Wherein we revisit our first week’s reading of Martin Chuzzlewit (Week 45 of the Dickens Chronological Reading Club); with a chapter summary and discussion wrap-up; containing a look-ahead to Week Two.
By the #DickensClub members, edited/compiled by Rach
Friends, this week we have been introduced to one of the great Dickensian characters, Mr. Pecksniff, and other worthies who revolve, in some measure, around the mysterious figure of the elder Martin Chuzzlewit, lately arrived at–and almost as quickly departed from–the Blue Dragon. We’ve also met the kindhearted Tom Pinch, whose view of Pecksniff is altogether too rosy–a perception which Pecksniff uses to his own advantage.
(But doesn’t Chris’s Salisbury image–or the Constable, in the header–make you want to risk all Pecksniffery and just go on the journey with Tom and young Martin?)
But before we get into our summary and discussion, here are some quick links:
- General Mems
- Martin Chuzzlewit, Week One (Chs 1-12): A Summary
- Discussion Wrap-Up
- A Look-Ahead to Week Two of Martin Chuzzlewit (15-21 Nov, 2022)
Friends, our friend Deacon Matthew (on his lovely podcast on seminary life, faith, and literature) has posted the second part of the chat with Boze and yours truly, on Oliver Twist! This time we consider the theme of “memory.” Our conversation on Dickens begins at about 12:25. We hope you enjoy it!
If you’re counting, today is day 315 (and week 46) in our #DickensClub! Today we wrap up our first week of Martin Chuzzlewit, our ninth read of the group. Please feel free to comment below this post for the second week’s chapters, or use the hashtag #DickensClub if you’re commenting on twitter.
No matter where you’re at in the reading process, a huge “thank you” for reading along with us. Heartfelt thanks to our dear Dickens Fellowship, The Dickens Society, and the Charles Dickens Letters Project for retweets, and to all those liking, sharing, and encouraging our Club, including Gina Dalfonzo, Dr. Christian Lehmann and Dr. Pete Orford. Huge “thank you” also to The Circumlocution Office (on twitter also!) for providing such a marvelous online resource for us.
And for any more recent members or for those who might be interested in joining: the revised two-and-a-half year reading schedule can be found here. Boze’s introduction to American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit can be found here; Chris’s supplement of Peter Ackroyd’s introductions can be found here. If you’ve been reading along with us but aren’t yet on the Member List, we would love to add you! Please feel free to message Rach here on the site, or on twitter.
This might be neither here nor there, but while Dana and I have both created Mastodon accounts in light of all the “comic chaos” going on with twitter, though we don’t intend to leave the latter–it’ll be an additional space for bookish things–Boze kindly referred to yours truly as twitter’s “Marchioness.” How can I possibly leave?
Meanwhile, I think Chris is ready to plan a #DickensClub trip to the Broadstairs Dickens Museum:
Martin Chuzzlewit, Week One (Chs 1-12): A Summary
“On the motionless branches of some trees, autumn berries hung like clusters of coral beads, as in those fabled orchards where the fruits were jewels; others stripped of all their garniture, stood, each the centre of its little heap of bright red leaves, watching their slow decay…the sunbeams struck out paths of deeper gold; and the red light, mantling in among their swarthy branches, used them as foils to set its brightness off, and aid the lustre of the dying day.
“A moment, and its glory was no more. The sun went down beneath the long dark lines of hill and cloud which piled up in the west an airy city, wall heaped on wall, and battlement on battlement; the light was all withdrawn; the shining church turned cold and dark; the stream forgot to smile; the birds were silent; and the gloom of winter dwelt on everything.”
After our narrator assures us of the long and distinguished lineage of the Chuzzlewit family, we are introduced to the architect—and elevated moral character—Mr. Pecksniff and his two daughters, Mercy and Charity, on a certain blustery day as autumn makes for winter. The wind appears to have taken some offence to him, and knocks that gentleman off his feet as he returns home.
“The brazen plate upon the door (which being Mr Pecksniff’s, could not lie) bore this inscription, ‘PECKSNIFF, ARCHITECT,’ to which Mr Pecksniff, on his cards of business, added, AND LAND SURVEYOR.’ In one sense, and only one, he may be said to have been a Land Surveyor on a pretty large scale, as an extensive prospect lay stretched out before the windows of his house. Of his architectural doings, nothing was clearly known, except that he had never designed or built anything; but it was generally understood that his knowledge of the science was almost awful in its profundity.”
We are also introduced to the faithful all-purpose assistant of Mr. Pecksniff, Tom Pinch, who is hoping for a reconciliation between Pecksniff and his boarder and pupil, John Westlock, who is trying to leave on a peaceable note. Pecksniff, however, will not shake hands with Westlock—all the while giving lip service to his high moral attitude of forgiveness towards that young man—and the latter gentleman leaves the Pecksniff home enraged. (Tom Pinch, we quickly learn, has a high regard for his employer, Mr. Pecksniff, and perhaps assessing Pecksniff simply by his Pinch’s own goodness, cannot see Pecksniff’s hypocrisy, so evident to Westlock and others.)
“‘Forgiveness is a high quality; an exalted virtue; far above your control or influence, John. I will forgive you. You cannot move me to remember any wrong you have ever done me, John.’
‘Wrong!’ cried the other, with all the heat and impetuosity of his age. ‘Here’s a pretty fellow! Wrong! Wrong I have done him! He’ll not even remember the five hundred pounds he had with me under false pretences; or the seventy pounds a year for board and lodging that would have been dear at seventeen! Here’s a martyr!’
