As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathize 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. (Ch. 1)
Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens is a story of selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy. The central character is old Martin Chuzzlewit, whose selfishness and cynicism, combined with his great wealth, cause him to mistrust everyone around him. Also a major character in the story is his relative, Mr. Pecksniff, an accomplished hypocrite, who covers his avariciousness with a mask of smooth piety and humility.
An interesting contrast appears between three fathers in this story and how they raise their children (or in old Martin Chuzzlewit’s case, his grandchild). Old Martin raises his grandson, young Martin Chuzzlewit, teaching him by example to be as selfish and obstinate as he. Old Martin has a brother, Anthony, who teaches his son Jonas to be greedy, avaricious, and suspicious. Pecksniff has two daughters (Charity and Mercy) who he teaches to be good little hypocrites. Of the four children involved, two are able to overcome their early training. Young Martin, through a near death experience, comes to recognize his own self-absorption. Mercy’s mistreatment at the hands of her brutal husband Jonas, cures her of her giddy thoughtlessness and makes her grateful for the affection of even a dependent. Jonas and Charity, on the other hand, follow out their destructive training to the last.
Jonas Chuzzlewit is a cunning and cruel man — as brutal as Oliver Twist‘s murderous Bill Sikes and as ignorant. He absorbs his father’s training so well that, instead of waiting for his father to die a natural death, he attempts to assist nature in order to secure the possession of his father’s fortune. Jonas had previously courted Mercy’s older sister, before proposing to Mercy herself. When the jealous Charity discovers, as she quickly does, that her sister is unhappy and that Jonas mistreats her, she delights in lording it over her sister. She gloats over Mercy, pointing out that she is not Jonas’s slave and, through a few contrivances, traps an old admirer of her sister’s into marrying her, for the purpose of showing him off to the humbled Mercy.
Old Martin Chuzzlewit also cares for an orphan, Mary Graham. He has bred and educated her to be his companion. He took an oath never to leave her so much as a sixpence when he dies, but gives her an allowance while he lives. Because she has nothing to gain by his death, he trusts her. However, Mary Graham has been raised in a sterner school than either Martin. She is as selfless as they are selfish.
Old Martin amused himself by planning a match between his grandson and Mary, but when he finds that young Martin has already chosen Mary for himself, he is enraged. The two Martins quarrel and the elder disinherits the younger. Young Martin must now seek his own fortune and old Martin is left to mourn the loss of his grandson, though he is too proud to admit that he does so.
Young Martin has some talent in architecture and decides to take up residence with Mr. Pecksniff, who ostensibly teaches this profession. He does this as much to spite his grandfather (who hates Pecksniff) as to learn architecture. Learning of his grandson’s actions, old Martin decides to sound the depths of Pecksniff’s depravity and hypocrisy. To accomplish this, he, as rudely and coarsely as he can, offers Pecksniff the position of his tool to punish his avaricious relatives.
When old Martin desires Pecksniff to turn young Martin out, he readily takes the bait, ejecting young Martin from his household on a flimsy excuse and devoting himself to fawning on old Martin. Besides trying to worm his way into old Martin’s confidence (with, of course, the view of a legacy), Pecksniff also tries to curry favor with old Martin’s wealthy brother, Anthony, and his son Jonas. Jonas begins courting Charity and Pecksniff is delighted with the prospect of such a rich son-in-law, however ill-favored and mean.
Old Martin Chuzzlewit was an ambiguous character. In his jealousy and distrust, he pushes those who love him away along with those who are as covetous as he believes them. He chooses one among the latter — Pecksniff — and allows himself to be used by him, ostensibly to sound the depths of his depravity and avarice. In the end, he punishes the bad, and rewards the good, characters. He has learnt to recognize his own selfishness and to be more generous.
