It has always been the best and the worst for Martin Chuzzlewit. A hundred years of critical reactions come at us from every direction and make almost no sense. In 1898, George Gissing held Chuzzlewit up as perhaps Dickens’s greatest then went on to say that “a novel more shapeless, a story less coherent will not easily be found in any literature” (60). In our time Leslie Fiedler dubs it messy (47) and Robert Polhemus hodge-podge (90). But the pendulum swings back dramatically on The Victorian Web where James Kincaid hails its comic vision as one of the most mature and moving in British literature (Introduction). Scores of critics glean “from its massive bulk and enormous cast something approaching a quintessential chaos” (Curran 52), the exception being R.C. Churchill who crowns it “the greatest work of comic genius” in English literature (qtd. in Kincaid Introduction).
Beyond these disagreements though, the novel induces another unique phenomenon. It seems to crawl under critics’ skins and provoke intense feelings about characters that Dickens obviously feels are exemplars of human goodness. Some say they’re saintly, but more brand them as stupid and inane. Then it gets stranger. While assessing this novel which is traditionally seen as far from Dickens’s strongest, critics seem to take their eye off the book to start arguments about life itself and whether being good and open-hearted is worth anyone’s trouble. In Dickens criticism this knot of concern seems unprecedented. Surely in The Old Curiosity Shop, little Nell is singled out as too good, sentimental and unreal. But Nell is one character and is usually given a pass because she is part of an early sentimental novel. With Chuzzlewit, the debate is strident and gets bitter. Critics fight over ways of being. My premise here is that the experience of reading Chuzzlewit is different from that of reading any other work by Dickens and that these reactions stem from Dickens’s chaotic state of mind and being as he wrote. An army cannot function well under a weak commander and readers flounder when their author is unsure. An intriguing hint at the source of the confusion comes from Chesterton, the greatest of Dickens’s admirers who notes “a certain quality or element which broods over the whole of Martin Chuzzlewit to which it is difficult for either friends or foes to put a name. I think the reader who enjoys Dickens’s other books has an impression that it is a kind of melancholy” (1). This could be why the response to this novel is often more — and less — than criticism. In Chuzzlewit Dickens does not support his readers’ interest and does not gratify them as usual. The product is unsettling and stirs up some hypersensitive responses and Chesterton pointed us to why. Psychologically, Dickens was in a bad place. This is why critical opinion splinters and why the novel has a different value for each reader. When we look closely at this period in his life and then at the text, we will see both as liminal; the was in an unsteady threshold moment. As someone once said about the neurotic twentieth-century theater director Antonin Artaud, Dickens “was not entirely himself” in 1843 . To investigate this we will juxtapose descriptions of Dickens’s own mental state, his text, and the way the novel affects readers to see why Martin Chuzzlewit comes to us like the nerve-wracking sea voyage Dickens had just taken to America, a bad trip.
his is the only novel for which Dickens proudly proclaimed a strict theme, that would control his impulses—Selfishness with a capital ‘S.’ In Dombey, yes the theme is pride but at its center Florence, an abused child, excites most readers’ unquestioning empathy. Here there is no center: Dickens’s attention is on the World. It is his only novel that leaves England to go to America and perhaps that is why he leaned on he needed his large theme to “constrain” him (qtd. in Ingham x). People had said his novels were too wide-ranging, “baggy” as James said. Dickens was sure that a more well-organized work à la Thackeray would win him readers, so he vowed to follow Selfishness closely and “resist temptation” (Ingham x). This brings up two questions: why did he need constraint, and what temptations was he really resisting? At any rate, it didn’t work: he bragged it was his best book just before they told him it was his worst seller.
Chuzzlewit is known as an unevenly written picaresque novel in which impressionable young Martin comes of age in a world of hypocrisy. Martin’s relatives Seth Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit lead the rascals in England and assorted blowhards are Dickens’s send-up of the United States. Surely the novel boasts successful creations, notably the comic ones Mrs. Gamp, undertaker Mould, and young Bailey who say and do whatever they want. But our concern is not with them. Vital, funny, busy and very British, they float between the novel’s polarized worlds of Very Bad People and Very Good People and thrive in their world of healthy Dickensian energy. These three separate worlds are the problem.
This is the most strained time in Dickens’s writing life, and he is simply not the Inimitable. He complains that “a wrong kind of fire” is burning in him, a “red hot anger.” The American episodes contain the fiercest passages he would ever write (Forster IV, 2). Writing for monthly publication was nerve-wracking; Angus Wilson calls it a compulsion (qtd. in Maurer 122) and with Chuzzlewit Dickens gives the impression he was not ready each month. He is “dejected, sullen, horribly cross” (Mankowitz 116), “overwrought…in a difficulty….all day in Chuzzlewit agonies” (Forster IV, 2). While writing Martin Chuzzlewit, this eminent Victorian with four children also had on his mind a married man’s most anxious thought: if he still loved his wife. Catherine gave birth to their fifth child and at first he wouldn’t even look at it. It starts to make sense that Martin Chuzzlewit made Chesterton sad.