‘Money, John,’ said Mr Pecksniff, ‘is the root of all evil. I grieve to see that it is already bearing evil fruit in you…'”
Meanwhile, the elder Martin Chuzzlewit, along with his companion Mary Graham—to whom he only pays a work stipend and has vowed not to leave her anything in his will, to ensure her disinterested service—are staying at the Blue Dragon, and that gentleman, taken ill, burns a paper he has just started to write on. Mrs. Lupin, innkeeper of that establishment, is scandalized that this old gentleman allows a young single woman who is unrelated to him to accompany him on his travels. With a concern for his ill state, and unable to get the apothecary, she sends for the moral Mr. Pecksniff, well known in the village, who comes to call on him. We learn that Pecksniff is a cousin to Chuzzlewit—this fact makes the latter gentleman suspicious, as he thinks anyone who surrounds him only cares about him for the money he intends to leave.
Soon after, various Chuzzlewit relations gather at the home of Mr. Pecksniff, trying to discern what to do about Mary Graham. Pecksniff appears all disinterestedness in his attempts to forward the claims of young Martin Chuzzlewit. (Does the knowledge that young Martin is now a pupil and boarder at his home, and might well fall in love with one of his daughters, play no part?) Pecksniff had been informed of the relations’ proximity by Montague Tiggs, assistant and spokesperson for another Chuzzlewit relation by marriage, Chevy Slyme. (Tiggs had discovered Pecksniff spying on old Martin from a keyhole.) However, they soon find out that old Martin and Mary are no longer at the Blue Dragon.
Meanwhile, we journey with Tom Pinch to Salisbury….
“The sheep-bells rang as clearly in the vigorous air, as if they felt its wholesome influence like living creatures; the trees, in lieu of leaves or blossoms, shed upon the ground a frosty rime that sparkled as it fell, and might have been the dust of diamonds. So it was to Tom…The crust of ice on the else rippling brook was so transparent, and so thin in texture, that the lively water might of its own free will have stopped—in Tom’s glad mind it had—to look upon the lovely morning…”
Tom is soon accompanied by Mark Tapley of the Blue Dragon, who wishes that he had some real hardships so that he can prove himself to come out “jolly” under trying conditions. (Therefore he is resisting the attractions of Mrs. Lupin, the widowed owner of the Blue Dragon, with whom everyone thinks Mark will end up.) Mark is to leave the Dragon to find something more miserable with which to test his spirits. Grave-digging? Undertaking?
Upon Tom’s arrival, he meets with young Martin Chuzzlewit, Mr. Pecksniff’s new pupil, at an inn. They get on well, and Tom shares with Martin his experience of playing the organ at the church, where a beautiful young woman was listening to him attentively.
“‘She came’ said Tom, laying his hand upon the other’s arm, ‘for the first time very early in the morning, when it was hardly light; and when I saw her, over my shoulder, standing just within the porch, I turned quite cold, almost believing her to be a spirit….'”
When they arrive at Pecksniff’s home, everyone feigns to be immensely industrious, and that they hadn’t been expected so soon.
Pecksniff and his daughters are to be in London for a week, during which time Martin is to try his hand at drafting his conception of a grammar school. During this time, Martin and Tom grow confidential, and Martin reveals that he is in love with his grandfather’s young companion, Mary Graham, and young Martin was disinherited for it and must renounce her before getting back into his grandfather’s good graces—and his will. Hence, his attempt to become an architect under Mr. Pecksniff’s tutelage. He also reveals to Tom that the young woman who was watching him play the organ was certainly Mary Graham herself. Montague Tigg, representative for the Chuzzlewit relation Chevy Slyme, comes in claiming that he is owed money by Pecksniff, and needs it to pay off his debt of three pounds at the Blue Dragon. Mark Tapley is waiting outside to be paid, distrusting Tigg. Neither Tom nor Martin can pay it, but, in effort to get rid of Tigg, they ask whether their word is sufficient for Mrs. Lupin that they will be paid. Tom ends up giving Tigg a little money, and Tigg promises that he will be paid back by Saturday.
Meanwhile, Mark, who is determined to find a more distressing work situation to prove his mettle, is to leave for London. Mark and Mrs. Lupin have a tender moment; he reveals that he would prefer to have her, but fears that she’ll always wonder whether he would rather leave, restless and determined upon adventure as he is. They part in wistful friendship…
On the way to London, Mr. Pecksniff and his daughters meet with Anthony Chuzzlewit (brother to old Martin), and his son, Jonas, who is a nasty piece of work and hungry for Anthony’s death so that he can inherit. Jonas flirts with Mercy and Charity. In London, Pecksniff begs that their old friend Mrs. Todgers, who only takes in gentlemen lodgers, would be willing to allow his daughters to stay with her in her quarters for the trip, and she agrees. (There they meet the sassy child Bailey, and several gentlemen-lodgers, including Mr. Jinkins, who dotes upon the Pecksniff daughters.) Mrs. Todgers is to accompany the Pecksniffs on their trip to meet with Ruth Pinch, governess and sister to Tom, to check in on her and deliver a letter which Tom had given them for her. Mercy and Charity cruelly imagine that she must be quite ugly, to be Tom’s sister, and that they won’t know how to keep from laughing. Ruth comes off very well in the interview, but their attitude towards her remains haughty condescension, and they end up interacting more with one of Ruth’s pupils. The Pecksniffs are dismissed by the family, and the girls blame Ruth for their rude dismissal.
Later, when the Pecksniff young ladies are allowed to join in a dinner with the gentleman lodgers, all hearts seem to be breaking over Mercy. Meanwhile, Pecksniff has too much to drink, and becomes quite maudlin, flirtatious, and verbose with Mrs. Todgers.
“‘I am a man, my dear madam,’ said Mr Pecksniff, shedding tears and speaking with an imperfect articulation, ‘but I am also a father. I am also a widower. My feelings, Mrs Todgers, will not consent to be entirely smothered, like the young children in the Tower. They are grown up, and the more I press the bolster on them, the more they look round the corner of it.’