Despite this, however, the way he obtains this self-knowledge rather overshadows any goodness he gains. In placing himself in Pecksniff’s hands, he places Mary Graham in a position to be insulted. Pecksniff pursues her despite her dependent situation and obvious displeasure. Yet, old Martin does not remove himself, or even just Mary, from Pecksniff’s home and opportunity is given for Pecksniff to further insult Mary by a marriage proposal to her during which he threatens and attempts to manipulate her “with a smooth tongue and a smiling face, in the broad light of day; dragging me on, the while, in his embrace, and holding to his lips [my] hand” (Ch. 31). Old Martin later tells his grandson (after they are reconciled),
“Martin … your rival has not been a dangerous one, but Mrs Lupin here has played duenna for some weeks; not so much to watch your love as to watch her lover. For that Ghoul”—his fertility in finding names for Mr Pecksniff was astonishing—“would have crawled into her daily walks otherwise, and polluted the fresh air.” (Ch. 52)
His calling Mr. Pecksniff names does not erase the fact that it was he who provided the opportunity and caused Pecksniff to think that he would acquiesce in Pecksniff’s sordid plans.
Besides this, old Martin must deceive Mary, Martin, Pecksniff, and everyone else around him to gain his own end. The fact that he paid Pecksniff for his “hospitality” does not justify this deception. He accommodates Pecksniff’s worst attributes, tacitly encouraging him to go further down the path of dissimulation and wickedness.
Even if the end did justify the means, which it decidedly does not, old Martin’s end goal was not a noble one. The uncovering of Pecksniff’s hypocrisy hardly justifies all that those around him must suffer in the process. I am reminded of something that Dickens wrote in his previous book, Barnaby Rudge: “Let no man turn aside, ever so slightly, from the broad path of honour, on the plausible pretence that he is justified by the goodness of his end. All good ends can be worked out by good means. Those that cannot, are bad; and may be counted so at once, and left alone.” (Ch. 79).
While not exactly a main character, Tom Pinch plays a very large role in the story, providing a conspicuous contrast to the self-serving, designing characters around him — notably Mr. Pecksniff. Tom Pinch is an object of Mr. Pecksniff’s “charity”. Pecksniff keeps him because he reflects well on himself. Tom is an honest, generous, friendly, and hardworking man, but he is very stupid — at least in one point. He is blind to any fault in Pecksniff. He doesn’t seem to mind how Pecksniff treats other people — like young Martin and John Westlock (a former pupil and a friend of Tom’s). He doesn’t seem to notice that Mr. Pecksniff is taking advantage of his “pupils” (he doesn’t actually teach them anything, he just takes their premiums). The fact that no good reason can be assigned for Mr. Pecksniff to eject young Martin from his home doesn’t seem to disturb Tom’s belief in him. Pecksniff’s character is again and again open before Tom.
One example is particularly worth relating. Tom comes to let Mr. Pecksniff know that old Martin Chuzzlewit is coming to his house. Pecksniff quickly sends Tom off to quiet his daughters (to smooth appearances) and then goes to greet Mr. Chuzzlewit, who is already at the door. Pecksniff pretends to be surprised to see him. Mr. Chuzzlewit tells Pecksniff that he thought Tom “would have arrived before us”.
‘He did arrive before you, my dear sir,’ retorted Pecksniff, raising his voice for the edification of Tom upon the stairs, ‘and was about, I dare say, to tell me of your coming, when I begged him first to knock at my daughters’ chamber, and inquire after Charity, my dear child, who is not so well as I could wish. … Mr Pinch! Thomas!’ exclaimed Pecksniff, in his kindest accents. ‘Pray come in. I shall make no stranger of you. Thomas is a friend of mine, of rather long-standing, Mr Chuzzlewit, you must know.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Tom. ‘You introduce me very kindly, and speak of me in terms of which I am very proud.’ (Ch. 24)
Pecksniff makes Tom a party to this deception and covers it over with flattery, and Tom completely falls for it, allowing himself to be flattered into silence, and furthermore declaring himself proud to be called Pecksniff’s friend. Tom has had ample opportunities to observe Pecksniff’s true character, but remains stupidly blind, until the girl he loves, Mary Graham, declares herself mistreated by Pecksniff.
