The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

by Charles Dickens. I quite liked this novel, but it wasn’t as good as some of the other Dickens novels that I’ve read this year. I found it really quite astonishing that part of the novel is set in America and Dickens criticized and satirized America in a way that really seems to fit to our current times (the novel was written from 1842 to 1844).

He was the greatest patriot, in their eyes, who brawled the loudest, and who cared the least for decency.

Chapter 16, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), by Charles Dickens, p. 266

They’ve such a passion for Liberty, that they can’t help taking liberties with her.

Chapter 17, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), by Charles Dickens, p. 275

I couldn’t help but think of Trump while reading these and other passages. Hope he doesn’t get a second term in office.

Dickens based his critical view on a visit to America in 1842. Dickens was against slavery and angry about the pirating of his work. Notably, he changed his mind during a later visit to America and printed a postscript to Martin Chuzzlewit to document this change of opinion.

My summary of the novel is under the cut as it contains spoilers.

There are two Martin Chuzzlewits in the novel. One, Chuzzlewit senior, is the grandfather of the Martin Chuzzlewit mentioned in the title. At the beginning of the novel young Martin becomes the student of Seth Pecksniff, a hypocritical and selfish architect, who defrauds students of their fees and passes off their architectural designs as his own. Most of his students see right through him, but one of them, Thomas Pinch, regards him as his benefactor and stays on for years to act as his assistant. When Chuzzlewit senior finds out that young Martin is staying with Pecksniff, he has Pecksniff throw him out. Pecksniff is only too happy to oblige, as he is toadying to Chuzzlewit senior in order to be mentioned in his will.

Chuzzlewit senior is very rich and very concerned not to fund relatives who are only out for his money. Pecksniff pretends to be totally uninterested in Chuzzlewit senior’s riches and Chuzzlewit senior seems to be manipulated by Pecksniff although by the end of the novel the reader learns that Chuzzlewit senior himself had been the power in the background, or the manipulator, all along. Young Martin, who is very entitled and selfish and is alsoengaged with Mary Graham, his grandfather’s kind and selfless companion and ward, goes off to America with Mark Tapley, his servant and later friend. In America, through adversity, he becomes a different, humbler character. On his return, he is reconciled with his grandfather and marries Mary. Pecksniff is discredited and even Thomas Pinch left him, as Mary opened his eyes to Pecksniff’s true nature.

Another plotline in the novel concerns Anthony and Jonas Chuzzlewit, father and son, who are both out to get Martin Chuzzlewit senior’s money. Anthony brings Jonas up to value riches above all else and is seen as an expensive drain on Jonas’ livelihood as he grows old. There’s a rumour that Jonas had a hand in Anthony’s death, and he is blackmailed by a fraudulent business associate. Jonas later murders this associate. The murder is uncovered by a private investigator, Mr. Nadgett, and Jonas poisons himself when he is arrested.

Thomas Pinch remains a favourite with Martin junior and Mary, although he had also been in love with Mary. He is also beloved by his sister Ruth and her husband John (who also used to be a student of Pecksniff’s but saw through him much earlier than Thomas). One can’t help but feel that though kind and good, Thomas is somewhat dimwitted regarding Pecksniffs. It seems a pity that the virtuous character seems by his virtue blind to the faults of others and therefore is taken advantage of and appears somewhat foolish. Not exactly an incentive for virtue! The best character in the novel is Mark Tapley, always optimistic, but clear-eyed and sensible (apart from his somewhat silly idea that he must test his character under the most adverse circumstances possible).

In my list of favourite Dickens’ novels, Martin Chuzzlewit doesn’t distinguish itself. I quite like it, but it’s by no means my favourite:

  1. David Copperfield
  2. Bleak House
  3. Our Mutual Friend
  4. Little Dorrit
  5. Hard Times
  6. Martin Chuzzlewit
  7. Pickwick Papers
  8. Dombey and Son

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