He suddenly became conscious of the bit of muffin, and stared at it intently; shaking his head the while, in a forlorn and imbecile manner, as if he regarded it as his evil genius, and mildly reproached it.”
At one point, as Pecksniff falls towards the fireplace, the young men must help bring him to his room, but he keeps getting out to spew tidbits of morality towards them, until they finally resort to locking him in, with Bailey standing guard.
The Pecksniffs receive an unexpected visitor: old Martin Chuzzlewit. Chuzzlewit expresses regret at his previous suspicion about Pecksniff, and says that he—Pecksniff—was the only one to take a disinterested stance in the discussion with the relatives, and he wishes to be an ally with Pecksniff as the only trustworthy one among them. Pecksniff is utterly delighted and obsequious. Chuzzlewit meets the daughters. He then warns Pecksniff that he has been deceived in young Martin, and that he would wish Pecksniff to dismiss Martin immediately, which Pecksniff agrees to do upon their return. They receive money from Chuzzlewit for their lodgings, and the assurance that he will be in touch.
Meanwhile, Jonas Chuzzlewit visits the Pecksniffs, ostensibly to see Charity, but he continues to inquire about “the other one” (Mercy). He gives both sisters a tour of some of the sites in town. They end at the home of Anthony and Jonas, where they’re introduced to Anthony’s old clerk, Mr. Chuffey, who only seems to respond to the master to whom he’s devoted. Jonas ridicules him.
The Pecksniffs leave the following day for home.
Meanwhile, young Martin dreams of being Tom’s benefactor one day, and of how well Tom would make Martin appear. Tom says that his friend Tom Westlock has inherited property, and Westlock has invited both Tom and Martin out to eat. At one point during the dinner, while Pinch is out of earshot, Martin tells John that Tom had leant Tigg some money. Upon Tom’s return, he declares himself unable to listen to negative talk about Mr. Pecksniff, and John apologizes. John, in an act of kindness towards Pinch, returns to Pinch the money that he loaned to Tigg, saying that it was from Tigg.
Upon the return of Tom and Martin to the Pecksniff home, Martin finds himself utterly ignored by the Pecksniffs—until finally the latter gentleman calls Martin a deceiver, and Martin leaves abruptly. Tom chases after him, and gives him a book with a page turned down.
From American Notes to Martin Chuzzlewit: “The Transactional Nature of Much of Our Social Life“
Daniel started the week’s discussion off beautifully, discussing the podcast with Deacon Matthew, Boze, and myself, but he pulled together a lot of elements of last week’s discussion as we finished off American Notes in anticipation of Chuzzlewit:
And Lenny really brings into focus one of the key statements here:
“This is such a loaded and prescient statement of yours: ‘“’…and the transactional nature of much our social life.’ I say this not only because of its broad application to AMERICAN NOTES but, more specifically, to the opening chapters of MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT. So far, virtually everything that has happened in our ‘new’ novel involves either ‘transactional’ fraud (Pecksniff as teacher) or various and nefarious ‘transactions’ planned by the huge assembly of so-called ‘relations’ around old Mr. Chuzzlewit–all wanting to curry favor with their wealthy family member for a chunk of his wealth.
And we’re not even in America, yet….”
~Lenny H. comment
It will be fascinating to see how the “transactional nature” of too much of human interaction plays out in Chuzzlewit as we move forward.
What We Loved
Our marvelous actor-narrator, Rob G, is so enjoying Chuzzlewit that he’s very tempted to start working on an audiobook reading of it! (YES!!!)
The Stationmaster drew our attention to a fabulous line from the eccentric Montague Tigg:
And I loved (as did Chris, below) the opening descriptive passages of Chapter 2 as the autumn turns into winter–its atmosphere and foreboding. I also loved Tom and Mark, naturally, and the drunken-Pecksniffery going on at Mrs. Todgers’:
Also, friends, I’m so thrilled to be welcoming Rob G. to our discussion here!
I will place the rest of the fabulous comment below, under our discussion of Martin Chuzzlewit as a “Problem Novel”…
Martin Chuzzlewit as a “Problem Novel”? Tom as “barometer” and various Dickensian “Toms”; Pecksniffery, Edginess, and “Comic Chaos”
Though it has been a long time since I’d read Chuzzlewit, I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s “problem play,” Measure for Measure, particularly the manipulation of the Duke. Not wanting to give anything away, however, I just brought it up here as something to consider as we move forward.
In addition, I considered how the way in which people respond to, and treat, Tom Pinch seems a pretty accurate gauge of their character. Young Martin, on the other hand, is a problematic “hero,” with a trait–selfishness–not easy to overlook, especially if it isn’t offset by other enigmatic, intriguing, secretly-heroic or better-than-he-lets-on traits. Will Dickens pull it off–will we ultimately root for him?
The Stationmaster is really intrigued by the comparison of Martin Chuzzlewit to a Shakespearean problem play, and hopes that we continue the thread:
Lenny asks whether we can indeed call Martin Chuzzlewit a “problem novel,” though, as he writes, “maybe most ‘great’ novels are filled with problems and irritations that just won’t go away no matter how many times one reads them.” He considers this new “edgy” quality in Dickens as he reads Chuzzlewit, and also that Tom Pinch really is, perhaps, “the touchstone by which other characters are being measured.” Lenny brings up the feeling of “strangeness” that he is getting while reading about the characters so far, and how, were he directing a film, it would be filled with off-center shots that highlight this. Where is all the “comic chaos” going?
Daniel responds that he has “yet to begin Chuzzlewit, but will this week. I’m ready for some COMIC CHAOS!!! Thanks for whetting my appetite!”
Rob has also been considering the less-than-likeable qualities in young Martin, but perhaps it is “no real surprise that young Martin shows traits of his family pedigree”; and he also considers our lovable Tom, and whether Dickens might have known a Tom who became something of a “template” for his fictional incarnations:
Dickens’s “Writing Lab”: Picaresque to Bildungsroman; Atmosphere, Characterization, and Subplot
The Stationmaster discusses the ways in which Chuzzlewit differs from the novels that have preceded it, and that Dickens is “moving away from the picaresque genre toward the bildungsroman” and that “Martin the younger is much more flawed than any protagonist Dickens had written at this point in his career.” (I must add: I agree!) He enjoys the Browdiesque vibes of John Westlock, and the Welleresque Mark Tapley, while feeling somewhat annoyed with the little subplot at Mrs. Todgers’ residence.
(And…does anyone know what the issue might be with WordPress here that he describes? I have had a few strange things happen, but not disappearing images…)
Chris considers the opening of Chapter 2 to be “one of the best scenic, atmospheric, tone-setting openings in all of Dickens,” rivaling even Bleak House. (In a late response to her comment, I wrote: “I agree about the opening of Chapter 2 …so richly atmospheric! And when you ended with the quote about the winds ‘making a night of it,’ I INSTANTLY thought of that marvelous sketch we read earlier this year, ‘Making a Night of It,’ and how the winds are equally drunken, boisterous, roving…”) She argues that this passage sets the tone for the novel.
She considers the interesting tone and characterization so far: “Nobody is what they appear to be – all actions are suspect. Only those with an incredibly ‘simple heart’ (Ch 5) – like Tom Pinch – or those who have ‘a simplicity of cunning’ (Ch 11) – like Jonas – take words and actions at face value.”
A Look-Ahead to Week Two of Martin Chuzzlewit (15-21 Nov, 2022)
This week we’ll be reading Chapters 13-26, which constitute installments VI-X, published June-October 1843.
If you’d like to read it online, you can find Martin Chuzzlewit at The Circumlocution Office. It can also be downloaded at sites such as Gutenberg.
Priscilla had a good question about an audiobook version, so I’ll put my response below…
Friends, if you saw this post within the first few minutes of its publication, just fyi, I added in a few comments just now; so I hope you have a chance to check it again–specifically, under the “What we loved” and “Martin Chuzzlewit as ‘Problem Novel'” sections!
First of all, a big welcome to Rob! And to tell you not to be shy. This is a great group to converse with and during its entire existence–since last January–we’ve learned so much from the many–if not ALL– insights that have been put forth, and yours were very useful, indeed! Your reference to the two key paragraphs, first about the disagreements among the Chuzzlewit family and the second which details, briefly, the “characters” of the Pecksniff daughters, were helpful reminders to me that I had overlooked important passages that I needed to attend to more closely. I guess, though, that this is the nature of reading Dickens and the rewards we get from this kind of reading group. The novels–like MC–are just so rich and dense, that we really can help each other reap the rewards of reading these novels with your (and our) kind of reminders and comments.
And Rach, again, you do such a fine job with your exciting summary and analysis that it always makes me want to dive right into, immediately, the next chapter after the one I just finished reading last night. Oh boy.
And Rach I do think you’re right about the QUESTION of whether we should think of this novel in terms of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” And it could be that this has been and still is a major question regarding most if not all of Dickens’ work. You Dickens aficionados will have a much better grasp of this “issue” than I. But if we are using MEASURE FOR MEASURE or THE MERCHANT OF VENICE as our sounding boards, then we can perhaps start from there and suss out to what extent the comic elements of the novels outweigh the serious and tragic moments. One thing I do know thus far is that underlying ALL the novels we’ve read so far is the schemata of Romantic Comedy. And we see it developing early in MC with the “romance” between Martin and Mary Graham and the possible romance between Jonas and Mercy Pecksniff. Should we include Mark and the tavern keeper? At any rate, these romances are in danger of being “blocked” by various characters and situations–but there may still be reconciliations and marriages at the conclusion of the novel. If so, then basic romantic comedy structure will be realized. But will the novel still be regarded as a “comic novel”?
Of course, here already are some great comic moments in the novel, my favorite being the events at Todgers’s (Chapter 9), which I’ve written about earlier. (This chapter, by the way, Is SO beautifully written as to be a wonderful short story in itself.) And there are comic characters–like Tom Pinch–who provide a lightness of tone-who offer relief in the early stages of the novel–along with, of course, Pecksniff and his hilarious daughters–who illustrate in their names and conversations wonderful parodies of characters in an allegory or morality play.
However, in all this comedy there is still what I call an EDGE, a “problem,” if you will, that qualifies and sometimes undermines the pure comedy. And this is the darker depth in Dickens’ work–as it is in Chaplin, Keaton, and the great filmed American Romantic Comedies of the 30’s and 40’s. HOLIDAY and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY come to mind! All these works continually move from dark, to light, and back to dark again, before they reach some kind of comic resolution. So as we are just getting started with this large novel, we’ll just have to see how the comic and “tragic” or serious moments weigh against one another.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Lenny…WOW! So beautifully said!!!…just everything here. 🖤 I am currently feeding my niece, so I’ll have to return later to respond to various ideas you’ve brought up. (And thank you SO much for the kind words about the wrap-up post — it is so encouraging. I just love our group 🖤
LikeLiked by 1 person
My favorite “dialogue” in MC thus far:
‘‘’If you look,’ said Mr Pecksniff, backing from the steps, with his head on one side and his eyes half-shut that he might the better take in the proportions of the exterior: ‘If you look, my dears, at the cornice which supports the roof, and observe the airiness of its construction, especially where it sweeps the southern angle of the building, you will feel with me—How do you do, sir? I hope you’re well?’
