An Overview of Dickens's Picaresque Novel Martin Chuzzlewit (serialised in monthly parts January, 1843, to July, 1844)

Philip V. Allingham, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario

In the vein of agitation for social reform that characterizes Oliver Twist (1837-8) Dickens is critical of drunken nurses who mistreat their poor patients, but still has a touch of genial warmth for the loquacious Sairey Gamp, identified by her tag line about "Mrs. Harris" and her umbrella (in Cockney slang, a 'gamp'). Martin Chuzzlewit also reflects Dickens's disillusionment resulting from his recent trip to the United States, often referred to as his first American reading tour. The picaresque novel has three elements essentially:

On one level, Dickens is still the preacher of domestic sentiment and social reform, but on another he is an artist reflecting the brutality and creative energy of early Victorian society. As is the case with Paul Sweedlepipes, some of Dickens's best-remembered characters have little to do with the main plots of their respective books. His use of crime-and-detection intrigue (murderer Jonas and swindler Tigg) and suspense (the detective Nadgett), and of a long-lost heir (young Martin) is as intrinsic to his plotting here as in Oliver Twist.

The genealogy of the opening chapter seems to reflect the novelist's difficulty in beginning the story. His extensive use of pathetic fallacy in this book begins with his animation of the wind in the second chapter: part of Dickens's comedy is that, while things behave like people (personification), people behave like machines (dehumanization), a double technique seen again in Dickens's Hard Times in particular. The world of this novel is one of steep contrasts: the idyllic countryside near Salisbury contrasting with the slums near Todgers's in London and the swamp of Eden in the United States. Although this novel was written in the railway age, Dickens harkens back to the England of the Regency with its coaches and turnpike roads; nevertheless, as in the case of Tigg's personal carriage and Martin's arrival in America, there is a sense of rapid movement.

The description of the wind is characteristic of the humorous style of the early Sketches by Boz , Dickens employing a farcical note to introduce the story's butt, the sham architect Seth Pecksniff. The daughters' names, Mercy and Charity, initially suit "the moral Pecksniff," but prove to be ironic since he is "a direction-post which is always telling the way . . . , and never gets there." Pecksniff anticipates the sleek, soft, oily hypocrisy of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.

Dickens tendentiously surrounds anything he dislikes with unpleasant connotations. Objects have value only in their positive or negative effects on the human situation. Dickens can charge a situation with either horror or amiability and exuberance. His point of view is often that of an imaginative yet frightened child in an enchanted forest of grotesque and divine shapes. For Dickens only individual acts of generosity can improve human circumstances. Dickens portrays Sairey Gamp the nurse and Seth Pecksniff the architect as frauds and hypocrites, but he gradually loses his indignation as he offers amusing details about their characters, particularly their speech and appearance. More inarticulate characters have little of the high-blown rhetoric Dickens gives these two, but rather reveal themselves through expressive actions (such as Mary Graham's giving young Martin her ring).

As in most of his other works, in Martin Chuzzlewit Dickens employs a picaresque journey (often, as in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop , involving the flight of a child from danger and conveying that terrified child's point of view). Young Martin's journey is a reflection of Dickens's own, not only from social naivete and financial insecurity towards self-knowledge and affluence, but also to the United States and back again, a political Odyssey of sorts. In January, 1842, Dickens and his wife entrusted the care of their young family to their great friend, the actor-manager William Macready, and sailed for America. Initially, Dickens proclaimed himself a republican at heart, and longed to visit this classless society founded upon the egalitarian principles of the Enlightenment. His intention was to persuade Americans to honour British copyright, using the lamentable case of Sir Walter Scott to justify his position that American publishers should not be permitted to pirate the works of British authors (America joined the International Copyright Union only in 1896, after Canadians had pirated Twain and other American authors). Astonished at the gross conceit of Americans and their lofty condescension to foreigners, as well as their tendency to use violence instead of compromise to solve disputes, Dickens noted the inconsistencies between American ideals and conduct. However, while American Notes is essentially a non-fiction account of that visit based on his letters to John Forster, Martin Chuzzlewit is a Swiftian satire of human nature, without the naive persona of Gulliver (instead, Dickens uses the callow Martin as an ironic observer of the American social and political scene).