He wanted it to be pivotal: the more confidence he gained from his widening audience, the more philosophical he wanted to become, and of course the material for wide-reaching thought was in him. Traumatized by his parents’ neglect, at age ten he helped them pay their debts by becoming a full time factory worker. Now in 1840 he had climbed the Empire’s great ladder and his realistic vision of English industrial society was maturing: it was a complex, tragicomic, even doomed human system. This vision comes forth in Dombey, David, and Bleak House, but with Martin he lost a step. He did not know America enough to write about it and, more importantly, he hated the place as much as loved it — they were stealing his books! So his coming expertise at capturing human pretension is here marred by anger; the human comedy is mean. We feel him clicking nervously back and forth between characters with different approaches to life who live in separate worlds. At least in England his poles, very bad/very good, selfish/caring, are represented by characters he knew whereas he satirizes his Americans as types. Compare this to his send-up of English bureaucracy, the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit: satire from a loving almost patriotic point of view. We know the Office will never change, but his satire of America shouts at us that their habits must change!
He has trouble starting, feels “the spice of the Devil,” can’t concentrate (Letters 473). He bursts out that “Chuzzlewit is in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories!” (Forster IV, 2), but it just is not. It is a book with a schism. In his distraction he planned one book, but when completed it was two. The first about the vulgar Chuzzlewits and rough Americans is ruled by his strict Selfish theme. But there is another book ruled by Dickens’s natural, gushing feeling for goodness. He sliced Chuzzlewit in half. In one part characters wear social masks to make money and in the other characters are caring and to this reader more real and more interesting. The young hero’s mind (and the author’s?) is split between selfishness and selflessness, so the two books battle—and this happens inside the reader too. Each ends up reading his or her own novel and speaking about that object in odd, idiosyncratic ways. Dickens was in what Leslie Fiedler calls a “psychic crisis” (46) that we can term decompensation, “the functional deterioration of a previously working structure or system” (“Decompensation”). One sign of this is that unlike most of his novels in which everyone seems to know everyone else, good and bad here take little notice of each other. The un-homogenized halves bring up strong feelings for readers. Critics take sides passionately over these two separated life-approaches, selfishness/caring. More than a “read,” Martin Chuzzlewit becomes a Situation for writer and reader together and casts light upon an uncanny bond between the two.
Three Bad Signs
here are three signs that Dickens was not entirely himself: the novel’s big idea, the language, and the anger. No other novel he wrote is ruled by such a dry thought: “…Selfishness…and to what a grim giant it may grow” (Dickens 783). He held on so tightly to this message that he squeezed life out of the novel. At the start of his five previous, Dickens had sent warm invitations to readers to join his characters in their worlds, while here from his first sarcastic recitation of their family history it is obvious he does not like the Chuzzlewits: he makes up a past for them that reads as inauthentically as anything any of them will do or say. The first chapter’s most powerful statement is in fact the narrator’s dismissal of the whole family the book is named after. If he had made this mistake with Nicholas Nickleby, he would have had Nicholas’s selfish and ridiculous uncle Ralph Nickleby be his prime focus and pushed Nicholas, his wonderful mother and his sister to the back. Yet this choice to be sarcastic and dismissive has value for some. Steven Marcus is pleased that by having his narrator mock “the enormous amount of bravery, wisdom, eloquence, virtue, gentle birth, and true nobility…” of the Chuzzlewits (Dickens 14), Dickens makes the point that language can deceive (217). But Dickens’s sarcasm soon wears.
In Chapter II we are introduced to the lead hypocrite, Seth Pecksniff, a Chuzzlewit cousin of middle age who lives with two spoiled daughters in Wiltshire near Salisbury. But read closely and notice that something within Dickens resists his own controlling idea. He intends to illustrate Pecksniff’s selfish lifestyle by describing his entrance into Wiltshire after a work day, but his writerly attention is diverted by two more interesting characters in the area, the sun and wind. Suddenly his writing soars and the personified forces become truer characters than the Pecksniffs. Ironically, he adds that the natural elements are struggling to be themselves as they stir up typical Dickensian mischief — just as the writer is struggling. In the human scene, Dickens will continue his aloof tone, but the sun and wind are purposeful, energetic, and alive with personality. They think, they are subversive, and they literally pick their own fight with Pecksniff. The wind “takes advantage” of his open front door, enters his home before he does, shuts the door in his face, and knocks him down (21). In these few pages there is something heroic. Dickens’s genius was impish, improvisatory, not satiric or idea-driven. Part of him could not help but be distracted. The sun and wind read like his nature struggling just below consciousness and sending him a signal that ‘he’ will only stand for so much of these Chuzzlewits. His genius is struggling against its constraints. He is the wind who makes the stream “break into a cheerful smile,” fires the village forge, and finally lays Pecksniff out. He is the sun, like Dickens at his desk ‘struggling” but who finds a way to break out in “a sudden flash of memory or spirit kindling up the mind of an old man.” This nature writing sheds a moment’s “glory upon the scene, in which its departed youth and freshness seemed to live again” (pp.18-21).
Contrasting the strength of nature with his own externalized, selfish point of view on the hypocrites, we come on the second weakness of Chuzzlewit, awkward language. Uncharacteristically, Dickens as narrator even declares he must keep his distance from Pecksniff and use proxies to describe him, whether it is “Pecksniff’s slanderers,” his “admirers”, “enemies,” or simply ‘some people” who presumably know him better than Dickens does (Chapter Two). Compared to other Dickens villains — awful Quilp, twisted Heep — Pecksniff is thinly written and has but a coward’s touch of evil. But since he is the main carrier of the novel’s idea and because Dickens does not like him, in describing him Dickens resorts to cloddish, repetitious nouns and adjectives as in “Mr. Pecksniff was a moral man. So he was. Perhaps there never was a more moral man…” (23). In contrast, his nature writing zooms to iambic pentameter to describe the light in trees outside Pecksniff’s house which “mantling in among their swarthy branches/ used them as foils to set its brightness off/ and aid the luster of the dying day/ A moment and its glory was no more/ The sun went down beneath the long dark lines…”(19).