Interrupting himself with these words, he very politely bowed to a middle-aged gentleman at an upper window, to whom he spoke—not because the gentleman could hear him (for he certainly could not), but as an appropriate accompaniment to his salutation.
‘I have no doubt, my dears,’ said Mr Pecksniff, feigning to point out other beauties with his hand, ‘that this is the proprietor. I should be glad to know him. It might lead to something. Is he looking this way, Charity?’
‘He is opening the window pa!’
‘Ha, ha!’ cried Mr Pecksniff softly. ‘All right! He has found I’m professional. He heard me inside just now, I have no doubt. Don’t look! With regard to the fluted pillars in the portico, my dears—’
‘Hallo!’ cried the gentleman.
‘Sir, your servant!’ said Mr Pecksniff, taking off his hat. ‘I am proud to make your acquaintance.’
‘Come off the grass, will you!’ roared the gentleman.
‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ said Mr Pecksniff, doubtful of his having heard aright. ‘Did you—?’
‘Come off the grass!’ repeated the gentleman, warmly.
‘We are unwilling to intrude, sir,’ Mr Pecksniff smilingly began.
‘But you are intruding,’ returned the other, ‘unwarrantably intruding. Trespassing. You see a gravel walk, don’t you? What do you think it’s meant for? Open the gate there! Show that party out!’”
I love when the gentleman ROARS: “Come of the grass!” And Pecksniff’s inadequate response is so lame and insensitive. The high and mighty man of exquisite morals cannot understand that he IS intruding–and, in fact, in the eyes of the irate gentleman, is a trespasser! Oh how the mighty “falls” here, in the midst of the inflated architectural “lesson” he gives to his daughters and Mrs. Todger. And, of course, this precedes two more “falls” in the Todgers’s episode of Chapter 9. After imbibing way too many alcoholic beverages during the raucous dinner party that happens later that evening after the “grass” incident, he literally FALLS into the fireplace, is rescued, taken up to his bedroom where he pontificates off the edge of the balcony, teetering (about to fall) and has, again, to be rescued by the gentlemen at the party and thrown into bed several times, before he is literally locked in his room! Pecksniff, in all his bluff and moral exhortation, is easily shown to be his own worst enemy, and I imagine all these setbacks are merely preludes to some greater Mishap that will topple him later in the novel. We’ll just have to wait and see (those of us who haven’t read the novel)!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Hahaha, Lenny, those are some of my favorite parts too!!! I laughed so much at the trespassing scene, and also his drunken shenanigans as he grew maudlin w/ Mrs T and then tried to hold forth (again & again!) morally, from his lofty perch above 😬😂
I found this very interesting and informative article which informs the Eden adventure of Martin & Mark: “Charles Dickens, Cairo, and the Panic of 1837” by Peter Pellizzari. It tells the history of the mid-1830s land speculation of Cairo, Illinois by Daris Blake Holbrook and John Wright which eerily parallels Dickens’s critique/description of Eden in “Martin Chuzzlewit”. (let me know if you have trouble with the link.)
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you, Chris!!
Chris: This is a wonderfully informative article; I hope others are able to read it. It sketches out the horrible context of the scam that Martin (and Mark) fall for and shows how deeply and widely it became a part of the late 30’s and early 40’s depression that literally devastated Illinois and subsequently virtually the entire country. The scope of the fraudulent land sale is huge and gives the reader an idea of why Cairo is virtually uninhabited by the time Martin and Mark arrive. The genius of Dickens is in MC’s giving the reader a close up (intimate?) look at how the tragedy–that has been unfolding for several years–is affecting specific individuals, including, now, our two protagonists who will barely survive their experience in the new “Eden.”
Thanks so much for posting this important essay Chris!
LikeLiked by 2 people
I was going to say something about Chapters 1 and 2 last week, but I forgot, so here it is.
I don’t think I completely comprehended the opening joke of the book. If everyone is descended from Adam and Eve, the Chuzzlewits really don’t have anything to boast about.
As entertainingly elaborate as Chapter 1 is and as good a job as it does of establishing the cynically humorous tone of the novel, I wonder if Dickens should have just started with Chapter 2. It cuts to the chase quicker and, as Chris detailed, it’s such a great piece of writing.
LikeLiked by 2 people
While we’ve talked about Martin Chuzzelwit being an antihero, it’s worth noting that in Chapter 13 he’s given a good reason for writing so formally to Tom Pinch. He knows Pecksniff will be reading it. Presumably, he’d be friendlier and more grateful if he could do so without getting him in trouble. Or could it be his motivation is still pride, not concern for Tom?
LikeLiked by 1 person
You could also argue that Martin is more sensitive toward the black man they meet than Mark Tapley is.
The first time I read Martin Chuzzlewit, I wondered if I was going to be offended by the American section since I’m American and I know a lot of Americans were when it was first published. However, it ended up being my favorite part because of how hilarious! The fact that Dickens created so many awesomely annoying American characters (Col. Diver, Jefferson Brick, the Norisses, the list goes on) actually felt like a backhanded compliment to my country. I’d love to actually read some article from the New York Stabber or the New York Sewer. (Arguably, some modern publications are actually pretty close to them, so I guess I could in a way.) And the scene where Martin has to leave the Norisses is so funny that if I were him, I’m not sure I’d even be mad.
I think the reason I enjoy the American part of the book more than the British part (as a comedy if not necessarily as a story) is that Dickens wasn’t angry enough at Pecksniff or Jonas Chuzzlewit whereas he was very angry at America in general after his tour and the problems he’d had with copyright laws. Which is weird because I’d normally say that when an author is really angry or bitter about what they’re writing about, it tends to make the work annoying and ranty. Dickens is one author who gets more fun the more upset he gets. (Hard Times, I’d argue, is something of an exception and a rare case where Dickens’s bitterness threatened to get in the way of his entertainment value.)
