads so differently when he does it to someone else’s society, given how severe he is on British institutions. I like the fact that his characters always have a chance for redemption and that at least some of them will make it to a happy ending. It stops the books from ever becoming too bleak. His characters are unique – not many writers could get away with that level of caricaturing but somehow he makes it work…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another great review. Haven’t read it, but seem to know
    the characters through literary commentary over the years.
    I’m intrigued, but not at the top of the TBR list (nor ON the list).


    • Thank you! Yes, I can never remember which of the characters belong in which book because so many of them seem to have taken on a life of their own beyond the pages. Haha! You’re so much better at managing your list than I am!


  4. Classic Dickens! I often think of him as the first blogger, given the way he wrote. I agree with you about the American bit – it seems a bit out of place – but Dickens can get away with pretty much anything, what with being a literary genius.


  5. I TOTALLY agree with you on your assessment of Martin Chuzzlewit. I read this several years ago in my quest to read all of Dickens’s books. I have to say I loved it, but did not love the American section. Good to know that he basically tacked that bit on.
    Mr. Pecksniff was a hoot.
    Did you happen to see the miniseries? It disappointed me.


    • Yes, the American bit really doesn’t tie in with the feel of the rest of the book even though it’s as well written as usual. The perils of serialisation – if he’d issued it as a book first he wouldn’t have been tempted to change it…

      I did see it many years ago and it isn’t one of the ones that I remember loving. I’ve got a feeling I didn’t like the guy who played young Martin much. Pity, because the rest of the casting is pretty stellar.


  6. This was not the first book by Dickens I read (David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities came first), but this was the book that set me on a mission to read every one of his books – despite being American, but his satire didn’t particularly offend me; I blithely didn’t recognize myself in any of his characterizations :). You remind me I need to read this one again!


    • I think my first one was Nicholas Nickleby but I grew up loving the BBC’s adaptations of them so was already pre-disposed to love him. I’m sure there’s a couple I still haven’t read but I feel I know them anyway, they’re so much a part of the culture. Haha! I rather enjoyed his satire on America, but I could see why his contemporary Americans might have been a little peeved… 😉


  7. What an outstanding review, FF — you always cut right to the chase, leaving no doubts as to where you stand on the merits of a book! And I appreciate that. I’ve never tried to read this one, but you’ve piqued my interest. Not that I’m ready to add to my TBR quite yet!


    • I think it’s one of the ones that tends to get overlooked – that slow start maybe. It’s so long since I last read it this felt almost like reading it for the first time. And as always I ended up completely absorbed – I just love the way he uses language!


    • I think he’s a great writer – I hate to let more than a year go by without reading something by him. Haha! Don’t let me put you off the love scenes in David Copperfield – I always end up wanting to strangle Dora, but I think that’s as much to do with me as her… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I like your review. I’ve not read this book, and perhaps I should a TBR of my own. But do not hold your breath. I do like Dickens. And I pretty much agree with Mr. Dickens about Americans. At least more than not. I’ve often thought that it would do every American a great deal of good to live out of the United States for about 3 years. It might start a different sort of revolution.


    • Thanks, Susan! Oh yes, you should definitely have a TBR – on a spreadsheet! With colour coding! Haha! I shall try to preserve a tactful silence on the subject of Mr Dickens’ view of Americans. But I couldn’t agree with you more – sometimes the US seems even more insular than the UK, which is quite something.


  9. I haven’t read this one and, although I do enjoy Dickens, I’m not sure it’ll jump to the top of my list any time soon. I think I would enjoy his take on American culture though – I would love it if he’d ever sent a character to Canada!


    • Dickens always requires such a time committment I keep putting him off, which is silly given how much I enjoy them when I do get around to them. Haha! I’m kind glad he never got around to writing about Scotland – a terrifying prospect!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m thinking that Dickens would have had a field day with Trump or with the armed “freedom fighters” currently holed up in the back woods of Oregon. Canada is looking pretty good right now.


    • Ha! Yes, I was hearing about that story yesterday. Truthfully, despite our shared language, America is feeling more and more like a ‘foreign’ country to me with each passing year. The psyche defeats me… I think I understand the Chinese better! I’d love to hear Dickens’ view of Trump – think what fun he could have with that hairdo, apart from anything else…

      Liked by 1 person

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