Mr. Pecksniff Discharges a Duty Which He Owes to Society
Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
[Compare colored version from a later edtiion]
Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit
Scanned image, caption, and commentary below by Philip V. Allingham.[This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL.]
This illustration in its composition and focus on Pecksniff recalls the architect's quest for Mrs. Gamp in Part VIII, ch. 19, "Mr. Pecksniff on his mission" (August, 1843). However, whereas the large, animated crowd in the former scene was chiefly female and largely unsympathetic, leaving Pecksniff at a disadvantage, here he is firmly in control of his emotions and the situation, as his commanding gesture of dismissal and Napoleonic pose suggest. In describing Tom Pinch's departure from Pecksniff's, Phiz combines two related moments from the letterpress: in the first, Tom stands in the foreground, coat and carpet-bag in his left hand, at the bottom of the steps alongside the tearful Mrs. Lupin; in the second, further down the page, "Mr. Pecksniff had appeared on the top of the steps, simultaneously with his old pupil, and while Tom was talking with Mrs. Lupin kept his hand stretched out, as though he said 'Go forth!' (ch. 31).
At the centre of the arch above Pecksniff's head appears a bust wearing a helmet which, given Pecksniff's profession, might be a reproduction of the bust of the first citizen of classical Athens, Pericles, whose building projects have left a lasting impression of the the glory that was Greece. The armed head may also be a visual allusion to Macbeth, but that identification depends upon which character Phiz is signifying by the armed head. In Shakespeare's tragedy, Macduff, having lost his family in a Macbeth-engineered raid on his castle, has plenty of justification for taking a bloody vengeance, and eventually slays the tyrant, a task for which metaphorically in Martin Chuzzlewit old Martin and John Westlock rather than the hapless Tom are responsible. However, if one relates the helmeted bust above Pecksniff to old Martin, leering out of the window (left), the allusion may be pertinent: "old Martin's head peering out of the window hints at the dubiety with which he views the whole business — something of which the reader has had no hint at this point in the novel" (Steig, DSA 2, 136).
The picture's subject, the departure of a community figure for the great world beyond the village, recalls that of the plate complementing ch. 7 in which Mark Tapley dressed as a countryman strikes off for Salisbury, and thence for London. Mark, unencumbered by trunks, feigns jollity, and likewise here Tom, respectably clad in bourgeois fashion, tries "to keep up a stout heart." However, whereas the entire village seems sad to see Mark leave, Pecksniff (in sharp contrast to the sobbing Jane in the doorway) is unmoved by the general display of sentiment, and the villagers to the right seem inclined to take Pecksniff's part. Recalling the child who is upset by Mark's departure in the earlier illustration, here Phiz has inserted a child tugging at Tom's great-coat, as if forcibly trying to prevent him from leaving. Having at last discovered for himself what a humbug Pecksniff is, Tom ignores him in the plate as in the text rather than attempting to defend himself; his calm demeanour is as genuine as Pecksniff's self-righteous hauteur is contrived. Phiz communicates Pecksniff stagey attempt to take the moral high ground by his elevated position at the top of the steps. The removal man from The Dragon (who bears Tom's box out of the house as if it were a coffin containing his happy memories and erstwhile good opinions of his former employer) connects the two principals of the illustration. The flourishing tree above Tom and his trunk signifies not merely the time of year but Tom's fair promise of success in the great world beyond the little village on the Salisbury Plain. Tom's progress physically, emotionally, and morally has now begun.
Steig, Michael. "Martin Chuzzlewit's Progress by Dickens and Phiz." Dickens Studies Annual 2 (1972): 119-149.
_____. "From Caricature to Progress: Master Humphrey's Clock and Martin Chuzzlewit." "Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978. Pp. 49-85.
Last modified 5 January 2009