Well, OK, maybe the parts where Dickens the narrator or Bevan the token good American criticize the US can get a little tiresome as they tell rather than show what’s wrong with the country, but they’re not a total slog or anything and worth reading to get to the “good stuff.”
For all its great humor though, I’m nagged by the feeling that the American section doesn’t really fit in with the character arc Dickens was trying to do with Martin the younger. Once he sets foot in America, he almost instantly transforms from an antihero (I love Mark Tapley thinking “that in respect of its power of imparting a credit to jollity, the Screw unquestionably had some decided advantages over the Dragon” after having to listen to his boss’s whining) to a Nicholas Nickleby type, a voice of reason in an insane world. It might have been a dramatic improvement for him to see the obnoxious pride of the Americans as a reflection of his own.
It’s interesting that for all his problems with his own country, whenever Dickens set a major part of one of his novels in a different one (America in Martin Chuzzlewit, Italy in Little Dorrit, France in A Tale of Two Cities), it always represented something bad (though you could argue the only things really wrong with Italy in Little Dorrit are the pathetic English tourists.) Whatever its evils, England was always “the norm” for him. I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s one of the things that makes his work so endearingly human.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I love what you said here, Stationmaster! And I agree, I’m not offended, as an American…but love that his anger transforms itself into biting comedy! (Except for, as you say, Hard Times, which, much as I adore the “message”, is too “messagey” for me, and remains my least favorite Dickens novel, unless our group read convinces me otherwise.)
I’m intrigued by what you wrote here:
“For all its great humor though, I’m nagged by the feeling that the American section doesn’t really fit in with the character arc Dickens was trying to do with Martin the younger. Once he sets foot in America, he almost instantly transforms from an antihero…to a Nicholas Nickleby type, a voice of reason in an insane world. It might have been a dramatic improvement for him to see the obnoxious pride of the Americans as a reflection of his own.”
Martin really *does* sound eminently reasonable compared to nearly everyone else that we’re seeing in America. Perhaps, though, it’s a case of one who can point out the failures and shortcomings of others, while having a blind spot to his own? We really see the difference between Martin and Mark as it goes on…the self-absorption & wallowing of Martin which, though very understandable, doesn’t help them in their situation…whereas, oh man, Mark is DEFINITELY someone you want to hand in a bad spot, and seems to be thinking for everyone.
But I am really intrigued by the idea that certain things about the journey doesn’t fit in with his character arc. I would say, too, that he is almost using Martin as a means to an end, because he’s venting his frustration about his own experience of America even when it doesn’t quite fit…e.g., when Martin is constantly invited to dinners, hassled to write about various subjects, letters galore are being sent to him, often begging money…that, to me, didn’t quite make sense, whereas it DID make sense that it was part of Dickens’ own experience. He was a celebrity in America as well as England! So, it’s no wonder that he’s pushed and pulled and cajoled and made much of everywhere…I couldn’t figure out why Martin was, especially as the word got ’round that he came over in steerage because he couldn’t afford anything else.
But certainly, I think the moral of the story is that visiting America is as good as being visited by three Ghosts on Christmas Eve…!
It sounds like I like Hard Times more than you do, but I’d describe it as one of Dickens’s most interesting books rather than his best per se. I’m really looking forward to discussing it in this group if for no other reason than I recently a nonfiction book, Welcome to Lizard Motel by Barbara Feinberg, which had a section about the role of imagination in childhood that surprisingly reminded me of it.
OK, I have a confession to make. I know Mrs. Gamp was at one time considered one of Dickens’s most hilarious creations, but I don’t find her that funny. I mean she’s kind of funny but not the funniest part of the book, let alone all of Dickens. Does anyone want to share their favorite Mrs. Gamp quotes to convince me otherwise?
LikeLiked by 2 people
Hello all 😀
Impressed that I have once more managed to keep up with this weeks portion. A few thoughts, notes, musings, observations and the like.
Loved the idea of the year having a wardrobe:
‘He was up before daybreak, and came upon the Park with the morning, which was clad in the least engaging of the three hundred and sixty-five dresses in the wardrobe of the year. It was raw, damp, dark, and dismal; the clouds were as muddy as the ground; and the short perspective of every street and avenue was closed up by the mist as by a filthy curtain.’
I was a big fan of the opening of Chapter 2… once more in this section is a perhaps more breath-taking opening.. that of Chapter 15 (in fact the whole of this chapter was wonderful) with its mighty ravings of the sea 😀
I don’t quite feel as invested in Young Martin’s travels and US adventures as I am in matters Pecksniffian and otherwise back home. Still a big fan of Merry and Cherry. Highlights being Charity’s new found kindness to Tom Pinch (and the reasons for it) and Mercy’s petulant obstinacy towards her betrothed.
Poll Sweedlepipe… what a name… love it! I was a big fan of the name Peg Sliderskew in NN… I suppose there are similarities!
Loving Mrs Gamp too. She reminds me of Mrs Crupp from David Copperfield.
These two being fond of their drink for one. But there are some similarities in bits of the writing (my brain remembering strange stuff again) such as:
“And with innumerable leers, winks, coughs, nods, smiles, and curtseys, all leading to the establishment of a mysterious and confidential understanding between herself and the bride, Mrs Gamp, invoking a blessing upon the house, leered, winked, coughed, nodded, smiled, and curtseyed herself out of the room.”
“Mrs. Crupp, who had been incessantly smiling to express sweet temper, and incessantly holding her head on one side, to express a general feebleness of constitution, and incessantly rubbing her hands, to express a desire to be of service to all deserving objects, gradually smiled herself, one-sided herself, and rubbed herself, out of the room”
LikeLiked by 1 person
LOVED the passages about the seasonal wardrobe, and Mrs Gamp!!! And though I find the American passages (painfully) funny, I agree that I’m mostly involved with the Pecksniffery and doings in England…
As I indicated earlier, dialogues in MC can be astonishingly strange and filled with instantaneous surprises. The proprietor’s call from the window to Pecksniff to get off the grass happens so suddenly and is so unexpected that I’m immediately astounded and delighted by the context and the content. It just puts Pecksniff “in his place” so beautifully! But the following dialogue between Martin Sr. and Merry is another beaut that just bewilders and leaves me almost speechless. What does one make of THIS conversation:
‘When are you to be married?’
‘Oh! dear Mr Chuzzlewit, my goodness me! I’m sure I don’t know. Not yet awhile, I hope.’
‘You hope?’ said the old man.
It was very gravely said, but she took it for banter, and giggled excessively.
‘Come!’ said the old man, with unusual kindness, ‘you are young, good-looking, and I think good-natured! Frivolous you are, and love to be, undoubtedly; but you must have some heart.’
‘I have not given it all away, I can tell you,’ said Merry, nodding her head shrewdly, and plucking up the grass.
‘Have you parted with any of it?’
She threw the grass about, and looked another way, but said nothing.
Martin repeated his question.
‘Lor, my dear Mr Chuzzlewit! really you must excuse me! How very odd you are.’
‘If it be odd in me to desire to know whether you love the young man whom I understand you are to marry, I am very odd,’ said Martin. ‘For that is certainly my wish.’
‘He’s such a monster, you know,’ said Merry, pouting.
‘Then you don’t love him?’ returned the old man. ‘Is that your meaning?’
‘Why, my dear Mr Chuzzlewit, I’m sure I tell him a hundred times a day that I hate him. You must have heard me tell him that.’
‘Often,’ said Martin.
‘And so I do,’ cried Merry. ‘I do positively.’
‘Being at the same time engaged to marry him,’ observed the old man.
‘Oh yes,’ said Merry. ‘But I told the wretch—my dear Mr Chuzzlewit, I told him when he asked me—that if I ever did marry him, it should only be that I might hate and tease him all my life.’
Lordy. what to make of THIS sort of one-sided Q & A ? Old Martin is revealing a side of himself that we haven’t seen before as he is taking sincere pains to try to understand why Merry is marrying Jonas. While he’s been reading by himself more or less in isolation at Pecksniff’s, he’s been observing, quite acutely, the goings on in this residence–especially the various relationship between members of the family and the guests. In this sequence, we see he’s trying to put together some kind of reason for the engagement between Mercy and Jonas and his commentary reveals a real concern for the well-being of Mercy–even though, as he says, she is frivolous “and love to be,” implying that she’s really putting on an act regarding her frivolity. But his next statement really hits the mark: ” but you must have some heart.” He’s trying to get at Merry’s core sensibility, to find out what she is really like and what her desires ARE. She does admit that she has a heart and that she’s not given it all away, but then he reveals how determined he is that she understand herself and her true relation to Jonas: ‘If it be odd in me to desire to know whether you love the young man whom I understand you are to marry, I am very odd,’ said Martin. ‘For that is certainly my wish.’
The truth is that the humanitarian side of Martin Sr surfaces at a moment that we, as readers, are most likely unprepared for. Out of the blue, as in the earlier Proprietor to Pecksniff quote, we have this intimate conversation where Martin is really trying to understand if there is anything that would account for the possible marriage between Mercy and Jonas, and he really is getting nowhere. Merry decides that she WILL be “frivolous” and not give this man what he wants to know. Sadly, he wants to help her, but she increasingly backs away from his inquiries and reveals herself to be a sad, confused, and helplessly adrift young woman.
If I’m feeling frustrated while perusing and trying to interpret this dialogue, I can’t even imagine what Martin Sr. is experiencing. I think this is wonderful writing and illustrates so much about these two personalities, presenting obliquely information that gives them more definition than we’ve seen before.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Well, this is weird. Here I am “replying” to my own statement. But is suddenly occurred to me that the seriousness of this little dialogue is one of the facets that contributes to the “problematic” nature of MC as a comedy. Close attention to dialogue, then, might help us measure the comedic vs the solemn aspects of this narrative….
Marriage is supposed to be a selfless act – two become one – but both Merry and Jonas are marrying for selfish reasons. Merry: “I told him when he asked me – that if I ever did marry him, it should only be that I might hate and teaze him all my life.” Jonas: “Ecod, my lady! . . . you’ll catch it for this, when you ARE married! It’s all very well now . . . but I’ll pay you off scot and lot by and bye.” I think Old Martin’s attempt to understand Merry’s decision in the face of his presenting her with alternatives is a step toward his understanding of or his learning the lesson of the traps of selfishness.
Lenny, I loved your thoughts here. I’m responding late, as I started out the week strong, but then got behind in my reading towards the end. But the scene with Martin and Merry is really fabulous. He genuinely cares and wants to understand, and, without telling her his direct opinion one way or another, seems to be attempting to draw out authentic reflection (including self-reflection) in her. It doesn’t seem to bear the fruit that he hopes, but perhaps it planted a seed…
Dickensian dialogue is just so marvelous.
That’s definitely one of the most disturbing scenes in the book. You just went to yell at poor dumb Merry to bail out while she still has the chance.
