decorative initial 'M' artin Chuzzlewit is Dickens's funniest novel, but it establishes itself as a comedy only on its own very special terms. It rejects, or at least treats with suspicion, many of the values the world of The Pickwick Papers depended upon: the naturally good heart, the acceptance of simplicity, the belief in youth, and the denial of artful dealing as the basis of the new society. It moves much further than Pickwick towards an accommodation with a sophisticated world of experience and comes very close to building a comic society out of that world. It is very nearly Dickens's last attempt to present a comic solution, and Martin Chuzzlewit could be called a nineteenth-century version of The Alchemist, with a similar broadly tolerant norm, There is a similar realism, even darkness, in this novel and a similar sense of mature acceptance. Its central tendency is expressed perfectly by its most important moral agent! "'Ah! what a wale of grief!' cried Mrs. Gamp, possessing herself of the bottle and glass" (XIX). The "wale of grief" is fully realized here and used as a basis not for a removal to Dingley Dell, to Nell's tomb, or to anarchy, but for a [132/132] realization of the joy of "the bottle and glass". But while Mrs. Gamp is the central moral figure in the novel, she is not the only one and her views are not unopposed. She represents, in fact, that important morality which is decidedly anti-moralistic. It is the same unmoralistic morality which controls the comic tendency of the novel and which makes us respond to the seriousness behind John Westlock's abrupt challenge to Tom Pinch:

"You haven't half enough of the devil in you. Half enough! You haven't any." "Well!" said Pinch, with a sigh, "I don't know, I'm sure. It's a compliment to say so. If I haven't, I suppose, I'm all the better for it." "All the better!" repeated his companion tartly: "all the worse, you mean to say." [II]

Later Tom really does become slightly more devilish, even witty (i.e. aggressive), in response to his sister's pudding, but he often seems, particularly in the early parts of the novel, too traditionally good for the more sophisticated code, and he suggests thereby another and competing morality: a rigid and conventional system directly opposed to the worldly code of Mrs. Gamp.

What happens, it seems clear, is that Dickens's original didactic design "to show, more or less by every person introduced, the number and variety of humours and vices that have their roots in selfishness" (Forster's Life, i. 274; for a reading of the novel in terms of selfishness, see Johnson, i. 469-70) becomes subsumed in a more subtle exploration of the development of personality and the growth of that personality away from its natural egoistic rapacity toward social accommodation and civility. In the process a whole new morality grows up which makes the original view of selfishness seem hopelessly puerile and which makes old Martin Chuzzlewit, as the chief instrument in the development of the original design, the most unsatisfactory character in all of Dickens. There is, as a result, a split between [133/134] the simple, didactic surface and the more complex sub-surface of the novel, keeping the comedy from being fully realized or satisfactorily completed. This split is most clearly apparent at the end of the novel, where both Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp are denounced by old Martin and sent packing. It is rather like Grandfather Trent denouncing Dick Swiveller or Serjeant Buzfuz humiliating Sam Weller, and it is just about as convincingly realized; for by this point the novel belongs not to old Martin but to Saircy and Seth, not because they are more "real" but because the morality they live by is much more humane and more adequate to the demands of the bleak world realized here than is Martin's simplistic copy-book code. As in Oliver Twist, then, the plot gets in the way of the pattern.

But there is a deeper reason for the ultimate incompleteness of the comic vision: it is never integrated or fully realized in a compact society. Though many characters find their way out of pure isolation, the result is still pictured as fragmented groups of two or three: Tom Pinch, Ruth, and John; Mr. Pecksniff and Charity; Martin and Mary; Mark and Mrs. Lupin; Bailey, Poll Sweedlepipe, Mrs. Gamp, and Mrs. Harris. There is no sense in which all of these people are bound together, and the novel ultimately fails as a comedy because its socially realistic values are never socially realized. The comic society is never finally born.

Still, it nearly is, and it is a common mistake to overemphasize either the defects or the darkness of the novel. The comic vision here is one of the most mature and moving in English literature and even in its incomplete state it suggests [134/135] the outlines of a new society. These indications are far too strong to be ignored; they are too deeply implanted by our laughter. Dickens's humour had never so consistently touched such deep roots and had never been so effective. It perhaps does help upset his original design and damage somewhat the unity of the novel, but who would trade the exciting imperfection we have for the mechanical and superficial perfection implicit in the sermonizing plan Forster talks about? The humour may be disruptive, but it disrupts the fatuous and moves toward the profound. It creates such convincing accommodation to a harsh world, in fact, that one can almost accept as final the philosophy of the artful Mr. Tigg:

"Moralise as we will, the world goes on. As Hamlet says, Hercules may lay about him with his club in every possible direction, but he can't prevent the cats from making a most intolerable row on the roofs of the houses, or the dogs from being shot in the hot weather if they run about the streets unmuzzled. Life's a riddle: a most infernally hard riddle to guess, Mr. Pecksniff, My own opinion is, that like that celebrated conundrum, 'Why's a man in jail like a man out of jail?' there's no answer to it. Upon my soul and body, it's the queerest sort of thing altogether — but there's no use talking about it. Ha! ha!" [IV]