Like his eighteenth-century master, Henry Fielding, Dickens makes editorial intrusions into the action of the novel, emphasizing the theme which runs through all his works, the inhumanity to man inherent in social institutions. Dickens's extensive use of coincidence (notice, for example, that Tigg's confidential detective turns out to be the Pinches' landlord) reflects his feeling that the world is highly changeable and insecure. Despite the weaknesses of the episodic, picaresque plot, Martin Chuzzlewit is saved by its author's sense of the theatrical. Dickens uses the novel as a fantastic stage which teems with action and rings with voices of all classes and conditions. He builds from crisis to crisis in the manner of contemporary melodrama, maintaining interest by tantalizing the reader towards the end of each monthly instalment (part). Deftly he brings on new characters and settings to re- engage the reader just when interest seems to flag. For example, with the sales of the green-covered, 32-page fifth instalment falling, in the last chapter of the sixth monthly number (June 1843) Dickens adopted the radical expedient of sending his youthful protagonist not merely to London as Fielding had done in Tom Jones , but to America. The book's picaresque technique provides him with a large canvas and plenty of opportunity for farce, melodrama, and social criticism.

Martin Chuzzlewit , though highly popular throughout the nineteenth century, is today regarded as something of an artistic failure because its central character is a mere cipher overshadowed by a legion of fascinating, quirky minor characters. To the modern reader as to American novelist and critic Henry James, Martin Chuzzlewit exemplifies the "loose, baggy monster" that was the Victorian novel. Dickens's sense of character and atmosphere is strong, his dialogue is often brilliant in its individualizing the characters, but the plotting seems creaky. Both David Copperfield (1849-50) and Great Expectations (1861) are more highly regarded today because of their highly integrated plots and introspective, first-person narrative points-of-view.

A Bibliography of Suggested Readings

Philip V. Allingham's "The Names of Dickens's American Originals in Martin Chuzzlewit " in Dickens Quarterly 7, 3 (Sept., 1990): 329-337.

James J. and Patience P. Barnes' entry "Copyright," in Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell (New York: Garland, 1988): 192-3.

Joseph Brogunier's "The Dreams of Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit," in the Dickensian , 58 (1962): 165-170.

Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4), ed. Margaret Cardwell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982) for excellent reproductions of Phiz's plates, "Dickens's Instructions to the Illustrator" (842-5), Dickens's 1868 postscript (855-6).

The "Forged Letter" of 3 May, 1842, and the New York Evening Tattler's response to it on 11 August, 1842.

The American newspaper Brother Jonathan's unsigned review of the novel: 29 July, 1843, reprinted in the Dickensian , vol, 10 (1914): 97-99.

Susan Eilenberg's "Mortal Pages: Wordsworth and the Reform of Copyright," ELH 56, 2 (1989): 351-374.

George H. Ford's entry on Dickens in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Victorian Novelists Before 1885, vol. 21, ed. Ira B. Nadel and William E. Fredeman (Detroit: Gale Research, 1983): 89-124.

T. W. Hill's "Notes on Martin Chuzzlewit in the Dickensian , vol. 42 (1946):141-148, 196-203; vol. 47, 28-35; vol. 49, 167-.

Robert L. Patten's "Trouble in Eden: American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit ," Ch. 7 in Charles Dickens and His Publishers (Oxford: Claredon, 1978): 119-138.

Ronald Pearsall's " The Figure of the Governess in Nineteenth-Century Britain" in Night's Black Angels: The Forms and Faces of Victorian Cruelty (London:1975): 45-8.

Mary Rosner's "Dickens's Use of Animals in Martin Chuzzlewit," in Dickens Studies Newsletter 10 , 2 (1979): 40-51.

Anne Summers’ "The Mysterious Demise of Sarah Gamp: The Domiciliary Nurse and Her Detractors, c. 1830-1860," in Victorian Studies (Spring, 1989): 365-386.

Michael Steig's "Martin Chuzzlewit's Progress by Dickens and Phiz," in Dickens Studies Annual 2 (1972): 119-149.

Kathleen Wales’ "The Claims of Kinship: The Opening Chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit ," in the Dickensian 83, 3 (Autumn, 1987): 167-179.


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Last modified November 18, 2000