The American scenes are difficult reading because they are at once so accurate and so superficially general. Some of the comments he directs at America/Americans could just as easily be directed to his own country – indeed, “we are no worse than you!” as Mrs Hominy says (Ch 22). I’m thinking of comments in Ch 16 about the press and about Americans’ being convinced that things couldn’t be worse while at the same time they couldn’t be better. I do feel that, as in “American Notes”, Dickens’s criticism of America’s inflated notion of Liberty and Moral Sensibility in the face “of Freedom in a slave’s embrace” is justified and difficult to own. (Ch 21) We did and do have a tendency to moral superiority in the face of horrible moral flaws and insensitivity. I like to believe that the majority of us recognize this and are trying to – what? work through it, fix it, manage it, – but there ARE a lot of us, and we each have an opinion and a vote – it’s not a perfect system. I think the final takeaway comes from Mr Bevan’s critique about the loud-mouthed, opinionated men of Pawkins’ boarding house: “Heaven forbid that they should be samples of the intelligence and virtue of America, but they come uppermost; and in great numbers too; and too often represent it.” (Ch 16) – that is, the loudest voice may be the one that is heard, but this doesn’t mean it is the voice of the majority, or that it is accurate.
The sojourn of Martin and Mark in America as an episode, without the politics or social commentary, I think is an effective device through which the lessons of growing up and growing sensitive to the plight of others is learned. Their journey to a foreign country, being so completely out of their element and comfort zone, at once shows them in what ways they are flawed and in what ways they are blessed. They are both intelligent enough and pliant enough to learn the lessons and to return home better men than they left.
The altercation between Tom Pinch and Jonas is the proverbial battle between good and evil, with good prevailing. How wonderful that Tom shows his mettle, after Jonas warns him not to meddle (a-hem) and threatens him. And we see another side of Charity Pecksniff as she pledges loyalty to Tom for his unintentional championing of her. We’ll have to look out for how she will repay his good turn. We also have a glimpse of how Jonas will repay Mercy for her merciless treatment of him during their engagement. Jonas’s pledge does not bode quite as well for Mercy as Charity’s pledge does for Tom, however. And why is the feverish mystery man, friend of John Westlock and patient of Mrs Gamp & Mrs Prig, crying out “Chuzzlewit! Jonas! No!”???
I too have found Mrs Gamp unfunny – or rather, not as funny as critics have purported her to be. But she was extremely popular when she appeared and Dickens was very fond of her (Forster, Monod, Metz, et al). She is a besotted old woman perhaps with good reason – as a midwife, nurse, and corpse-dresser (I might have made this word up) she has, as she tells us over and over again, seen quite a bit. But her over-indulging while performing her services is really more horribly sad than funny. She could have been so comforting to her clients, instead she takes advantage of their need of her to feed herself and her drinking habit.
Her importance lies in the literary innovation Dickens made in terms of her character. Quoting Steven Marcus: “Mrs Gamp is that rare phenomenon, the character as creative artist, an imaginary person endowed with the same kind of vitality that imagined her, impelled to invent her own imaginary person in order to define and celebrate herself and the world she lives in. . . . Like the novelist, she is prolific, always giving forth an abundance of observations, sentiments, feelings, experiences, quotations, maxims, gossip, etc., with an inventiveness that seems born out of a sheer excess of vitality.” (“Dickens from Pickwick to Dombey”, 261) So, Mrs Gamp’s creating herself or defining herself via Mrs Harris is like watching Dickens creating himself or defining himself though his characters. “Such a twice fictitious creature is an invention of the very first order.” (Monod, “Dickens the Novelist”, 220)
Much more hilarious than Mrs Gamp, however, is the on-going euphemism of Tom Pinch playing his organ, especially in the description of Mary Graham’s effect on him in Ch 24: “When she spoke, Tom held his breath, so eagerly he listened, when she sang, he sat like one entranced. She touched his organ, and from that bright epoch even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began new and deified existence.”
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hmm. I guess if I were to take issue with any part of Dickens’s satire of America or say that America has progressed past it by now, it’s the idea that Americans are obnoxiously patriotic or jingoistic. I mean there are definitely some like that and probably more when Dickens was writing. The stereotype came from somewhere, but I think that because of the stereotype people assume Americans like that represent the majority when I’ve encountered plenty who are indifferent on the subject of patriotism or who agree with Dickens that patriotism is unhealthy and gets in the way of reform. And even some I’ve encountered who were pro-patriotism were able to talk about their beliefs calmly. They weren’t all rah-rah about it.
I understand that the last president had a reputation for being obnoxiously patriotic and jingoistic, but here’s the thing. He wasn’t elected unanimously. And even among those that voted for him, not all of them were enthusiastic fans. They just voted for him because they hated his opponent more. Actually, a lot of the people who voted for his opponent weren’t big fans of her either. They just hated him more. Voting in America, in my experience, is more about hating the opposition than loving your party’s candidate.
Other than that, I’d say Dickens’s satire of the USA was pretty spot on. LOL. (Actually, I’d say that even the part I just pushed back against was spot on. Just more spot on for Americans I meet on social media than the ones I meet face to face.)
Steven Marcus’s tribute to Mrs. Gamp reminds me of critical praise of Shakespeare’s Falstaff.
Chris, so many wonderful thoughts here…I loved the Marcus quote, and what you said here: “Mrs Gamp’s creating herself or defining herself via Mrs Harris is like watching Dickens creating himself or defining himself though his characters.”
As to her humor (or otherwise), I heard Miriam Margolyes do a reading of Mrs. Gamp during a lecture with Lucinda Hawksley, and she was hilarious…I wonder if Mrs. Gamp is the classic example of why Dickens needs (in addition to, not replacement of, the page), to be read aloud?
LikeLiked by 2 people
It’s not from the lecture, but here’s a clip I found of Miriam Margoyles doing Mrs. Gamp. It’s pretty great. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0pbZmVP-Io
LikeLiked by 3 people
Oh Stationmaster, this is great !!! 😀