Like the summer afternoon that was yesterday, I find myself peering ahead into the future viewing the coming storm that is graduate school. The minute I found myself free from the little tempest of my bachelor’s degree, I finally began to read the books I wanted to read for my own whimsical enjoyment. This naturally lead to me reading multiple works by Dickens, including The Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge. I then (perhaps wisely) decided to engage in some reading that would benefit me this coming fall — but now I see this storm charging down this dark tunnel like a train full of steam ready to take me out at any moment, and this brief flickering flame of my life in which I have virtually no responsibilities at all should be taken advantage of to the fullest. And I find myself back where I started, reading Dickens, laughing, and having a jolly time — albeit without credit. The novel I recently finished is the next in line, Martin Chuzzlewit.
This tome is Dickens’ 6th novel, and up to this point in his life, his best. Pickwick Papers is not really a novel and makes for bad story (thought it’s his best work). The Old Curiosity Shop is his worst, but then Dick Swiveller is one of the best characters ever written. Barnaby Rudge was almost boring for me in comparison with his other works, and I honestly don’t remember enough to comment on Oliver Twist. This leaves us with Nicholas Nickleby which I felt was actually pretty similar to Martin Chuzzlewit.
Nicholas leaves London and returns to save the day, just as Martin leaves for America, though he doesn’t necessarily save anything. Neither of these characters are lovable in the Dickens’ sense of a lovable character. Mrs. Gamp and Poll Sweedlepipe, Bailey and Mark Tapley, Tom Pinch and Mrs. Harris are lovable. Martin and Nicholas are just young men who seem overly righteous in their own eyes, almost more so than Pecksniff. Pecksniff’s hypocrisy is comical before it becomes mystical. He is so blind to his hypocrisy, that all we can do is laugh at him. We can’t be angry with Pecksniff as we can with Jonas Chuzzlewit. In this sense Pecksniff is the character that is so evil we are to not even take his evilness seriously.* But Martin is a character that does not function well in his surroundings and situations, and this is specifically what stuck out to me in this novel: how characters respond to certain situations.
The battle cry of Mark Tapley is the battle cry of the novel. There is only credit to being jolly in poor situations.
Any man may be in good spirits and good temper when he’s well dressed. There an’t much credit in that. If I was very ragged and very jolly, then I would begin to feel I had gained a point.
This naturally leads to this prophetic discourse:
“I more than half believed, just now, seeing you so very smart,” said [Tom] Pinch, “that you must be going to be married, Mark.”
“Well, sir, I’ve thought of that too,” he replied. “There might be some credit in being jolly with a wife, specially if the children had the measles and that, and was very fractious indeed. But I’m a’most afraid to try it. I don’t see my way clear.”
Thus, this creature who enters the novel in chapter 5 spends the rest of the time seeking the worst possible situations, leading him to America and to a declining health. The point of course, is not that we are to do as Tapley did, but that the present situations we are in are opportunities to display our joy — and what credit is there to be happy when life’s great?
I enjoyed Tapley’s character so much that I decided to stretch his symbolism across the other characters in the novel. How does everyone respond in their specific situations? Martin, for instance, is the young man who is quite melodramatic and thus becomes dull and dreary as the situation presents itself. The reoccurring thought that seems to enter the novel is that everything will turn out all right, but Martin’s character is unable to see this until it actually does.
While Tapley is the extreme case of joy, Moddle is the extreme case of depression. Engagements in Dickens are almost always funny, as indeed, engagements are quite funny to everyone not involved. Everyone is quite giddy, and this is comical. But Moddle is not giddy; he’s not depressed; he’s not sulking; he’s horrified. He is the pre-incarnate Eeyore of the Victorian Period, and his engagement to Charity Pecksniff is the worst possible thing that could happen to him. Moddle represents the pessimist who is full of angst and depressed all the time while Tapley represents an optimist who makes the best of every situation.
In this same vein Pecksniff takes his situation and pretends it’s not there. The hypocrite is so blind, he doesn’t see reality. I would say that he chooses not to see reality, but in Pecksniff’s case it could be considered a disease similar to Uriah Heep’s insistence that he’s so “‘umble”. Pecksniff, who claims to see everything for what it is, is contrasted by Old Martin Chuzzlewit who feigns his ability to perceive reality and actually sees clearly. Old Martin Chuzzlewit seeks to find the truth in his situation, and the end of the novel reveals that this is so.
In all of this, I couldn’t agree more with the assertion by Dickens’ biographer who stated that it was a highly significant work concerning his overall career. This novel seems to be Dickens’ turning point. He leaves off creating people and begins to create symbols. Thus, when we arrive at David Copperfield, we can’t help but thinking what each of the characters means and stands for. There is a give and take here of course. The absurdity of some of the characters takes on a new meaning because the hypocrite is very hypocritical and the downer is very down. Dickens improves this, as the Tapley’s are turned into Tommy Traddle’s and Herbert Pocket’s (characters who show their jolliness rather than talk about it incessantly), and the improvement is brilliant. But the flip side is that the Pickwick’s, Weller’s and Swiveller’s become more rare. Sam Weller and Mr. Pickwick stood for nothing. They were angelic, nearly divine creations that were just because they were. Swiveller has more symbolism, but not as much as Micawber (though of course Micawber is something else altogether).
All in all, the novel certainly felt more complete than the previous one’s, certainly comparable to Nicholas Nickleby. It is Dickens’ bleakest novel that I’ve read. More black comedy and satire is used, and this is no more apparent than Martin’s time in America. But as this post is coming to a very swift close, I will have to leave out any sufficient comment concerning that aspect of the novel. I felt that I was a tad unclear of what Dickens was criticizing, and it only made me wish that he was alive today and could cross the pond and draw me a fine caricature of America as it is now: with our materialism; with our worship of entertainment; with our hypocritical church goers; with our racism; with our laziness; with our pretentiousness; with out egotism and narcissism; with our anti-intellectualism; with our open-mindedness; with our terrible treatment of immigrants; with our wars; with our abortion; with our worship of comfort; with our suppressing media and advertising industry; with our political correctness run amok; with our feminism run amok; with our capitalism run amok; with our guns run amok; with our drugs run amok; with our liberty; with our patriotism, naturally including the farce of Washington — our comical cast of politicians who are nothing but puppets on a red string, hitting each other with sticks and changing roles every few years. It’d make a jolly read no doubt, but alas, there’d be no credit in that.
*As a possible second thought on Pecksniff’s character, it could be that Dickens did not feel comfortable making Pecksniff another Daniel Quilp or Ralph Nickleby because everyone has a little Pecksniff in them. That is, no one is utterly free from the act of hypocrisy. If we hate hypocrites, we hate everyone around us: our neighbors, our friends, our family, ourselves.