[Decorative capital "T" based on Thackeray's illustraton for Vanity Fair]

decorative initial 'T' he rhetorical pattern of the laughter in Martin Chuzzlewit is like that in Barnaby Rudge turned inside out; instead of moving from assurance to subversive attack, it moves from attack to assurance. The novel opens with bitterness and insults and moves gradually to include the reader; it is the one time in Dickens, outside Pickwick, when the rhetoric serves the purpose of relaxation. We are first sensitized to our own defects, urged to examine our own anti-comic tendencies, and then are allowed to be comfortable. Since, as we have said, the novel does not quite complete the comic pattern, the comfort is perhaps not absolute, but with this one major qualification (which I make now for the last time) Martin Chuzzlewit reverses the essential action of Burnaby Rudge and develops from anarchy to security. It is not so much Barnaby Rudge written backwards as Barnaby Rudge transcended.

But in order that the novel may accomplish this [138/139] transcendence, the reader is first viciously attacked. Until Forster dissuaded him, Dickens had planned to emphasize this attack in a motto for the novel: "Your homes the scene, yourselves the actors, here!"8 Even without this obvious insult, the beginning lines of the book open a very wide gulf between narrator and reader: "As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race. . ." The tone is unmistakably sarcastic and jeering; the reader is, in a sense, made responsible for the gruesome chapter which follows. Though an odd chapter in many ways, it does perform the brutal but necessary function of preparing us for the development of true selfhood by knocking out some ludicrously invalid props for self, specifically family pride and snobbery. At the end of the chapter the narrator sneeringly assumes that he has provided evidence of the Chuzzlewit pride "to the full contentment of all ... readers".

The very next chapter begins with another interesting inversion, a comic episode turned inside out. Mr. Pecksniff is introduced being knocked on his back by his own front door. The pompous man, in other words, begins by being deflated, and Dickens continues in this chapter to paint him as a Bergsonian automaton who moves his jaws like "a toy nut-cracker". The presumed comic satisfaction in deflation, then, somehow precedes the comic antagonism, but Pecksniff is reduced to this state only to be enormously expanded, and we, very likely to our embarrassment, are forced to expand with him and to accept at least some of his values.

This sort of grim and embarrassing reversal occurs continuously throughout the first part of the novel. For example, old Chuffey is introduced as a comic figure, "of a remote fashion, and dusty, like the rest of the furniture". "He looked", the narrator adds, "as if he had been put away and forgotten half a century before, and somebody had just found him in a lumber closet" (XI). This extreme dehumanization is cleverly enough disguised to make laughter easy, but any laughter [139/140] rebounds sharply. Chuffey, first, so lights up when Anthony Chuzzlewit talks to him that it is "quite a moving sight to see"; second, Jonas says he brought old Chuffey out "for the joke of it", in order to "amuse" the Pecksniff girls; in the next line, finally, Dickens calls the old man "poor old" Chuffey. We have no chance against rhetoric of this sort.

Sometimes, however, the humour is not so pointed or so clearly subversive. The harsh tone of the early part of the novel comes in large measure simply from the bitterness of its very aggressive humour. At the Chuzzlewit family gathering, for instance, both the brilliant contest of insults and the devastatingly contemptuous descriptions encourage hostile reactions. Old Martin's grand nephew, for example, is attacked so wittily that one is willing to accept the shallowness of a man "apparently born for no particular purpose but to save looking-glasses the trouble of reflecting more than just the first idea and sketchy notion of a face, which had never been carried out" (IV). Pecksniff later allows himself an even more fundamental joke on freedom and restraint: "It is good to know that we have no reserve before each other, but are appearing freely in our own characters." The sort of freedom expressed by the Spottletoes and their amiable kin is, of course, exactly the sort of freedom we later see in America, the freedom from civilizing restraints. It is also the same freedom expressed by our laughter, but the. primary point here is not to attack us with this identification but rather to encourage the release of aggression. Just like the five snarling female cousins, we too are likely to have "a great amount of steam to dispose of". The early part of the novel urges us to do just that. We can, as a matter of fact, find instances in which Dickens simply divides the source of the laughter, repeating a characteristic in different circumstances so that the original strong aggression may be gradually weakened and then dispelled and the originally weak pleasure and approval strengthened. Mrs. Lupin, for example, is first introduced as "a widow, but [one who] years ago had passed through her state of weeds, and burst into flower again" (III). The aggression aroused here is simply removed as Mrs. Lupin's resurrection is later identified as a form of the novel's central comic symbol. She is joined by character after character — [140/141] Martin, Mark, Mrs. Gamp, Young Bailey, and others — in facing death and annihilation and returning "in full bloom". Mrs. Lupin's ability to blossom, we later see, is the ability we are asked to find in ourselves.

