Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens: a Brief Overview

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit is my last book to review on my first Classics Club list. I read this in December 2017 and didn’t write a post, mainly because it was during the Christmas/New Year period, a busy time. All I recorded was this: ‘It is long, starts very slowly and then gets more interesting, with great characters and some comic and satirical episodes. It’s a study of selfishness and hypocrisy.’

From the back cover of my paperback copy:

Moving from the sunniest farcicality to the grimmest reaches of criminal psychology, Martin Chuzzlewit is a brilliant study in selfishness and hypocrisy.

The story of an inheritance, it relates the contrasting destinies of the two descendants of the brothers Chuzzlewit, both born and bred to the same heritage of selfishness, showing how one, Martin, by good fortune escapes and how the other, Jonas, does not – only to reap a fatal harvest. Peopled with Dickens immortals as Mrs Gamp, Poll Sweedlepipe, Montague Tiggs, Chevy Slime, it is one of Dickens’ great comic masterpieces.

It was Dickens’ sixth novel, serially published in 1843-44, and was something of a flop, with a dramatic decline in sales, compared to his early books. I can understand that because it’s not one of my favourites of his books. It is too long – over 900 pages in my Penguin Classics edition. I stuck with it as I had previously enjoyed watching the 1994 TV Mini Series with an excellent cast including Paul Schofield, Keith Allen, Julia Sawalha, Ben Walden, and Lynda Bellingham amongst others.

In this case I think the TV adaptation scores over the novel, which dragged in parts for me. It is a satire, a black comedy, a romance of the sickly sentimentality sort, a story of blackmail and murder, that involves hypocrisy, greed and selfishness.

I thought the section set in America where young Martin went to seek his fortune was overdone and it became tedious. It seems that Dickens had not enjoyed his own visit to America in 1842 as in this section he mocks what he disliked about America – the corrupt newspapers, slavery, the violence, obsession with business and money and so on and so forth. I was glad when young Martin returned to England.

But I enjoyed the comic characters – the drunken nurse of sorts, Mrs Gamp and her invisible friend, Mrs Harris, and Sam Pecksmith, the scheming architect. The Pecksmith family’s visit to London is hilarious. These characters saved the book for me. Mrs Gamp is one of the most bizarre characters with her mispronunciations and monologues recounting her conversations with her imaginary friend Mrs Harris. Her speciality lies in the polar extremities of life, birth and death:the lying in and the laying out.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Penguin Classics; Reissue edition (30 Jan. 1986)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 944 pages
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating: 3*

6 thoughts on “Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens: a Brief Overview

  1. It’s interesting you’d mention the length of this one, Margaret. Several of Dickens’ novels are very long (I wonder if that has to do with the fact that they were published first in serial form?). In my opinion, his character development makes the length less of a problem than it might otherwise be, but still, I agree that this one is long for the story if that makes sense. Still, you’re right about the wit and the characters, I think.

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  2. Agreed. I think I enjoyed it more than you, just because I like his writing style so much. But the American section really does seem out of place, and there aren’t as many really memorable characters as usual. Not one of his best!

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  3. Congrats on finishing your first classics club list! And well done for remembering so much of what you read five years ago. My favourite Dickens is still David Copperfield, but his books do require a commitment that I find hard to stick to atm.

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