My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why is it that villains are often the most delicious dishes of fictional feasts? If the protagonist is the main course, the antagonist is almost like dessert, to be sinfully savored but, really, more like the post prandial drink and smoke, to be enjoyed outside, in the dark, when the other guests can’t see or hear your naughty habits. The title of Dickens’ seventh novel, written between the more familiar works, The Old Curiousity Shop and David Copperfield, might lead readers to think this tale is about Martin Chuzzlewitt, a fortune-less orphan who sets his sights on America in the hopes to gain riches that will earn him the hand of his best girl, who just happens to be the caretaker of his rich and stingy uncle, cause they’re always stingy and suspicious if they’re rich. However, the reader would be wrong to think the book centers around its eponymous hero. It seems Dickens would much rather linger outside and savor his after dinner cigar and snifter of brandy than join the square pegs in the drawing room, and, instead of honing in our hapless protagonist, because we can do that in Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield, we consort with the shadiest, most snakiest, and slimiest of characters, Seth Pecksniff, a hypocritical architect who has crafted a career of designing lies and erecting deceit, and Jonas Chuzzlewitt, cousin to young Martin and nephew to the wealthy and old Martin Chuzzlewitt, who’s thirst for greed is as deep as Old Martin’s pockets.
The novel starts off with an abstract family history of the Chuzzlewitt’s then takes a hairpin turn to foreground the Pecksniff family whose story is told in such sarcastic terms and with such a caustic tongue, the acid burns off the page, singing the reader’s fingertips. We see what a laughably despicable pack the Pecksniff’s are and can’t help but revel in their horrible ways. As enjoyable as it may be cavorting with villains though we can’t spend all our days and nights smoking and sipping liquer in the chilly dark. We must turn to the light and that light is not our eponymous hero but the faithful and naive Tom Pinch, who has every bit the DNA of all Dickensian do-gooders because in Chuck D’s world, if they’re poor and pure, they’re always trusty and doe-eyed innocent. Pinch, despite his saccharine ways or perhaps because of, is quite likeable. Tom Pinch lives to serve the conniving architect Pecksniff, and this tale is really more about poor Tom’s betrayal than young Martin’s rites of passage.
In the shortest and most brutal of synopses, the novel follows Tom Pinch, young Martin Chuzzlewitt, Jonas Chuzzlewitt, Seth Pecksniff, and Mark Tapley. Tom Pinch is abruptly dismissed from Pecksniff’s service for no reason save that Pecksniff’s motives border on evil. After serving years in loyal admiration to his employer, Pinch is forced to fend for himself and redeem his name and honor. Young Martin soon takes residence with Pecksniff, hoping to learn the craft under his tutelage, but is also fired when Pecksniff realizes old Martin will favor him more without the employment of his nephew. And, so, like Pinch, young Martin must pursue his own enterprise but instead of remaining in England where his flesh and blood uncle won’t have him, he looks to Uncle Sam. Jonas Chuzzlewitt, cousin to young Martin and nephew to the old slithers in and out of the story scheming his way to riches, while most everyone else is trying to earn their keep honestly. Of course there’s plenty more characters to cover like Merry and Cherry Pecksniff (their full names, Mercy and Charity) or Mrs. Gamp, John Westlock, Montague Tigg, and Chevy Slyme, etc. etc, but there’s only so much time in the day and only so much patience this reviewer has.
