I have a confession to make: I do sometimes judge a book by its cover…or by its title. When I first started writing summaries for the works of Charles Dickens, I wanted to read some of the more obscure works. This desire was partly because I knew I wouldn’t have as much competition if I chose the less popular fiction, but also I wanted to see if there weren’t any overlooked gems in the lesser known works. I hit a jackpot with The Old Curiosity Shop, which is now my favorite Dickens book (so far). I chose this book both for its cover and title.
Martin Chuzzlewit I chose for its title—I thought that was a funny name. I began to regret it, though, when I suffered through the first quarter of the book. The book is very slow in developing, and you even start to wonder why the book was called Martin Chuzzlewit. I don’t know which Martin Chuzzlewit the title refers to—there are actually two. Elder Martin Chuzzlewit, which I assume is the Martin the title refers to, is an elderly man who believes that money is the root of all evil. He has disinherited his grandson and loathes leaving his money to any of his relatives. He thinks his relatives are deplorable people, but he also sees his wealth as a curse which will afflict anyone he leaves it to. This character disappears at the beginning of the book and makes one appearance towards the middle. He is mainly referred to, though, until the last quarter of the book—where he emerges.
You begin to wonder why the book wasn’t called Seth Pecksniff, for this character holds the stage for most of the book. Even if he isn’t in the scene, he is referred to by the other characters. In fact, while this wasn’t one of Charles Dickens’ most successful books, the character of Seth Pecksniff was commemorated by becoming an adjective in the English language. For those of you who love those Word of the Day calendars: Pecksniffian: hypocritically affecting benevolence or high moral principles. Pecksniff is the main villain of the book, but I didn’t find him as deplorable as I was probably supposed to. While he definitely has the flaws attributed to him, I believe the character is just as fooled by his façade. He is an unconscious hypocrite.
The book becomes interesting when it starts focusing on the second Martin Chuzzlewit, the disowned grandson, who eventually goes to America to seek his fortune. This book is a wonderful time capsule, for it was written twenty years before the Civil War in America. Admittedly, it isn’t very flattering in its depictions of Americans, but it is interesting to see America through an English foreigner’s eyes. Some of the flaws of Americans apply today, though I think Dickens has a tendency to be attracted to the sludge of humanity. I found it rather amusing (and wondered if it was true) how it is said that Americans are always complaining they are in a bad economy even while being one of the most successful countries in the world. The book touches on the hardships of immigrants, anti-British sentiments, anti-immigrant sentiments in general, social snobbism, and slavery. It is interesting to see that Northerners, who supposedly fought to free the blacks, seem to be more prejudiced against them. I remember one character talking about what foolish, simple-minded people blacks are, and how they should never be given freedom or equal rights. One society distributes its funds to a judge who doesn’t punish mobs for hanging blacks, to an official who believes abolitionists should be hung without trial, and to support laws that make it illegal to teach blacks how to read and right.
I doubted the motivations of Mr. Bevan, even though he seemed to be a kind person. He does help Martin Chuzzlewit leave America. However, he also directed young Martin to his misfortunes, and I was never quite sure whether it wasn’t intentional. I began to wonder if Mr. Bevan didn’t have the same prejudices as the other characters we had been introduced to, but was merely more subtle in his approach. After all, his parting words with Martin asked him to warn others about the perils of emigrating. While these perils are very real, it made me wonder if this wasn’t Mr. Bevan’s nice way of preventing people from emigrating to America.
My favorite character was Mark Tapely. I found him rather admirable. Mark Tapely is a gentleman who is always seeking unfortunate circumstances, for he believes there is merit in trying to be happy in dismal situations. He is constantly chagrined, though, that his bad circumstances never stay unfortunate for long—for Mark has many admirable traits that can turn around the bleakest of situations. Much to his consternation, he winds up making situations very agreeable.
The book became interesting as it progressed. It isn’t one of my favorites, but I liked it well enough. If The Old Curiosity Shop is my favorite Dickens book so far, Mark Tapely is my favorite character. Charles Dickens didn’t write novels. Dickens published a weekly segment of a story. He never wrote the story ahead of time. Sometimes he was writing two serials at the same time. The problem with this is that Dickens wrote multi-plot stories with many characters. He was like a juggler keeping several balls in the air. With Martin Chuzzlewit, he dropped a few, I think. Towards the end, I thought I found a few things that contradicted what was written earlier. Also, I couldn’t always understand how a character was lead to react a certain way—and I think that he had developed the plot with a certain ending in mind, and then changed his mind at the end.
However, I do recommend the book. It is a wonderful time capsule in capturing American history. For that alone, it is worth reading.