As the narrator says, this is indeed drawing a "consolatory deduction" from "gloomy premises". The premises are, however, true, and the consolation is fully earned. Our laughter, like Mr. Tigg's, protects a world of joy founded on adult values not on Mr. Pickwick's "delusions of our childish days", and Martin Chuzzlewit comes close to establishing a new kind of humour, not accounted for by Freud: one which finds laughter not in a denial of the pains of living but in an acceptance of them. Such complete and honest accommodation, however, is not ultimately possible; even the tough [135/136] Mrs. Gamp needs the support of Mrs. Harris. It may be the failure of the book to achieve this final impossible transcendence that caused G. K. Chesterton, of all Dickens's critics the most responsive to his humour, to say that the novel is, in the end, "sad" (p. 90). It seems to promise a salvation through Mrs. Gamp but comes close to dismissing her at the last minute, just as she is about to begin presiding over the new world.

Her departure and the more general fragmentariness of the ending society, then, withhold the final comic satisfaction, but it is only just at the very end that the novel turns from the basis of its humour. Long before that our laughter has in all probability created the values of that society and defined its outlines. The potential of that society is, in fact, so firmly developed that it may have enough momentum to complete itself, at least in the minds of many readers. At any rate, the major qualification can easily be overstressed, since the values which matter in the novel are those of its comic rather than its moralistic pattern. The first and most important value of this society, as in all comic societies, is freedom, but here the freedom is of a very special kind, captured in the midst of restraints and limitations. The novel steers a middle course between two extremes: America, on the one hand, where the anarchy visualized in Barnaby Rudge is made official in a country without restraints, tradition, or culture, and where consequently there is absolutely no freedom, and, on the other hand, the restrictive, introverted morality suggested by old Martin's initial suspicions and Mark Tapley's initial masochism. The resultant mean is explicitly a social freedom, and our admiration is directed toward the versatile imagination which creates freedom for itself and for others out of extremely limited conditions, as, say, Mrs. Todgers does in the midst of the London maze, The anarchy of the uninhibited ego and the restrictions of selfish morality are equally repudiated here. [136/137]

Similarly, the incipient comic society rejects the whole doctrine of natural goodness, which was at the heart of Pickwick. There, it seemed, men would be good if they could only resist the awful corruption of institutions and return to the basic simplicity inherent within all and symbolized in nature. Martin Chuzzlewit overturns all this; innocence is replaced by experience, simplicity by sophistication, nature by art. Here, man must resist the basic impulses and restrain them with civility, tolerance, and consideration. In this comedy one does not escape to nature for revivification; one escapes to London for civilized training.

As corollaries to these main precepts of the comedy of accommodation, there are several secondary tendencies. First, there is a movement away from the youthful norm toward greater maturity, even age. Tom Pinch is, in some ways, at the centre of the novel, and he is a man of thirty-five who looks as if he were sixty (II). Even the archetypal battle played out tragically between Jonas Chuzzlewit and his father is finally won by the father through his deputy, Chuffey, surely the oldest old man in literature. Second, there is an insistence on an absolute openness to all experience, without regard to compensation of any sort, financial or moral, and without reliance on artificial systems to explain that experience. Mark Tapley errs by translating experience into his narrow masochistic wish for "credit"', old Martin by translating it into an egoistic, dark moral code, Tom Pinch (at first) by not curbing his joy in being patronized. Finally, the demand for openness presupposes perhaps the most basic aspect of this developing society: its elemental dedication to life. The novel touches on many possible reasons for despair but never relaxes its insistence on the supremacy of the reasons for living. Even the most peripheral characters maintain this constant theme; there is, for example, Mr. Bill Simmons, coach-driver, who tells young Martin the story of the musically talented Lummy Ned of the Light Salisbury and his trip to America. When Martin misunderstands and thinks Ned has died, the driver retorts quickly and with "contemptuous emphasis", "Dead! . . . Not he. You won't catch Ned a-dying easy. No, no. He knows better than that" (XIII). So do the readers who respond to this society; for through our laughter it promises a vigorous and [137/138] creative life, which is so contemptuous of any evasion that it builds itself, as does Lummy Ned, on facing resolutely its ultimate enemy, which, in various disguises, appears as nature, the United States, or death.

But as this last triad suggests, one does not come to this sort of life easily. The central action of the novel is, in fact, a series of ritual initiations or purifications, undertaken partly in order to establish a more permanent selfhood but more importantly in order to qualify for the comic society, for the company of Mrs. Gamp and Poll Sweedlepipe. In different ways and with varying degrees of success, old Martin, young Martin, Mark Tapley, Tom Pinch, and through them Ruth Pinch and Mary Graham are all changed and learn the values acceptable to Mrs. Harris. In view of this mass initiation, it is not surprising if the reader is rhetorically initiated too, and the second function of our laughter, after first creating the society, is to provide us a place in it. Since similar rhetorical processes have already been discussed in earlier chapters, this positioning of the reader can be dealt with briefly, so that the primary function of laughter, the creation of the comic values listed above, can be investigated more fully.


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Last Modified 10 March 2010