Fortunately in Chuzzlewit language flashes out regularly, but the glory is not usually about the darkly Bad and Selfish. It is about his sunny good folks or the ones who have had their goodness stolen. This actually leads to two separate dictions. Dickens writes about bad people satirically, but he gives the good people infectious energy and sincerity. The two dictions clash, but what is worse is that the two types of characters live in separate sectors of the book and only talk to one other. We know that in Dickens’s personality, selfishness and kindness clashed and in Chuzzlewit this split stands in a lurid light. The is not the good/evil dichotomy of Dickens’s novels where these two aspects of humanity fascinated him equally and crashed within the hearts of many characters. To depict goodness in Chuzzlewit Dickens follows his heart. But for hundreds of pages, to show evil selfishness he rises only to mockery.
Dickens constrains his love of language. His natural linguistic energy is sapped by the bombast he has to create for the selfish. This highest master of English since Shakespeare, who willy-nilly could create a personal language for anyone, makes a losing linguistic plan here which he himself points out when he describes the way Chuzzlewits speak. They will use any word that occurs to them “as having a good sound, and rounding a sentence well, without much care for its meaning,” (25) as in Pecksniff’s pompous proclamation to an assembly of Chuzzlewits in which he names himself their old patriarch’s protector only because he wants the man’s money for himself:
“Oh vermin! Oh blood-suckers! Is it not enough that you have embittered the existence of an individual wholly unparalleled in the biographical records of amiable persons; but must you now, even now, when he has made his election, and reposed his trust in a Numble but at least sincere and disinterested relative; must you now vermin and swarmers…must you now vermin and swarmers (for I WILL repeat it), taking advantage of his unprotected state, assemble round him from all quarters, as wolves and vultures, and other animals of the feathered tribe assemble round…?” 
Words, words, words and it goes on. Here are five different Selfish characters in three different chapters on two continents. The rhetoric runs into one common trough.
First a Chuzzlewit chiseler in Wiltshire:
“My friend Slyme…the highest-minded, the most independent-spirited, most original, spiritual, classical, talented, the most thoroughly Shakespearian, if not Miltonic, and at the same time the most disgustingly-unappreciated dog I know.” 
Then an American lady:
“To be presented is indeed a thrilling moment is it in its impressiveness on what we call our feelings. But why we call them so, or why impressed they are, or if impressed they are at all, or if at all we are, or if there really is, oh gasping one.” 
And another American lady:
Mind and matter…glide swift into the vortex of immensity. Howls the sublime, and softly sleeps the calm Ideal, in the whispering chambers of Imagination. To hear it, sweet it is.” 
And finally two pulp journalists in New York:
“the hundred heads of the Hydra of Corruption now groveling in the dust beneath the lance of Reason, and spouting up to the universal arch above us, its sanguinary gore,” said Mr. Brick quoting his last article.
“The libation of freedom, Brick,” hinted the colonel.
Must sometimes be quaffed in blood, colonel,” cried Brick. 
On the other hand, the Inimitable shows up in passages where the author loves the language because he loves the people and the moment. A widow blooms:
Years ago [she] passed through her state of weeds, and burst into flower again; and in full bloom she had continued ever since; and in full bloom she was now; with roses on her ample skirts, and roses on her bodice, roses in her cap, roses in her cheeks, — aye, and roses, worth the gathering too, on her lips, for that matter. She had still a bright black eye, and jet black hair; was comely, dimpled, plump, and tight as a gooseberry; and though she was not exactly what the world calls young, you may make an affidavit, on trust, before any mayor or magistrate in Christendom, that there are a great many young ladies in the world (blessings on them one and all!) whom you wouldn’t like half as well, or admire half as much. 
And when Dickens finds one of his female creations attractive, watch out. It cannot be a coincidence that after pages of Self-speeches, a young lady’s loveliness distracts a writer from his writing like the sun had before:
Tom’s attention wandered from his writing every moment. First, she tripped down-stairs into the kitchen for the flour, then for the pie-board, then for the eggs, then for the butter, then for a jug of water, then for the rolling-pin, then for a pudding-basin, then for the pepper, then for the salt; making a separate journey for everything, and laughing every time she started off afresh. When all the materials were collected she was horrified to find she had no apron on, and so ran up-stairs by way of variety, to fetch it. She didn”t put it on up-stairs, but came dancing down with it in her hand; and…it took an immense time to arrange; having to be carefully smoothed down beneath…and to be gathered up into little plaits by the strings before it could be tied, and to be tapped, rebuked, and wheedled, at the pockets, before it would set right, which at last it did, and when it did — but never mind; this is a sober chronicle. Oh never mind! 