Tom’s admiration and adoration of Pecksniff go much beyond anything logical or moral. Tom idolized Mr. Pecksniff, and is accordingly quite cut up when he finds out that the Pecksniff he believed in, not only is no more, but never was. It is said that he misses
a statue he had set up … in all … places of his personal resort; and [they] looked cold and bare without that ornament. … Tom had so long been used to steep the Pecksniff of his fancy in his tea, and spread him out upon his toast, and take him as a relish with his beer, that he made but a poor breakfast on the first morning after his expulsion. (Ch. 36)
Aside from this Pecksniff-worship, Tom is a charming character, always kind and generous to those around him (if, perhaps, a little too saintly, though this provides a contrast to Pecksniff’s hypocritical saintliness).
Young Martin Chuzzlewit was an interesting character. At the beginning he is a younger version of his grandfather, but adversity tries him. When he leaves his grandfather’s house in defiance of him, because of his love for Mary Graham, he thinks only of himself and the sacrifices that he is making for her — nothing of the worry and distress that she is also experiencing. He treats others as if they could have no hardships worthy of being compared with his, and as if they ought all to cater to his wishes. When he is expelled from Pecksniff’s house, he decides to seek his fortune in America. A bad business decision brings him to Eden — a disease-ridden swamp. Inevitably, Martin becomes dangerously ill. While recuperating, Martin has plenty of time to think. Little by little, he comes to see his faults, slowly becoming more considerate of others, more willing to listen to advice, less arrogant.
Of course, this story wouldn’t be Dickens’s without a host of other characters. When young Martin goes to America, the merry Mark Tapley accompanies him. Mark Tapley is a very amusing character. He declares, “My constitution is, to be jolly; and my weakness is, to wish to find a credit in it.” (Ch. 48). He notices young Martin’s selfishness and thinks that serving him might be creditable. When Martin changes for the better, Mark gives up trying to get credit for being jolly, marries his sweetheart, Mrs. Lupin, and keeps her inn, formerly called the Blue Dragon, but appropriately renamed the Jolly Tapley!
Ruth Pinch is Tom’s charming little sister. When Tom’s eyes are opened to Pecksniff’s true character (and Pecksniff accordingly dismisses him), he goes to London to search for work and see his sister. Finding her demeaned and otherwise ill-treated by the family she works for as governess, he immediately takes her away and they set up house together and are very merry and happy together. The scene in which Ruth makes a beef-steak pudding is one of the most delightful in the book! “But if it should happen not to come quite right the first time,” his sister faltered; “if it should happen not to be a pudding exactly, but should turn out a stew, or a soup, or something of that sort, you’ll not be vexed, Tom, will you?” (Ch. 39). And then her brother commits the appalling indiscretion of inviting his friend John Westlock to help them eat the pudding — before she has found out how it has turned out! But, of course, the pudding is a great success!
John Westlock is one of the young men who has had the misfortune of being one of Mr. Pecksniff’s pupils. His years at Pecksniff’s were not quite wasted, however, for it was there that he met his dear friend Tom Pinch, and it is through Tom that he meets Ruth, with whom he falls in love and whom he makes his wife! They make an adorable couple. John is a sensible and agreeable young man — very loyal to and considerate of the rather gullible Tom Pinch. He is an upright young man who energetically detests Pecksniff.
Pecksniff’s younger daughter, Mercy, was one of my favorite characters. She is a minor character and I wish that her story had been more fleshed out. She starts out as a giddy, vain, thoughtless young woman, dutifully following in her father’s hypocritical footsteps. Her marriage to Jonas changes her permanently. Mercy learns to cherish her father-in-law’s aged clerk, Chuffey and be grateful for his affection. She even tries — fruitlessly — to win her husband’s love. After he has died, she realizes that she has grown through her experiences, and would not recall them if she could.
