This book isn’t one I’d planned to read & it’s not a Dickens’ title that had come to my attention at any time, but I saw it at a book sale and bought it because I hadn’t read anything by Dickens for a while.
It sat unread on my book shelves for some time until one night when I was considering which book I should start reading next but couldn’t make up my mind. I’d just finished The Lord of the Rings, which I’d put off for years (and found to my surprise that it was hard to put down) so when my eyes came upon Martin Chuzzlewit, I thought, ‘I’ll just read the first chapter and if I can’t get into it, I’ll choose something else.’
Well, I kept going and that was that. From memory, it usually takes me a few chapters to engage with Dickens so I was surprised at how quickly it happened with one of his books that doesn’t seem anywhere near as popular as many of his others.
Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) first came out in monthly installments but unlike Dickens’ previous books, The Old Curiosity Shop, and even Barnaby Rudge, sales were low for various reasons: he had abstained from novel-writing for a time and this caused him to lose ground with the public; when he did return to publishing he released the chapters monthly as opposed to weekly, which was his previous practice; his reputation declined after the public’s disappointment with Barnaby Rudge.
After the poor reception of the first instalments of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens decided to change some aspects of the story and set parts of it in America where he had recently spent some time. (He wrote a record of that journey in American Notes.)
Dickens himself considered Martin Chuzzlewit his best work and when it was published in book-form it proved to be one of his greatest successes.
Not only is Martin Chuzzlewit a study in selfishness, it also concerns itself with how suffering shapes character. Oswald Chambers said that ‘Sorrow burns up a great deal of shallowness, but it does not always make a man better’ and Dickens’ demonstrates the effects the same circumstances may work for better or worse in different people. Chambers also observed that if you yield in childhood to selfishness, you will find it the most enchaining tyranny on earth. Some of the characters in Martin Chuzzlewit never broke free of those chains.
Dickens’ satire on the Chuzzlewit family portrays ‘the poison of selfishness as transmitted within a family,’ and the ‘false notions of family grandeur and the parasites which they breed.’
As usual, there is a large cast of characters in the story but I thought there were many more likeable persons here compared to some of his other books and more redemptive aspects in the characters’ lives.
I really enjoyed the developing friendships between some of the young men. The loyalty and unselfish regard they had toward one another stood out in comparison to the opportunistic relationships in the greater Chuzzlewit family.
Some Notable Characters:
Martin Chuzzlewit: the young protagonist of the story; he had fallen out with his Grandfather, of the same name, who had brought him up, and now struck him out of his will. Martin junior was frank and generous by nature but his upbringing had allowed him to grow selfish. Circumstances opened his eyes to see others he had taken for granted and used.
‘How was it that this man who had had so few advantages, was so much better than he who had had so many?’
‘He was a most exemplary man: fuller of virtuous precepts than a copy-book. Some people likened him to a direction post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.
He was a kind of animal who infused into the breasts of strangers a lively sense of hope, and possessed all those who knew him better with a grim despair.’
Moozle, who is 15yrs of age and has never taken to Dickens (I think The Old Curiosity Shop turned her off!) was hunting for something to read and agreed to try MC after I said how I enjoyed it. I’m very happy to say that she actually liked it!!