After the encouragement to let off aggressive steam and to recognize the falsity of a conventional outlook, the novel comforts the reader and provides him with a security all the firmer for our testing. This is not to say that this security is contrived or simple; as Tom Pinch says, "You think of me, Ruth ... as if I were a character in a book; and you make it a sort of poetical justice that I should, by some impossible means or other, come, at last, to marry the person I love. But there is a much higher justice than poetical justice, my dear, and it does not order events upon the same principle" (L). Tom is able to "reconcile himself to life", a recurrent phrase made all the more suggestive by the novel's insistence that life is not necessarily easy. Tom still can be happy; for in a curious way he has, as he insists, gained a reality he did not have before and is no longer "a character in a book", believing in perfect Pecksniffs, and gaining a secret and ugly pleasure from being patronized. His education was rough but, in every sense, worth it, and the accepting tone Tom uses is very much like the mellow tone which spreads over the last half of the novel.

Against this general pattern of attack-acceptance runs one counter-movement, however, one antithetical and cautionary development: the subplot involving Jonas Chuzzlewit and the Pecksniff daughters. This subplot tempers the mellowness of the final tone and warns us against accepting the comic solution too easily; for it deals with an always dangerous nature, manifested in murder, loneliness, and fear. The most terrifying figure here, Jonas, begins, surprisingly, as an absurd comic butt, caught in the middle of a thinly disguised sex battle between the Chuzzlewit girls: "'Mercy is a little giddy,' said Miss Charity. 'But she'll sober down in time'" (VIII). Merry responds in kind: "'What a relief it must be to you, my dear, to be so very comfortable in that respect, and not to be worried by those odious men! How do you do it, Cherry ?'" (XI). It begins to look like Rachael Wardle and her nieces all over again, and we can express aggression at either girl easily. They are, after all, hypocritical and false. [141/142]

But what is Jonas? From the country bumpkin he initially appeared to be, he becomes a complex and cunning parricide. We first notice this change as his jokes against his father become more and more literal: "A fine old gentleman! ... Ah! It's time be was thinking of being drawn out a little finer too. Why, he's eighty!" (XI). The tendency of this joke is coming closer to the surface all the time as we progress in this subplot, and is finally realized literally as Jonas completes the Oedipal pattern. The basis of the original conflict between youth and age is exposed and laughter is impossible. The Pecksniff girls, artificial and hypocritical as they are, are forced into contact with the much greater and more powerful evil; raw and natural cruelty. Jonas, exactly like the Americans, loses all restraints and becomes the elemental man — or beast — crafty and murderous. Merry early calls him, in play, a "low savage" (XXIV), but the joke rebounds horribly as Jonas returns to the country to kill more terribly, Dickens says, than "a wolf" (XLII). This pattern is created to make the contrast between Jonas and the Pecksniff girls most explicit. Jonas is the natural man, without curbs on his ego and therefore the apotheosis of revenge. Merry's good-hearted hypocrisy and mild selfishness are nothing compared to his evil, and the reversal of the humour makes more emphatic the danger of uncivilized naturalness. Mark Tapley may be able to brag that he has "been among the patriots" (XLIII) and miraculously survived, but the rhetoric makes it clear that survival is by no means assured. Merry is sacrificed to make that grim point.

Developing along with this is the superficially lighter but, in its implications, really equally dark and bitter romance of Charity Pecksniff and Augustus Moddle. We laugh at Moddle, first of all, to economize pathos, I think, and to protect ourselves from the pain of those committed to trying for human contact and failing: "I have seen him standing in a corner of our drawing-room, gazing at her, in such a lonely, melancholy state, that he was more like a Pump than a man, and might have drawed tears" (XXXII). Laughter hides the dark truth that Moddle suggests: that there are the failures, the unwanted, and the unloved to modify the joy of any actual society. Moddle's final letter comes very close to uncovering this truth: "She is Another's. Everything appears to be [142/143] somebody else's" (LIV). But perhaps this interpretation overemphasizes the pathos of Moddle; for Dickens says that he is entering a kind of Eden (the American variety) with Charity, and we are, no doubt, happy for his escape. But, particularly in the final image of the doubly unwanted Charity, fainting away in dead earnest, this ludicrous romance does again temper the final society by insisting on the isolation of many and the great difficulty of escaping that isolation.


Victorian Overview Charles Dickens Contents Next Section

Last Modified 10 March 2010