When we’re not following Pecksniff or reviling in Jonas’ dastardly actions, Dickens reminds us every now and again why the book is titled Martin Chuzzlewitt, and we get to tramp around in a semi-picaresque romp. Young Martin’s story gives a nod to Pip when our eponymous hero proclaims he had great expectations that were dashed when he fell in love with his grandfather’s charge. With no hope for his uncle, old Martin Chuzzlewitt, crossing his palm with silver or gold, young Martin sets his sights on the new nation to the West. Mark Tapley, another poor gentleman, also a former employee of Pecksniff who is too kind for his own good, meets young Martin in London just before he departs and convinces our hero to take him as his manservant. We know how Dickens felt about the Suffragettes after visiting Bleak House, and we gathered his strong sentiments against Jews in Oliver Twist, or his exoticizing them in Our Mutual Friend. In Martin Chuzzlewitt Chuck D lambasts America and all of her children who he paints as utterly vain and ridiculous. He scorns the U.S. for still practicing slavery when Europe had just freshly discarded the evil act, yet he still manages to portray freed slaves as docile and obtuse.
On their travels by steamboat, Mark and young Martin endure tabbacky chewing, spitoon-spitting, raucously loud and boisterous buccaneers as they head south to make their fortune. After purchasing an estate, which seemed promising on paper, in the City of Eden, where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet, Mark and young Martin have a go at Chuzzlewitt & Co., Surveyors & Architects in a rank mosquito infested swamp. Meanwhile, poor Jonas back in England makes much more than mischief. Poor Jonas. We can’t help but empathize his insecurity. With his lust for money and vindication, we feel a twinge of those very same desires in our own bones, but the choice of acting on these emotions is what keeps us from turning into pale comparisons of our antagonist. Jonas’ own father didn’t trust him enough to love him, and so our loathsome villain is misunderstood and kicked about while Dickens masterfully shows how a bad turn leads to the worst.
When Chuzzlewitt and Mark Tapley return home, the madcap fun ends along with the clarity of the narrative. Plots get messy, characters become indistinguishable. Impatient readers may find themselves consulting Wikipedia to follow who’s who and what’s what. Too many twists and too many clues to follow that don’t seem worth following litter the pages. The incentive just isn’t there since the characters we most care about, Tapley and Pinch, recede to the wings. Even Dickens himself seems to lose interest in his own creations and plays more like a will-full child who tosses characters and plot lines aside when he no longer fancies them. For instance, the resilient and resourceful Mark Tapley ends up being used and abused after saving our title hero from the brink of death in the dire and dank dregs of the American swamps. Once the two step foot in England, again, the narrative switches to same ole, same ole’ and our title character takes the lead. Young Martin is as interesting and complex as any average lead male in a picaresque; in another words, he’s a dupe and a boring droll one at that.
And, as for the ladies, Mary Pinch, Tom’s sister, is as sticky as taffy, saccharine enough to make your teeth and the inside of your cheeks hurt. Ah, Dickens’ women. I could go hours upon hours ranting about his female characters. Granted, Tom Pinch can be just as nauseating as his sister–but he’s not a woman, and so, Dickens manages a sense of proportion and reality when he fashions creations of his own gender. As kind as Pinch may be, readers may find themselves pulled into his story, drawn by his humility which aches for recognition by others, and Dickens, the masterful magician that he is, works his spell on us with this wonderful creation. With Tom Pinch, being a do-gooder is a crime. We want to condemn him for his good nature but there’s something in his motivation, a slice of Truth that we ourselves hunger for. He’s so cheerful its sadistically dark because the world is so vengeful and suspicious. We wonder how such a ray of light can penetrate the evil that surrounds him. Pinch’s nature makes him such great prey, and, like the rubber-neckers we are, there’s that sadist in all of us just waiting to see him get crushed by his own naivete.
Martin Chuzzlewitt starts strong like a stiff drink, but then, as most evenings enjoying hard liquor usually go to the dogs, so does this story. Not half as enjoyable or keen as OMF or GE, Dickens wasn’t quite on his game with this novel. He may have considered this work one of his finest, but the critics didn’t agree with him. Readers will find glimpses of genius, but they are few and far between. One of the sticking points with Chuzzlewitt is that the prose is so dense it’s difficult stomping through the text. Though every writerly bone and nerve in this reviewer wants to champion the scribe and scoff the critics, unfortunately, in this case, the critics were right.