Of Pecksniff himself there is not much more to say. His character has been shown through his dealings with the other characters — the way he used the Martins and Tom Pinch, insulted Mary, and sacrificed his daughter Mercy to his greed. His plans all fall through in the end, however, and he becomes one of the victims of his own avarice. I found him too artificial at the beginning, but as the book went on, he became more convincing and worthy of his status as a main character.
Another important character in the story is the colorful Montague Tigg. He is introduced as a hanger-on of Chevy Slime — one of the members of the Chuzzlewit family. He goes on to mastermind an elaborate insurance scam — the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company. He leads to the downfall of Jonas, Pecksniff, and himself.
On the comic side of the book are Dickens usual sarcastic humor and a number of amusing minor characters, such Mrs. Gamp and Mrs. Prig and Augustus Moddle.
Sairey Gamp and Betsey Prig are midwives and nurses. Mrs. Gamp is called on to watch or nurse several of the characters of the story — the dead Anthony, Mr. Lewsome (an associate of Jonas’s with a guilty conscience), and Chuffey (who she believes is crazy). Mrs. Prig is her friend. They often work together. Mrs. Gamp drinks a greal deal though protesting that she drinks very little. She constantly quotes her supposed friend Mrs. Harris — the prevalent opinion of whom “was that she was a phantom of Mrs Gamp’s brain … created for the express purpose of holding visionary dialogues with her on all manner of subjects, and invariably winding up with a compliment to the excellence of her nature” (Ch. 25). Mrs. Gamp is a poor woman who comforts herself with the thought that “Rich folks may ride on camels, but it an’t so easy for ’em to see out of a needle’s eye” (Ch. 25) and other like maxims. Despite their friendship, Mrs. Gamp’s and Mrs. Prig’s tempers get the better of them, and they fall out when Mrs. Prig expresses disbelief in the imaginary Mrs. Harris.
Another very amusing character is the unfortunate Augustus Moddle. An admirer of Mercy Pecksniff, he becomes engaged to her sister Charity after she becomes “Another’s” (i.e., after she marries Jonas). His entire character can be described in one word: melancholy. In his despair after Mercy’s marriage, he declares sadly, “[T]here are some men … who can’t get run over. They live a charmed life. Coal waggons recoil from them, and even cabs refuse to run them down.”
There are, of course, a number of other characters (this is Dickens after all). Notable are all the rude, obnoxious American characters. Only one American (exclusive of any slaves) is tolerable. The rest are verbose, prosy, arrogant, obtuse, and constantly chewing and spitting tobacco in the most disgusting way. Since practically all of these characters are annoying, all of the chapters set in America are inexpressibly dull. Dickens later requested a postscript be published with all copies of Martin Chuzzlewit, “to express my high and grateful sense of my second reception in America, and to bear my honest testimony to the national generosity and magnanimity. Also, to declare how astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side—changes moral, changes physical” &c. However, this hardly obliterates the poor judgment he showed in boring his readers with such long, tasteless passages.
There were two elements of the actual story that I though were ill-judged. It was ridiculous to have Tom Pinch fall in love with Mary Graham — completely unnecessary to the story. This could have easily been completely cut from the story, to its great advantage. Also, it was silly to have young Martin find out Tom’s London employer (old Martin) and to break with Tom without telling him the reason (or consulting Mark Tapley). It was awkward and very unlike his new character of generosity and humility.
I thought that Martin Chuzzlewit was too long (like this review!) and not one of Dickens’s best (comparable to Nicholas Nickleby in quality), but it had a number of interesting characters and a thought-provoking story.
I read Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, December 19, 2012 – January 10, 2013.
Cover of serial, “Martin Chuzzlewit” by Charles Dickens, Chapman and Hall, 1843.
The rest of the illustrations are by Harold Copping, 1924.