Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a Tow'r; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear'd
Less than Arch-Angel ruin'd. . . .[Paradise Lost, I, 589-53]
The story's governing motif of "self" having been well-launched visually by the initial plate, depicting the sanctimonious Wiltshire village architect Seth Pecksniff and his egocentric daughters, in the first illustration for the second monthly number Phiz turns his attention to a group study of the extended Chuzzlewit clan. Never lacking in the smarmy variety of self-confidence that characterizes the "umble" villain of David Copperfield, Uriah Heep (who is, in essence, Pecksniff re-visited), Pecksniff attempts to take leadership of the hopeful legatees of Old Martin. In keeping with Pecksniff's proclaiming himself their leader and protector, behind Pecksniff's head, upper centre, Michael Steig has detected a picture of a coronation ceremony in an oval frame which he suspects is a miniature of Jacques-Louis David's "The Coronation of Napoleon" (1805-7), in which the Emperor of the French, having seized power in a coup d'etat now seeks legitimacy. The picture serves two other purposes, providing a halo for the hypocrite's head and rendering him the focal point of the whole composition. Pictures likewise haloing the heads of Tigg (left) and Spottletoe (right) once again imply that Pecksniff is the central person of an unholy trinity, rendering the whole plate a parody of Milton's "Great Consult" among the rebel angels under their leader, Satan, in Paradise Lost, Book One. That Tigg's head is exactly parallel to Pecksniff's implies that as a parasite, and swindler he is Pecksniff's equal.
Consistent with Dickens's conception of Seth Pecksniff as a great pretender (based, apparently, on philanthropist and writer S. C. Hall, born in 1800 and therefore about Pecksniff's age at the time of composition) as an inveterate snob and deceiver, Phiz may also be using the oval frame to make the village architect a parody of Christ at His baptism, a black "imperial" eagle holding two balls in its mouth by a string (anchored to the wall and appearing to hover above the apostolic head) replacing the holy dove. The eagle, which Steig has found in three other Phiz series, may also suggest the more predatory motive underlying the family gathering. Around Pecksniff's pillar-like figure the vultures of the Chuzzlewit clan swirl in consternation at his presumption. As in the letterpress's description, in the illustration there are fourteen additional figures: the two flanking Miss Pecksniffs (the ironically named Charity and Mercy) reiterated by their pictures which hang conspicuously on the rear wall, right and left; the bald, splenetic cousin, Mr. Spottletoe (down left in this stage scene); the wary, cunning Anthony Chuzzlewit and his diabolical son, Jonas, up right; the widow of the senior Martin's brother and three spinster daughters, stage right of Pecksniff; Martin senior's grand-nephew, "very dark and very hairy"; the "gay bachelor cousin" and relict of the Regency, George Chuzzlewit, the corpulent figure, his waistcoat bulging, seated down left; Montague Tigg and his protégé, Chevy Slyme, being the figures immediately to Pecksniff's right. The composition as a whole, a scene of comic disorder, follows Dickens's principle of grouped pairs balanced to the left and right of the prop and pillar of the House of Chuzzlewit, in front of whom (appropriate to his self-appointed role as "Prince of Peace") is a closed bible on the covered table. Dickens's verbal description, with such telling details as Pecksniff's crossed hands and the look-alike duo of Anthony and Jonas Chuzzlewit, has given Phiz plenty of material for visual elaboration. The moment realized, not hinted at in the generalized caption, is Spottletoe's denunciation of Pecksniff for his presumptive "desire to be regarded as the head of this family" (Penguin 108). The caption is based on a phrase a few lines earlier, "the pleasant little family circle."
Browne has carefully differentiated the characters, giving Tigg, the hanger-on, a prominent position and having Mercy and Charity react according to their personalities, the former amused and astonished, the latter vingary and disdainful." (Steig, Ch. 3, 65)
Phiz's best piece of dramatic invention is capturing Spottletoe's shaking his fist in the angelic face of Pecksniff; far more significant, however, are the emblematic embellishments already noted in for Pecksniff, particularly head, crowned by spiky hair and haloed by the circular coronation piece. If the illustration has a weak point, other than its crowded effect, it is that it depicts characters who are not so much individuals pursuing particular motives as what Guerard has termed "thematic données" (239), the scavengers who as in Ben Jonson's Volpone have gathered to rend asunder the carcass once the chief beast expires.
Guerard, Albert J. "Martin Chuzzlewit: The Novel as Comic Entertainment." The Triumph of the Novel: Dickens, Dostoevsky, Faulkner. Chicago & London: U. Chicago P., 1976. Pp. 235-260.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Odyssey, 1957.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington and London: Indiana U. P., 1978.
_____. "Martin Chuzzlewit's Progress by Dickens and Phiz." Dickens Studies Annual 2 (1972): 119-149.
Last modified 5 May 2007