If one sees the difference in these two dictions, one must be taken aback by what many critics write about the language. A score of them ignore, criticize, or deny the high energy with which Dickens writes about good folk, and the same critics usually privilege the exploiters’ repetitive speeches. For instance, like Marcus several critics are thrilled by the point that the hypocrites’ verbiage shows us how to lie. They seem not to care that in order to fill pages with deceiving public relations talk Dickens suppresses his love for the varieties of English. Biographer Peter Ackroyd praises these declamations as a neat way of “hiding reality” (398); Robert Polhemus sees a grander plan and says their speeches are Dickens’s critique of Capitalism itself; he enjoys that all Chuzzlewits and their American counterparts are “little-souled…capitalists of language…. monopolists of talk …engaging in a private enterprise of words …to drown out other voices” (101). People do have little souls, but before souls do these characters even have egos? Egos are not only the self-conscious mouthing of “wild whirling words” (Polhemus). Egos come with life. Dickens knew ego. Marked for life by his egotistical father, he enshrined John Dickens in David Copperfield’s Micawber whose self-serving words are not satiric but lovable, pathetic, poetic, inventive attempts to protect himself. Dickens’s father and Wilkins Micawber had big, bad, conflicted egos: they could help and hurt the same people in the same day or even at the same meal. Not one of the characters set up by Dickens to represent Selfishness in Chuzzlewit is as genuine, distinctive, or as fully realized as Micawber.
As if Dickens agrees there is only so much silly talk a reader can take, after 120 pages of Chuzzle-witticisms, a more exciting language comes in as in this scene when two Chuzzlewits slink away after borrowing money. The two honest lenders, Tom and Mark, look after them and analyze the Chuzzlewits in down to earth dialogue:
“I was just a-saying, sir, that if one could live by it…that would be the sort of service for me. Waiting on such individuals as them would be better than grave-digging, sir.”
“And staying here would be better than either, Mark,…so take my advice, and continue to swim easily in smooth water.”
“It’s too late to take it now, sir… “I am off to-morrow morning.”
“I shall go up to London, sir.”
“What to be?”
Dickens has already marked Mark for us as the opposite of the Selfish: Mark believes he is too happy, and he will go to London to test his “jollyness:”
“Well! I don”t know yet, sir.…If I could get into a wicked family, I might do myself justice; but the difficulty is to make sure of one’s ground, because a young man can”t very well advertise that he wants a place and wages an”t so much an object as a wicked sitivation; can he, sir?....An envious family,” pursued Mark; “or a quarrelsome family, or a malicious family, or even a good out-and-out mean family, would open a field of action as I might do something in…. Howsever, I must wait and see what turns up, sir; and hope for the worst” (116).
Finally here is Mark Tapley, the perfect foil to the hypocrites. Kind-hearted, frank, happy, Mark has a sense of humor too. He says he is so content with his way of life that he yearns for a job with wretched people to test his own jollity. Dickensian reader, think back to the more well-known novels. Remember when the action speeds up, the laughs start and humanity trips over itself, hope, innocence, and desire flying everywhere. That’s Mark. Unfortunately he and the hypocrites are in their separated worlds and the novel reads as if Dickens has placed cardboard between them: words inspired by authentic yearning are almost never spoken in the same rooms as the lies. Dorothy Van Ghent promised in her famous “Todger’s” essay, that “there is no discontinuity” in the Dickens world. She assures us he always finds connections between people “from opposite sides of great gulfs” (428). Then how did Dickens stand for this split? His opposite sides here stare at us like two faces of the author and this split is not lost on the critics. But many of them lean towards the Bad People and call the Good People lifeless. A more convincing argument might be that what the good ones lack is context and that their author does not give them enough attention.
The third sign of his predicament is Dickens’s “red-hot anger” (Letters 493). Leslie Fiedler says Dickens is writing against his audience (46). Long segments in the novel are full of contempt. His anger leads his imagination and he responds literally with bloody assaults by good characters on the bad; not righteous floggings like Nicholas Nickleby gives the child-hating school teacher, but awkward, gratuitous swats, trips, and hits. For instance selfish Jonas Chuzzlewit, whom we have hated all along, is laid out without thought or malice by innocent, naïve Tom Pinch (Mark’s best friend). Because the two men hardly know one another, the scene reads as if Dickens is simply getting back at Jonas, leaving him “sprawling in the ditch. In the momentary struggle for the stick, [“good Tom Pinch”] had brought it into violent contact with his opponent’s forehead; and the blood welled out profusely from a deep cut on the temple.” Tom’s response is innocent and rather clueless: “Are you hurt? …I am very sorry. Lean on me for a moment” (374). Good meets Bad. Good accidentally hits Bad. Bad gets angry. Good soon leaves scene confused.
When Dickens changes the scene to America he is furious. Why did he write about the States? He had just come back from there ill and distressed; America in fact did to him what it does to many writers: discovered him, praised him, pawed him, and exhausted him. Weeks after his return, in American Notes, he let the Yankees have it; but it didn’t stop, they fired back. None other than Walt Whitman whose New York tabloid Dickens had insulted while visiting, published a fake anti-American letter, signed it Boz, and stirred the city up against the great man. Other aspects of Dickens’s life headed downhill. At home his father made secret deals with lawyers to borrow from his son’s account. Dickens’s publisher cut fifty pounds a month of his pay because Chuzzlewit was a bust, and taking money from Dickens was like forcing open a baby’s fist to steal his candy (Ackroyd 395).
