Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

Source of book: I own this

“Selfishness is that detestable vice which no one will forgive in others, and no one is without himself.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher

In classical Greek drama, a tragedy is a story about a great man undone by his fatal flaw. Subsequent tragedies by Shakespeare and others have continued this tradition, highlighting the effects of the fatal flaw on the central character of each play. In most cases, this flaw is pride.

To a degree, Martin Chuzzlewit is a tragedy written as a prose novel; or rather, several tragedies. Pride is not the fatal flaw in this book, however. Dickens chooses selfishness as his central theme. This fatal flaw afflicts the majority of the major characters, and threatens to lead each to his or her doom.

The title of the book is ambiguous, as it could refer either to Martin Chuzzlewit, the old man; or to Martin Chuzzlewit, his grandson. Selfishness on both sides (mixed with pride) causes a rift between the Martins when young Martin desires to court young Mary, who old Martin has essentially adopted as his ward. The rift develops in spite of the fact that old Martin ultimately desires the match, but wanted it to be his idea.

Selfishness also drives old Martin’s brother Anthony and Anthony’s son Jonas, who becomes so consumed that he…well, I refuse to spoil the plot. You will have to read it for yourself.

The most selfish character of them all, however, is the unforgettable Seth Pecksniff.  Pecksniff: the name has entered the vernacular as a synonym for hypocrisy.  His selfishness is the worst of all because he disguises it with false humility and fake virtue. Interestingly, this false face is convincing to many, but fails to fool the most selfish of the other characters. Anthony sees right through it, as does Montague Tigg, the con artist extraordinaire. Pecksniff is in this way, the most important and unforgettable character in the book. It is his eventual comeuppance that is the most satisfying: I felt a twinge of pity for every other character at one point or another, but relished the schadenfreude far too much when Pecksniff took his delightful fall.

Dickens was an optimist, however, and did not allow the fatal flaw to destroy all of his characters. Young Martin is able to overcome his selfishness and change his destiny after an ill fated trip to the United States.

The episode in America is the turning point in the drama that reverses the course of events; but it also caused the most controversy among Dickens’ American fans for its harsh depiction of the American character.

Dickens travelled to the United States for a tour in 1842, when he was already a major celebrity. Although he was acclaimed and the tour could be considered a success, Dickens apparently was left with a negative impression. Martin Chuzzlewit, written in the two years following the tour, reflects Dickens’ view of the United States at that time. His descriptions lack his usual sense of humor and good will, and have a rather bitter flavor. This is particularly odd given Dickens’ general ability to write kindly about the various laughable and flawed characters found in his native England. From Oliver Twist’s Nancy to David Copperfield’s Mr. Micawber, to this book’s Mrs. Gamp, Dickens is able to leave a redeeming feature or two in all except for the true villains. In this case, however, he is unable to make even one of his American characters sympathetic. All that is reserved for the British expatriates.

Admittedly, Dickens does have some points in his criticism. He was an abolitionist, so slavery bothered him – rightfully so. However, he demonstrates, perhaps, the natural intolerance present in one recently converted. (Recovering alcoholics are generally the most intolerant of alcohol, for example.)  Britain abolished slavery throughout the empire in 1833. Dickens visited the US in 1942, less than 10 years later.

There is also another likely reason for Dickens’ vitriol. International copyright laws were not yet establish, so unauthorized re-printings of Dickens’ works were readily available in the United States – and Dickens received nothing from these in royalties.

This might explain why Dickens wrote so harshly about American manners. In my opinion, he was a bit hypocritical in this. He viewed them as savages, much in the same way Americans (and the British) viewed African-Americans.

Dickens is on firmer ground writing about the land scandals and swindles common in the United States at the time. Dickens also effectively mirrors these swindles later in the book in the episodes involving Montague Tigg and the Anglo Bengali Life Assurance Company.

Back to the transformation of young Martin, who has traveled to America with Mark Tapley, the eternal optimist. Young Martin is first influenced by Mark, and is truly transformed when he, for the first time, performs a selfless act in nursing Mark through an illness. Young Martin’s change of heart leads, although not immediately, to a reconciliation with old Martin, and redeems that part of the story.

As is usual with Dickens’ longer works, there is a mix of strong and weak writing. Maintaining the quality throughout 800 or more pages released as a serial in a magazine over the course of a year is difficult, to be sure. Dickens did a good job of maintaining the readers’ interest, but sometimes let things get ragged around the edges.

In this particular book, Dickens did a better job with the plot than some of his others. It is a bit less unrealistic than many of his others, and relies less on sentiment and coincidence.  It is also well paced, with the jumps between parallel stories adding to the suspense. Dickens also does a good job of keeping incidents for the most part in line with the narrative arc. He sometimes struggles with this, creating characters which seem there for mere comic relief that have nothing to do with the story.

Where this book is weaker is in the ever present temptation to preach rather than show. I can think of a few passages in which I felt that Dickens had already made his point through the story or dialogue, and didn’t need to hammer it in with a lecture. This is, of course, a notable flaw in Dickens as a whole, and not limited to him either. Plenty of authors simply cannot resist saying, “In case you didn’t get that…”

Dickens’ also has his usual problem with female characters. The caricatures are well done, as usual – quite recognizable as familiar types from the era and place. Gamp, Todgers, Lupine, Mrs. Hominy.  Dickens can write a good female villain, although not in this book. He generally writes scoundrels well.

The two main females fit the Dickens stereotypes: the good, quiet, small, helpful yet helpless sorts. The “ministering angel”, if you will. They seem to have no opinions of their own, and never change or grow. It would be easy to set this down to Victorian chauvinism except for the fact that strong females were present prior to Dickens (see Jane Austen, Jane and Sir Walter Scott). Furthermore, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and others wrote compelling female characters. The objection is not only in the “little woman” personality but by the lack of dynamic characters. If women are to be humans, not decorations or caricatures, they must grow, change, and develop as the men are allowed to do.

Martin Chuzzlewit does contain a gallery of memorable characters, in true Dickens fashion.

Mark Tapley is of the few Dickens characters who is both good and non-nauseating. He is essentially, Dickens’ voice in the book – the good humored side of Dickens. He may be unnaturally cheerful, and have a heart too good to be true, but he also is so laughably hard on himself that he can’t be hated.

 I can’t decide for certain if Tom Pinch is annoyingly good or not. On the one hand, he is far too good and patient to be completely likeable. On the other, there are two redeeming qualities. First is that his goodness and his timidity are so intertwined that you want to yell at him to “buck up!” Thus, it is so satisfying when he finally gets his dander up and tells Jonas off. The other is that he is humanized by his unrequited love for Mary. He endures such sorrow throughout the book that one feels he is human – he indeed feels pain and struggles with it.

Mrs. Gamp is a memorable caricature with her own peculiar version of selfishness. The imaginary friend who flatters her is a stroke of genius by Dickens.

Young Martin is a truly dynamic character, and more representative than Dickens’ early protagonist, Oliver Twist. Martin is less loveable than many heroes, particularly at first. His transformation is a key to the story, and it is fairly believable, resulting from hardship and selfless action rather than from a mere epiphany. One also senses that he has a bit more to grow.

I also wanted to mention a particularly interesting parallel between Montague Tigg and his Life Assurance Company and a now defunct local real estate company whose demise also led to widespread losses and criminal charges. In each case, the proprietor used ostentation to give credibility. In both cases, this was quite effective, and also a good reason to be wary of those who flaunt their wealth and good taste.

As a final remark, this book is an inspiration toward living beyond one’s self. The characters that find happiness are those that learn to look beyond their own selfishness and seek the good of others.

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