Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Martin Chuzzlewit

The plot of the novel originates with a quarrel between two men, both named Martin Chuzzlewit. One is wealthy and old, the other is his grandson. They were on good terms until young Martin fell in love with Mary Graham, an orphan raised from childhood by the grandfather.

As a result young Martin is disinherited and heads to America with Mark Tapley in search of fortune, only to be conned into buying worthless swampland in a place called Eden. When they return to England, Martin has been transformed by his experiences into a better person.

During their absence, old Martin’s brother, Anthony, dies. His avaricious son, Jonas, marries Mercy, the daughter of a sanctimonious hypocrite named Pecksniff. Tigg, the prosperous chairman of the Anglo-Bengalee company, learns that Jonas hastened his father’s death with poison. Jonas is blackmailed into investing in Anglo-Bengalee, then forced to persuade his father-in-law, Pecksniff, to do the same. Tigg pays for this with his life.

Old Martin, who has pretended to fall under Pecksniff’s influence in order to expose his hypocrisy, now confronts Jonas about his role in Anthony’s death. To the surprise of everyone, including Jonas, it is learned that Anthony only pretended to take poison and died of a broken heart. Jonas, however, does not go free, as he is immediately taken into custody for the murder of Tigg, and commits suicide by swallowing poison. Old Martin denounces Pecksniff and is reconciled with young Martin, who regains his inheritance and weds Mary.

The novel was not as well-received as previous titles, and the first one to suffer a decline in readership.

Memorable Characters

Pecksniff is a major figure in the book. His smarmy hypocrisy and glib fawning ways are wonderful to behold. He is "soft and oily," has a flabby face, and is described by Jonas as "a sleek, sly chap...just like a tomcat." At one point he tells young Martin, "I am an honest man, seeking to do my duty in this carnal universe and setting my face against all vice and treachery. I weep for your depravity, sir."

Mrs. Gamp is a fat old woman with a swollen red nose and a liking for booze and snuff. She works as a nurse, midwife, and "performer of nameless offices about the persons of the dead." A comic figure and loquacious spouter of malaprops, she goes to "a lying-in or a laying-out with equal zest and relish." One of her sayings: "Rich folks may ride on camels, but it ain’t so easy for ‘em to see out of a needle’s eye."

Mark Tapley is a jolly fellow in search of a trying situation. He wishes “to come out strong under circumstances as would keep other men down.” In Martin he sees the potential he is looking for.


The wonderful glimpses of Victorian England -- a steak wrapped in a cabbage leaf, straw on the floor of a stage-coach for passengers to shove their feet into for warmth, a medication called a slime draft, patches of pickled brown paper applied to Pecksniff's head, sacks stuffed up a chimney to keep the rain out, men carrying letters in their hats and walking arm-in-arm in convivial friendship. The draymen, thimbleriggers, underporters, and coal-heavers; and the quaint antiquarian objects -- hunting-whips, portmanteaus, tea-chests, pudding-basins, stone brandy-bottles, fish-baskets, waist-coat strings, toasting forks, key-bugles.

Dickens's delight in food: oysters for breakfast, potted boar's head, intensely pickled salmon, beef-steak pudding, sheets of ham, stewed kidneys, a hot leg of mutton, innocent young potatoes, a cool salad, a crusty loaf, cunning tea-cakes, flowing mugs of beer, jorums of hot punch.

Some fine comic scenes including the row between Mrs. Gamp and Betsey Prig, and Tigg's weaselly cadging at the beginning of the novel when he is still a shiftless bum. In fact, some consider Martin Chuzzlewit to be Dickens's funniest novel, while author John Boyd finds that chapters 8 and 9, which describe the Pecksniffs' London visit, as the "most sustained passage of comic writing in English literature." Counterbalancing the humour are some dark scenes, and though not always effective or believable, the nightmarish carriage journey undertaken by Jonas and Tigg is especially powerful.

Finally, the book is not burdened with a labyrinthine plot as some of the later novels are. It is relatively free from sentimentality; there are no cloying characters or tear-jerking death scenes. And young Martin’s slightly flawed character makes him more likeable than other bland heroes, like Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit.


Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit after a disappointing trip to America, and vented some of his ire in this book. Most Americans are portrayed as glib, crass, pretentious, and hypocritical. They are gluttonous feeders with swinish table manners, and have the unpleasant habit of spraying tobacco juice everywhere. Despite such comedic potential, this portion of the book (7 of 54 chapters) was the least satisfying, because the characters are pretty much cut from the same cloth, with the result that none stand out the way Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp do. Some great names, though:

Colonel Diver
Major Pawkins
General Fladdock
General Cyrus Choke
Major Hannibal Chollop
Professor Mullit
Doctor Dunkle
Jefferson Brick
LaFayette Kettle
Zephaniah Scadder
Mrs. Hominy

Reversals & Improbabilities

As much as I enjoy Dickens I always seem to have difficulties with his plotting, and in this book the appalling bipolar behaviour of old Martin is more a function of plot than of character. The senseless quarrel with young Martin, and especially the ruse of pretending to be in Pecksniff's power, are neither credible nor creditable. Dickens has a lot of explaining to do at the end, but none of it is very convincing. He is not unaware of the problem, for he has Pecksniff declare, "Whether it was worthy of you to partake of my hospitality, and to act the part you did act in my house, that, sir, is a question which I leave to your own conscience."

Equally unbelievable is Anthony’s pretending to take poison, and Tigg's transformation from a scruffy cadger at the beginning of the book into the well-dressed and prosperous chairman of Anglo-Bengalee. Again, these are functions of plot rather than character.

Also related to Dickens's handling of plot is the way some characters are dragged back into the story when there is no need for it. Chevy Slyme shows up at the end of the book as an officer of the law, and the woman Mark assists during the journey to America reappears with her husband in Eden and again in London in the last chapter. This is perhaps an effort to make the sprawling tale seem a little more shapely than it actually is, tidying up ends that are not really loose.

Still, one might argue that some plot decisions are based on the recurring theme of character reversal, of which there are many in the book. Anthony, Pecksniff, Tigg, Slyme, Mercy, both Martins, and the suitor of Mercy's sister all undergo (or pretend to) some sort of transformative change. This is underscored by the change in Tigg's name -- from Montague Tigg to Tigg Montague.

It might also be said that some of Dickens's most entertaining characters are no more believable than his twisted plots, and that together they are but two sides of the same coin of his teeming genius.


The 1994 BBC production of Martin Chuzzlewit is superb and quite faithful to the book. Paul Scofield as old Martin, Tom Wilkinson as Pecksniff, and Pete Postlewaite as Tigg are especially good. You can find clips on Youtube.

Here's a map of London showing locations mentioned in the novels of Dickens. The boarding house of Mrs. Todgers is close by the Monument near London Bridge.