To woo back English readers, Dickens planned a kind of reality show stunt. On his restless night-walks he probably fantasized sales-boosting headlines like, “Dickens’s Young Hero Visits America! Almost Dies!” But it was a bad trip. Dickens used his own experiences here as he often did, but Martin is no Pip or David Copperfield; they are English boys on their home soil; imagine Dickens sending them to America, starving them, and almost killing them in an Ohio swamp.
As a reaction to his own impulsive plot twists, Dickens’s feelings rise in strong sympathy with these two naive Englishmen he has sent on a wild goose chase to the States: “Cast out of their own land without a hand to aid them, come into an unknown world children in helplessness” (355). The experience of these men in an alien land is harsh and the book must have sickened many English readers with its loathsome pictures. America is “maimed, lame, foul, full of sores, ulcers, running riot in the Bad, turning its back on Good” (354), it is one “huge lie and mighty theft;” (266). The swamp where they build a sad cabin is a domain “of Giant Despair,” a jungle (377) where all is dying in “fetid vapour, hot and sickening” (381). “The earth, the air, the vegetation, and the water” teem with death (529). A tree has neither “earth nor water at its roots, but putrid matter formed of the pulpy offal of the two and of their own corruption” (363). These images did not boost sales. And we wonder whether that part of Dickens that held tight to money like a Yankee swindler was his shadow side. Was part of Dickens an ugly American?
Everyone says his homecoming before he started writing led to renewed love for England and “the loveliness, the tidiness of fields and villages” (Smiley 44). But the signs are that Dickens felt strange, displaced. By most accounts he slipped into an obsessive case of self-concern. Forster tells us it hurt when early sales showed a dip in his fortunes. He moaned the publisher was rubbing his eyelids with salt. Then he fought back perversely. ‘I will pay them down!” he declared. “They must reduce my salary!” (Forster IV, 2).
he “writer’s self shows itself only in his books,” says Proust (qtd. in Sexton), so what was Dickens’s Self like in 1843? He was, say both his friend Forster (IV, 2) and his modern biographer Ackroyd (395-421) wretched, unfit, uneasy, unsettled, tender, vulnerable, weary and restless. Having written continuously for eight years, he tells Forster “it is impossible to go on working the brain to that extent forever…it leaves a horrible despondency.” He has “a bad temper” and is bothered by facial spasms. He still attends London social functions for liberal causes but starts to hate them. At a dinner for the Charterhouse Square Infirmary the rich are ‘slobbering, snorting cattle.” During the day he tours philanthropists through London’s slums, but it made him sick to breathe the ‘sickening atmosphere, taint, dirt, pestilence, howling and shrieking” (Ackroyd 405). Did he feel trapped? “Plucked and torn to pieces” by family, he contemplated leaving England again (Ackroyd 397) and “the shadow of John Dickens, an appalling burden and nightmare, seems to hang over this novel” (398). Dickens was also falling out of love with Catherine, an “irritation and annoyance,” a “Donkey” (Ackroyd 395). When he goes to parties, he leaves her at home and starts flirting heavily. Is that why he constrained himself, wrote of that Devil Selfishness, vowed to use his theme to “resist temptation (qtd. in Ingham x), and punctuated his book with devils, serpents, snakes, Envy and Pride (Curran 58)?
In these circumstances, Dickens could not honor his own jolly characters, but we should do that here. Dickens could not see that his good characters give readers more convincing information about evil than his Bad types and his capital letter sins. But here writer and readers flow together: he and most of the critics undervalue the good characters. It takes some digging to even give them their due because Dickens’s angry idea—perhaps simply his plain anger — keeps them hidden. In the other novels it is certainly easier to enjoy the hearty energy of people struggling honestly. One dramatic strategy he uses in other works is to pit a self-centered man or woman who tends towards evil directly against much happier (we might call them healthier) people who tend towards good. Quilp is pitted against Little Nell, Heep goes against David Copperfield. These opposites inhabit the same world but live differently. They encounter one another many times in the same place at the same moment and act according to their natures, and this makes for both Dickens’s drama and his comedy. Maniacal Quilp stalks Nell and her grandfather beyond London, but the naïve pair stay safe because they are searching for security of a higher sort. Miserable Heep looks out for his main chance while working alongside David but inadvertently teaches David the meaning of righteous anger when he crosses the line and threatens the David’s friend Agnes. Here are four possible reasons most readers savor these novels more than Chuzzlewit.
