Friday, March 15, 2013
Michael5000 vs. Charles Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit
2012 Assessment: Martin Chuzzlewit. YES! This is the second Dickens novel I read, quite a long time ago. I remember the American bits rather clearly, and also remember quite enjoying it. Ripe for rereading.
Current Reading: Ear-read on audiobook.
Martin Chuzzlewit is best known to readers in the United States of America as “the one in which some of the characters go to the United States of America.” Dickens, who was fond of America but also a satirist by trade, portrays a country where people are ignorant of but also dismissive of the rest of the world, where fraudulent and semi-fraudulent real estate speculation is rife, where intellectual life is considered irrelevant on one side and twisted into semi-mystical mumbo-jumbo on the other, and where people of all social classes fervently declare that the United States of America has transcended social classes. Thank goodness we have outgrown that crude stage of our national development.
As in a lot of the Dickens novels, the central theme of Martin Chuzzlewit is the pernicious power of greed and the expectation of wealth to distort a person’s character. In the Chuzzlewit family, and all jockeying for the Chuzzlewit fortune, we will meet a ghastly hypocrite, a young man wasting his talents and abilities, an openly wicked schemer, a foolish young woman with a vast sense of entitlement and none of of responsibility, an angry and bitter young woman ditto, and an odd-lot of various crooks and dodgers. Some will rehabilitate themselves, some will not, and some will of course meet sad fates laden with great pathos. It ain’t Dickens if it doesn’t have a squalid but tearful death here and an inspiring show of redemption there.
In terms of overall awesomeness, Martin Chuzzlewit falls short of Bleak House, Great Expectations, or Our Mutual Friend. Even its primary characters are a bit one-dimensional, and the central premise – that the head of the Chuzzlewit family conducts elaborate, misguided social experiments on his potential heirs, using his fortune as carrot and stick – is a bit too cut and dried. People with lots of money use their wealth to manipulate potential heirs all the time in real life, of course, but the elder Martin Chuzzlewit messes with his family in ways that are at once elaborately covert, rigorously systematic, duplicitous, patriarchal, and yet altruistic. As a plot device, it’s a bit like those stories (Cosi fan Tutte, Cymbeline, etc.) where guys dare other guys to try to sleep with their girlfriends; it gets the story going, but also makes it feel a little other than true-to-life.
On the other hand, Martin Chuzzlewit is a big step up from Nicholas Nickleby. Where that novel flops around episodically with no apparent plan, rhyme, or reason, Martin Chuzzlewit is a much more crafted creation with a clear narrative arc. The parts of the novel mesh together better, and a larger cast is kept more meaningfully in action. And if the characters are not as fully fleshed out as they might be, there are multiple central protagonists (particularly Martin Sr., Martin Jr., and likeable Tom Pinch) who, compared with the shapeless title character of Nicholas Nickleby, have defined personalities and coherent patterns of action. It is hard, too, not to enjoy the supporting character of Mark Tapley, an inveterate optimist who can’t help being “jolly” and so is constantly trying to find difficult situations that will be more of a challenge to his eternal good mood.
Prognosis: Second-rank Dickens is better than the first rank of most authors. Martin Chuzzlewit is a bit didactic, but we can all use a refresher course in Dickens’ classroom from time to time.
Current Dickens Score: Unchanged: I have still read 7/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels.