Help end world hunger

« Mortimer and Eugene: A study in friendship | Main | The operatic imagination »

February 12, 2012


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I think the young Martin is the Martin from the title. The full title is The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit and only young Martin really has much in the way of adventures! Well, that's my theory anyway.

I really like the book - although it isn't my favourite - because it has a glorious set of characters. I'm not American so I didn't really get why Americans felt so insulted by it but those sections did (as The Doctor rightly suggested) feel out of place and a bit filler-like.

Tony Schwab
February, 2012
The MC Effect; Or, Chuzzlewit is Different Than Them All.

It is a rough-hewn novel and strikes many as the un-Dickens Dickens. It was written during a hard period in his life. He said “there is a wrong kind of fire burning in my head.” He decided it was his best just weeks before they told him it was his worst seller. It bothered him, and it also bothers us. Over a hundred years the criticism has come at us from every direction with no consensus: it is either the "best comic novel in English literature" or a "mess," a "hodge-podge." For some it has a beautiful shape, for others it is shapeless, etc. As a blogger on this site noted, Chesterton summed up the confusion: something about this novel is “melancholy.”

Sensitive to criticism that he was un-organized and too spontaneous, Dickens promised to pay strict attention to a theme, human Selfishness, and to “constrain” himself. But his iron-clad idea got a stranglehold on the book and his linguistic energy was sapped by the bombast and lies he had to create for Chuzzlewit’s crazy hypocrites and con men. In his own words, he chose to allow the selfish to use any word that occurs to them “as having a good sound, and rounding a sentence well, without much care for its meaning.”

Then there is anger. You will never again see Dickens this furious. To his selfish characters he is sarcastic and condescending, but he is hateful towards Americans. Stunned by low sales, about a third of the way into the book he switched paths and sent his hero to America which opened up more problems. Having just returned from six months in the States, he was in the middle of a real fight with Americans over copyright law. His anger was “red hot” and it shows.

In Chuzzlewit Dickens manages very little of that entwining of high life and low, good and evil, the getters and the givers that is spellbinding in his other work. He sets the good and the bad apart, selfish on one side, good on the other; they hardly meet and almost never speak to one another. This reflects his own mind and manner which were split especially at this time between narcissism and kindness. The idea of selfishness rules Chuzzlewit, for in his troubled state Dickens simply couldn't give his full attention to the good.

This did more than deny readers the usual Dickensian delight of feeling innocence encouraged. Dickens’s ambivalence about goodness has led to a secondary literature in which lots of the critics sound like selfish Chuzzlewits. They demean the characters who attempt to make fairness their leading principle and fire off cynical opinions about how to live a self-centered life. In this and other ways Martin Chuzzlewit illustrates a powerful intersubjective bond between writer and reader.

I would like the opportunity to:
give examples of the 'MC Effect,' the strange way some professional readers beat up on the good characters in MC just like the selfish characters do; also to show more about the oddness of the novel and of this crazy time in Dickens's life. Hope to hear from you.

Yes, please, go on! This is a great analysis!

Dear Dickensblog,
I am confused. I do not know much about blogging. But I was happy to be immediately published on your lively site when I first wrote last Sunday. Next day, I was happy to read a response from Gina that I should go on w/ my analysis. So on the 19th March I wrote "MC Effect Part II," and was told "It is posted." But I see neither hide nor hair of it.
Could you (anyone who knows) please explain the process to me. Is there an editor/webmaster? How does it work? After being told "posted" does it appear and could it be in a place I am not looking? Thank you. TONY SCHWAB

Gina et al: I've got it! I'll post shorter bits:

The MC (Martin Chuzzlewit) Effect is based on the universally acknowledged fact, Dickens wrote as compellingly as anyone on the differences between a hard-hearted life and a good-hearted one. On this very page, Ken Stephenson puts it well: “We encounter characters in every book whose hearts are hardened by a fairly consistent set of corrupting influences.” He quotes Bleak House that many of the characters we despise or feel sorry for are victims of a reality that “shuts up the natural feelings of the heart.” The important thing for me is that these different kinds of lives are not only in novels, they were lived by Dickens and are by us now in the real world.

The MC Effect is set into motion because, as A Few Thoughts noted on this page, when he wrote Chuzzlewit Dickens was in a bad mood. Money problems, instalments selling badly, and he was slowly falling out of love with Mrs. Dickens.

It had an effect. The Selfish rule the plot. It’s very hard to be good and get page-time in MC. The MC Effect is that lots of readers and critics subconsciously take Dickens’s selfishness literally to heart and become cynical!

Example: the comment on this page by A Few Thoughts. “As for Ruth . . . okay, I admit Dickens wrote a few irritating heroines (though not quite as many as some people say), but Ruth was way beyond the pale. What with her becoming little vanities, and busy little hands, and charming little laughs, and wicked little stomacher, and roguish little dimples, and fluttering little heart, the woman nearly drove me around the bend.”

Wait a minute. Please read from around the middle of Chapter 39. It’s a scene about Ruth making beefsteak pudding: delightful and so is she. Yet readers say Ruth drives them batty. Why? When she puts that pudding together (and she has no idea how to really do it) I swear she's only the second character in 400 pages to do any sustained work! See also Chapter 36 in which Tom (30-ish and shy) gives the rich family Ruth is a governess for a piece of his mind for mistreating his sister and raising their daughter to be a snob and then waits for Ruth to retrieve her bonnet before they leave. It’s downright realistic! Why are the bro and sister labeled insufferable? Why is Ruth different than Florence in Dombey or Agnes in Copperfield?

In one professional critique after another Ruth is dismissed and people call Tom names as if they are bullies. We should think twice before we trash good-hearted characters. May sound strange: but it’s not good for us.

Tony -- sorry about your trouble commenting. Every once in a while a comment gets lost in the system; I'm not sure why. But thank you for persevering.

With his portraits of good folks trying hard to live decently in a post-Eden world, Dickens affected world culture. Literate people agree that this was a major accomplishment and wonderful.

Responses please to my theory that in Martin Chuzzlewit Dickens own moral confusion has a weird effect on readers, making them attack his good characters! Like the comment at the top of this page on Ruth, one of the novel's "good" characters. As I say in my MC Effect Part II above, no other good guys in Dickens would ever be so blasted out of the water.

This is because Dickens unknowingly planted a bad vibe in the book that worms its way into readers' minds and turns them against good people! Dickens was in a bad way during the writing, had many dark preoccupations like falling out of love with his wife, anger at America (imagine a People Magazine-like international controversy breaking about his ears so long ago!) and anger at his dad for his never-ending stupidities.

The novel is the ONLY Dickens work weighted towards the creepy characters. So much so that it upsets usually sane readers until their own egotism gets the best of them.

Renowned critic Leslie Fiedler called good Tom Pinch of MC "a euchanoid; pallid, disembodied, humorless, and voiceless” and said he knows Dickens really hates him. In a Penguin edition Catherine Ingham calls Tom "neutered" and stupid. Jane Berard says his goodness is "a sham." On James Kincaid says Pecksniff’s hypocrisy “is much more humane” than Tom’s virtue.

Time anad agian Tom (and his sister) are brushed aside for trying to do right. Strange?

I wrote the post that you're referring to, Tony (all posts on this blog are written by me unless otherwise indicated), and I can assure you, my comments on Ruth weren't meant to be some sort of random and malicious attack. As you can see elsewhere on this site, I have a deep attachment to many of Dickens's good characters and appreciate his ability to make them so appealing. But he wasn't perfect, and my contention about the character of Ruth is simply that she's poorly drawn. I don't have a problem with her goodness; I have a problem with what I believe is her unrealistic and over-the-top portrayal.

I do like Tom very much, however.

Thank you again for sharing your opinions!

Your response to my ideas is measured and welcoming. I appreciate your feedback and the gracious way you host the site.

Just to go a bit further. Talking about over the top, Nell of TOCS seems to be dying and going to the angels half of her time in the book, yet we take her seriously despite the sentiment and respect Dickens for his use of her spiritual presence. Then there is Florence Dombey pining after her dad every time she appears because he is so distant. Yet we accept and respect her as part of the novel's design.

Ruth over the top? Yes, she initiates little in the book as far as action; she is un-liberated. But there is realism there. She's:
caught in a bad job; a good and loving sister whom we can imagine as an orphan along with Tom; tries hard to be a good cook (and Dickens studied the recipe for beefsteak pudding); gets messy cooking; makes her brother smile with realistic affection; goes to a butcher!; and falls in love as real-ly as Annie Hall or any # of modern romantics with John who is another down to earth fellow.

No, Ruth is not written fully. I think that's because Dickens's novel is off-balance and overweighted with satire, some quite nasty as you say. The way it is set up, Ruth cannot get enough 'play' in the novel. Mark Tapley too is thwarted, handicapped by himself and his author and cannot shine as he might have because Selfishness is Dickens's Mighty Theme.