1. We see that good and bad happen naturally;
2. We are convinced that there really is such a thing as this contest;
3. We believe with Dickens that the stakes in it are very high;
4. We believe that goodness has a few more tools to help it survive.
With patience a sympathetic reader will discover these good guys of Chuzzlewit as if they are a village of little people. In fact if things had been different, Martin Chuzzlewit could have been called Tom Pinch or Mark Tapley. These two and the other characters who care about goodness and fairness really do have more attractive physical presences than the hypocrites. They do not pose in parlors but walk and ride with vital enjoyment, travel far to meet friends, do errands, help others, eat and drink heartily, fall in love, pine, worry, have regrets and work hard. Yet Dickens has given them no power to drive the novel. If Mark had as many chances to get into predicaments and to reflect on them as Dickens gives the murderer Jonas, Mark’s jolliness would have moved the plot and made him a hero. But the good characters are not given free access, Dickens constrains them. It is not the case, as Patricia Ingham argues, that “passivity [here] leaves [the Good] no capacity to exert an influence on others let alone on events.” Rather it is Dickens’s unconscious choice to render them “powerless” (xxiv). Like a malicious god he saddles Mark with a personality handicap that makes him liminal and makes Mark think it is his fault that he will never get the chance to find out if jolly-ness triumphs. Also Mark’s servant status is used against him, disqualifying him from being a participant in the novel’s race for prestige. In contrast, in Bleak House Dickens builds up Jo even though he is a street sweeper. Jo works every day, sick and alone, yet Dickens gives him his full share of the text. Dickens feels for him, and Jo is honored by being buried in the same cemetery as the rich, pathetic Lady Dedlock whose life-dilemma is thus equalized with his. In Chuzzlewit there is no equality for Mark. He is young Martin’s assistant, so critics call him the novel’s Sancho Panza, but he could be a budding Don Quixote. Far more than the title character, he is on the lookout to help the unfortunate, teach courage, and earn his way to Heaven:
“I”m always a-bein”, sometimes a-doin”, and continually a-sufferin”.”
“Not jolly yet?” asked Tom, with a smile.
“… Human Natur” is in a conspiracy again” me; I can”t get on. I shall have to leave it in my will, sir, to be wrote upon my tomb: “He was a man as might have come out strong if he could have got a chance. But it was denied him.” .
Goodness is almost impossible in this novel. In a way this is necessary, for Dickens is putting his own optimism to the test as he reaches towards a new tragicomic vision. But in this preview, Dickens will not give the good room to breathe.
He tries. At two different times, Mark and his honorable friend Tom appear alone in their villages after a crisis and the townspeople swarm about: “Boys, dogs, men, busy people and idlers,” all the children come out to give back their greetings ‘sevenfold” and to smile (119). Awkward and gullible as Tom is, Dickens is a fan. The critic Stuart Curran sees this: “all of God’s creatures love Tom” (62). For this thirty-something assistant to greedy Pecksniff, Dickens pours on the sentiment and has Nature agree. That sun we saw in the beginning appears twice over Tom, streaming “out in radiant majesty” on a misty day. And here as before—and also like Tom — it struggles. But Tom hears the sun saying, “I can’t stand it any longer: I must have a look.” It blazes and completes the natural circle. “The mist fled off before it…and the brook ran briskly off to bear the tidings to the water-mill, three miles away” (73). The evidence is great in favor of Tom. A friend says, “if ever there was a worthy soul alive, Pinch and no other is his name” (621). Dickens told his illustrator to make Tom the center of the frontispiece.
If we follow Tom, we see where the novel might have gone. Innocent Tom fully trusts Pecksniff, but after discovering the hypocrite’s evil ways, Tom leaves to London to make his fortune and see if integrity will get him anywhere. But Tom’s adventures are pretty well hidden by the shadow of Dickens’s theme (see page 497 of the novel on which Dickens shouts the words three times, “Self, Self, Self!”). Tom’s charming sister Ruth, whose beautifully made beef pudding is the unexpected star of Chapter 39, seems to be invisible to most critics and another good character, Mary’s patient decency does not compute. The bachelor John Westlock’s admiration for all these good characters, his friends, even can compare on a small scale to the power of David Copperfield’s admiration for the good Pegottys. But this is hidden. The good are in a bind. Greed keeps winning. No wonder Chesterton was sad.
eading is intersubjective. From the school of relational psychotherapy, this term helps us appreciate reading as the “interplay of two psychological worlds” (Stolorow and Atwood 103). We look now at the relation of what Dickens put into Martin Chuzzlewit and what readers take out of it. We have covered possible reasons Dickens constrained himself, the emotions that made their way into Chuzzlewit, and we believe his state of mind at the time of writing led to the choice to split the worlds of good and bad. We have also seen readers’ responses to the novel swing between hurrahs and put-downs. But the book brings out in critics an even stranger response as if it seduces many into dropping professional objectivity and including in their commentaries their personal stance on Good and Bad as well as advice on how to get on in the world.
If the “writer’s self shows itself only in his books,” of course the reader’s self reacts. This is what Jane Smiley shows when she calls a novel “an intense experience of prolonged intimacy with another consciousness” (43). What is the reader’s experience with Martin Chuzzlewit? Does the fact that Dickens’s mood affected the novel in turn affect the reader? Dickens always had and will have unique power over us. In Chuzzlewit he expects us to give center stage to Selfishness and to accept that good-natured characters will be marginalized, even defeated. But the experience of Chuzzlewit’s readers is more complicated than that. As with any reading experience, readers bring to this novel their own experiences of hurt, help, power, submission. Chuzzlewit must bring up in some private notions about their own power versus the power of others while it stirs up unexamined feelings about selfishness and about kindness. Almost all commentators feel compelled to align themselves on one side or the other of the vital question: Which is more important, caring or egotism?
It is fair that I should explain my own subjective response to the novel, which I think stems from life experience. I am happy about the characters called good: Tom, Mark, Ruth, Mary, young Martin, John Westlock and Mark’s fiancé Mrs. Lupin. To the game of life they bring no desire to bend the rules but take things as they come with frank openness. Whatever life throws them they will handle with decency and a cordial acceptance of others right to be. They fight when there is a struggle but do not look to start fights. This reads to me as attractive and important, whereas I admit I am repulsed by how the Selfish are twisted (physically too) by egotism. The novel’s idea of good relates for me to Kant. Martin Chuzzlewit’s good people “treat humanity, whether in their own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (Categorical Imperative). Moreover, the acts of the selfish characters seem like more illustrations of Kant’s points about Good and Right. For example, there are many times in the novel when people lie or when they borrow money without intending to pay it back. Kant said these actions are categorically wrong because if they were universally accepted, “no one would believe anyone and all truth would be assumed to be lies….and no person would lend money anymore as he knows that he will never be paid back” (Categorical Imperative).
Good is not a simple concept and what haggling there is by the critics over these good people! Let us look at their debate. The lightning rod is usually Tom. Dickens himself calls him wonderful and critic Yael Maurer agrees. Maurer says Tom may be “the only true man” in Chuzzlewit (120). But among his colleagues, Maurer is a minority. John Bowen states that “fondness for the selfless Tom Pinch shows a strong desire not to acknowledge the disturbing implications of the book — that the self is fictional and moral life ungrounded and arbitrary” (qtd. in Maurer 120). This declaration reads like more than critical appraisal. Bowen’s word disturbing lingers: perhaps the implications really did create a disturbance in Bowen. Is he disturbed enough to become unable to see that Tom is good-natured? Is that idea too wonderful? Bowen is making a choice when he tells us Tom should create another self he can sell to others. As for Jane Berard, she declares Tom’s persona is “a sham” (152) and Catherine Ingham calls it “a form of stupidity” (xxiv). Leslie Fiedler is so repulsed he reaches for the medical abnormality, “euchanoid,” to describe Tom and lets us in on the fact that Dickens “secretly hates” him (46). The derision usually comes to rest on Tom’s sexuality. Of course Dickens was not allowed to mention this topic, but critics grant themselves the diagnostic power to see through Tom’s actions into his sexuality. Though they say they see no interiority and hear no voice in him, they nevertheless know him well enough to say he is impotent. Catherine Ingham calls him “neutered” (xxiv). They twist their favored evidence too, the scene in which Tom reflects on his unrequited love for passive Mary, another man’s fiancé, and remembers the “bright epoch” that began for him when she “touched his organ” (378). We see a possible sexual pun here (Steig qtd. in Lougy 27), but how much value will we give Dickens’s word-play and how much will we see this as a literal scene about a musical instrument? To make their argument, critics downplay that in the scene Dickens is speaking of an actual pipe organ which Tom, an ardent musician, plays for free at church and that becomes an even more important part of his life after her touch. Read in this light, the scene tells how passionately Tom takes his life, his music and his unanswered love. Critics using the sexual imagery to humiliate Tom show us writer-reader intersubjectivity at work. These readers seem to read into the passage and their minds then build personal meanings for personal ends. Mark Tapley comes under attack too. Mark puts others before himself, so james Kincaid calls him a masochist. One must be careful of the words one uses; this word pigeonholes the character and subtly thwarts him as effectively as Dickens’s plot. But this contumely is Chuzzlewit’s peculiar effect. Where does it come from? Dickens’s Selfish characters could be acting on us like a sociopath on a youtube video that, after we have turned off the computer, disturb our thoughts and ignite reactions in a primitive part of our nervous systems, leading to words and phrases that force on us a particular outlook like ‘living demands selfishness’ or ‘the Good are freaks.’
One critic focuses on his particularly private Pinch problem. In a 1994 op-ed piece, Neil Ascherson sees Tom as a good man but is distressed that few today will find him so. While some of us feel fine seeing Tom as a role model, Ascherson bemoans the fact that today’s world would eat him alive. He wonders sadly if “entirely good people were once both possible and plausible.” He even turns in anger on contemporary life: “only a thoroughly bilious and melancholy society like ours could doubt their existence.” When Ascherson realizes that he lives in a world where “the thought of a human being who…lacks all ambition except to see others happy is positively frightening,” it seems to bring him to tears. And since the strange interplay between writer and critics has become so intense, we do not know if his realization comes through Dickens or from reading the critics.
Do critics feel their own Selves on trial here? Fiedler aggressively calls both Tom and his friend Mark, “pallid, disembodied, humorless, and voiceless” (42). Maurer says both men invite us to “return to a human and more humane notion of self and selfhood.” Maurer even turns against the anti-Toms. To him the book’s world is not satiric but abnormal because the idea of being human is “perverted almost beyond recognition” (120).
Which is it? Are hypocrites honest or toxic? Won over and caught up in the darker of these two messages from Dickens, a worrisome number of critics choose the latter and end up sounding like Chuzzlewits. Unashamed, Kincaid enjoys Pecksniff’s hypocrisy as “much more humane” than Tom’s virtue. Kincaid says the good characters miss the point that hypocrites know how to live, that their fakery is civilized and brings “restraint, gentility, courtesy, and tradition, which allow for beauty, harmonious social existence, and true identity” to the world (Part IV). This view is so passionate it stands to reason that it might be traced to Kincaid’s personal experience. But I am stunned. Do we live in the same world? Curran is on my side, but he gets worked up and then embarrasses me when he suggests we “exterminate” the Chuzzlewits so that Tom can “inherit the earth” (62, my italics).
We can pit Curran for goodness (63-65) against Kincaid for cynicism (Introduction): Curran says the novel shows love can survive evil because it proceeds “from a good heart disciplined by suffering.” Kincaid says the novel “rejects the whole doctrine of natural goodness.” Curran’s novel shows us “paradise regained by the few who have learned the meaning of selflessness,” Kincaid’s novel shows us “Dickens is much less certain of the possibilities of human communion and goodness.” Curran’s novel shows that Tom and Mark are cultivating a “paradise within,” Kincaid’s novel shows that Pecksniff “is more concerned with beauty than morality,” so he “represents the possibility of free pleasure” and is leading a refined life (Part Three).
Here is Branwen Pratt on behalf of cynicism and the Bad:
The good people in Chuzzlewit resign individuality in favor of conformity; they are selfless in an almost literal sense. It is impossible to identify “with so much earnest, unalloyed goodness employed in the service of such meretricious [N.B. from a root word for prostitute] wishes. We emotionally reject those who, in search of virtue, tolerate the intolerable way of life society has ordained for them” and ‘subdue their natures to authority, middle-class morality, and financial success, and so perpetuate the diminishing of the individual from generation to generation. 
Impossible to identify with? Diminished individuals? The critics have now asked us to get out our scales of morality. We must ask, who in this book is subduing their nature to middle class morality and financial success? The Good ones? The Bad ones? A great deal depends on the answer.
What About Ruth?
In defense of the hearty characters we now present Tom’s sister Ruth, a last example of goodness who inspires Dickens to such an extent that he showers her with both realism and fantasy. Of course Ruth is an object of controversy for all modern readers. Even Curran who advocates for selflessness cannot admire her as a character because Ruth is “palling in the flesh” (52). We will consider Ruth a test. If she is palling the reader will likely be repulsed by the good in the book and see the hypocrites as making a valid Hobbesian point that the world is nasty. If Ruth reads to us as real (enough) and the reader feels the value in Dickens’s flourishes on her behalf, the reader probably feels that the goodness in the novel is life-affirming. For what it is worth, Dickens defends all Chuzzlewit’s characters as “absolutely true” (Ackroyd 400). But let Ruth speak for herself.
It starts realistically. She works in London in a bad situation any teacher would understand as governess to a spoiled girl whose parents have indoctrinated her with such hatred of her inferiors she is unable to learn. Tom rescues her from this job. Of course, no surprise, his chivalry is denigrated in many reviews as too Victorian. But look at Chapter 36 and see if it is not anchored in realism and does not read as an authentic appreciation of a person brought up to be decent who expects the same of others. Tom enters the real house of a brass and copper founder through a real door with a “great bell-handle.” After being believably snarled at by the butler, he faces a family that exhibits creditable snobbishness, and it only takes him a minute to see the impossible situation Ruth is in. He surprises us by being assertive and explaining eloquently to the father how unnecessary it is for his sister to undergo this stress: “I speak without passion but with extreme indignation and contempt for such a course of treatment.” Tom then escorts his sister out like a good brother after she has retrieved her bonnet. The scene adds a pragmatic critique by Tom on a certain way of parenting: “No man can expect his children to respect what he degrades.” And Tom’s parting lines to the father about money also ring true:
“If you imagine that the payment of an annual sum of money gives you [the right to employ my sister], you immensely exaggerate its power and value. Your money is the least part of your bargain in such a case. You may be punctual to that in half a second on the clock, and yet be Bankrupt.”
Immediately after this, Tom and Ruth stand in semi-shock on a London street and plan their next move. Newcomers to the city, they set out to look for an apartment, find a nook in Islington with a triangular parlor, pay a month’s rent, and then go out to buy food. In these apartments Ruth creates the aforementioned beefsteak pudding after a realistic and charming scene at the butcher’s, and she and Tom’s rich friend John fall in love even though Ruth has flour on her hands and a messy apron. Is this hard to identify with? For critics to complain that Ruth is insipid means either that they did not read carefully, are solidly anti-Victorian, or have been instructed by their peers that they are expected to sneer.
There is one more thing a reader will either accept with sympathy or deny with disdain in Dickens’s depiction of Ruth; touches he adds to her story which, like her sweetness, have long been objects of a critical standoff. What he does for Ruth he does for no other character in Chuzzlewit. During her happiest moments he bathes her in fantasy. It happens twice and always at the Temple Fountain where he contrasts the grimy law buildings with sparrows, skylarks, and water drops that dance for Ruth. Reminding us of the sun and wind that played mischievously in Wiltshire, the fountain’s water drops peep out then plunge down to hide themselves like bashful butterflies at the appearance of pretty Ruth and her beloved; they make dimples that merge into one another and swell to a cheerful smile. These scenes are so assertively sentimental today’s readers say they must pause to laugh or catch their breath. This is understandable. But can we deny the energy in Dickens’s embellishments when we know it was an essential way he presented and made us feel his world? Can we not enjoy the droplets and birds? Hasn’t Ruth earned their support by leaving her job, taking on London with her brother, and falling in love?
At Ruth’s fountain we end this first installment of a quest to understand the mind of Dickens and ourselves in relation to him. Chuzzlewit is flawed, and for reasons we have tried to tease out he wielded a sledgehammer in it along with his jollity. It will never be the first of his works, but it shows Dickens struggling in the midst of a personal crisis that might have destroyed a weaker man.
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Last modified 8 June 2007