To make modern people more crazy, in the end Ruth is bathed in a technicolor fantasy where waterdrops dance for her happiness--as if she is Snow White. All quite hard to take for some. Yet perhaps for my own reasons I resonate with Dickens's way of over-appreciating her. Amidst the bluster and meanness of the novel, light shows forth from the author in Ruth and Tom and Mark; a light with a Shadow over it but which, because of the Shadow, gleams all the more brightly.

I'm so glad I've found at least one ally in Gina in feeling - and wishing - that Tom could, and should, have ended up with Mary. The last few paragraphs of the book showing Tom in his lonely, solitary state, with only the church organ (no matter how precious to him) and other people's children for company are quite unbearable and leave one with such sadness. I was forced to re-write the ending in my mind in order to go to bed in any state of peace! Why, in heavens' name, did Dickens not bring Martin & Merry together? They had both learned humility & thoughtfulness - much lacking in both of them initially - the hard way and, though saddened, are better, wiser people for it. It would have been predictable of Dickens for these two to have recognised this change in each other and to have been drawn together because of it.

Then, why does Cherry have to be punished so badly? True, she retains her anger against her sister, father and Jonas for their mistreatment of, and disloyalty to, her but (to a modern reader at least) this is quite understandable, especially as it reads more like righteous indignation than anger. Given that just about anything can happen to and within Dickens' characters, I expected Augustus, once the vows were exchanged, to have thrown away for good his handkerchief dripping with tears and to have walked from the altar swelling with pride at his hard-won acquisition and with a new-found sense of strength & confidence resulting from it.

Certainly, the characters of Merry & Cherry are not well drawn if we are expected to find their fates deserving. Along with poor Tom's, their destinies seem excessively - and unnecessarily - cruel. After all, today - as then - many not-so-deserving people are unfairly rewarded with love & happiness in marriage. Yes, in both cases, the girls lack the spirit of their names. But at the beginning, they are shown as devoted sisters & daughters and instances of their lack of mercy & charity are neither so sophisticatedly, subtly or clearly drawn as they need to be, and could be. Ah well - we are constantly reminded that this is early Dickens, and distracted Dickens, and Dickens driven into frenzies of (what we today call) stress by the demands of the monthly instalment.

Which brings me to another point. Oh, the excessive number of characters in MC! It drove me to distraction trying to keep on track of them all, and I can't see that the large cast and constant to-ing & fro-ing between their various stories would especially have benefited a monthly instalment method, either. And I certainly agree with those who question the title. It certainly feels - increasingly so as one reads on - more like the story of Tom Pinch or Mark Tapley; and given that both are clearer heroes than either of the Martins, either of their names would have given a more inspiring focus & title to the book. Ah, but others will point to Dickens' anger at the time. Yes, Dickens did fall into bouts of childish fury and perhaps this is, indeed, sufficient explanation.

Lastly (for now!), Ruth. I join with others in feeling extremely saddened by those who constantly mock & sneer at, and who are irritated by, the good characters. 'Good', apparently, is 'bad'. A very sad and a very disturbing attitude. I am not offended by the sweetness & innocence of Ruth; why shouldn't she be that way given her youth & her background? Thankfully - mercifully - there are still some like her today. What irritates, and what no-one seems to be seeing, is Dickens' attitude to her and to all such maidens. He salivates & drips with all the odiousness of that vile four-letter concept beginning with the letter 'l' and which most definitely is not 'love'. But this was Dickens, exactly as he was in his own person, and exactly as he viewed females in his own life, especially his poor, cruelly-treated wife as she understandably began to droop in every way from exhaustion through being the infant-manufacturing factory she ended up as, with a wretched husband so hypocritical, he would not even look at his fifth child when the latter was born. Especially in early novels, however hard we may try, it is simply impossible for authors not to betray something of their own attitudes.

An inflammatory point at which to leave it and not intended(!), but that is all I have time for, for now . . .

Like Christala, I felt sorry for Cherry at the end. I mean she was kind of a jerk but she was nice to Tom after he punched Jonas. True, that was kind of creepy but Jonas really did have it coming to him and there were other characters in the book who were jerks but had happier endings.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)


  • A blog for all things Dickens -- quotes, reflections, adaptations, references and tributes from other authors, and more.

Happy 200th, Mr. Dickens!

Blog powered by Typepad