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The Martin Chuzzlewit Support Group (Part 1 of 2)

2013 December 5
By Susan E. Cook (Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, NH) and Elizabeth Coggin Womack (Penn State Brandywine)
Martin Chuzzlewit Serial Cover

Martin Chuzzlewit Serial Cover

A book club can be an opportunity to share the joys of a literary experience with others. It can provide communal pathos, collective insight, and (depending on the group) tasty baked goods.
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Our book club was not of that nature.
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This fall, we decided to form a Martin Chuzzlewit reading support group, a virtual book club organized for the sole purpose of getting us through this novel. As enthusiastic Dickensians, we had each attempted to read this book in the past. We had failed. Martin Chuzzlewit stands as one of Dickens’s least popular novels, and knowledge of this fact no doubt contributed to our individual recalcitrance. But while our separate attempts to read beyond page 100 failed, we hoped a more collective reading experience would compel us to finish the novel. In short, we figured shame would do the trick.
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We originally planned to match our reading pace and work our way serially through the novel, reading two or three parts per week and then writing up our responses to each section in a shared Google doc. While we generally stuck to the plan, reading the novel over a seven-week period, we found the reading experience did not flow exactly the way we had envisioned. We read and wrote, as Beth put it, in fits and starts. Our experiences allowed us to ruminate on the sorrows of encountering a work you dislike by a writer you love and the idea of reading as an obligation. While we cannot necessarily recommend Martin Chuzzlewit to friends, Victorianist or otherwise, we feel a sense of accomplishment at having finished it, and we each feel we would not have made it through without the other. Our reading of this novel thus had value to us as an experience with a reading community (such as the Victorians might have recognized, despite our digital updates) and as an opportunity to reflect on how our students might feel when we assign them a book they don’t want to read.
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Reading Discussion 1 (Serial Parts I and II): A Rough Beginning
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Susan: I have tried to read this novel several times before (my original goal was to read it, my last unread Dickens novel, during the bicentenary), but I usually stall out around the end of Part II. This time through the first section, I find myself comparing the novel to David Copperfield, which I am currently teaching. In DC, of course, the first person narration makes it easy for us to attach ourselves to a character (David). Perhaps my previous issues with MC stem from the fact that I do not find any of the characters all that engaging at the start. Tom Pinch, for instance, irritates me in this early section. He is so nice and so obviously blind to Pecksniff’s more obnoxious qualities.
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Beth: I’ve started this novel about three times—twice by reading a paperback and once by listening to an audio version. To my frustration, I’ve stalled out every time. I think part of my resistance to this novel stems from my dissatisfaction with the humor, or lack thereof. I see the bits that are supposed to be funny; Seth Pecksniff’s sham piety is an easy target, and the antics of the extended Chuzzlewit clan are clearly intended for laughs, but the tone just feels off. It’s sort of like hanging out with a friend who’s trying too hard to have fun on an off night. Dickens’s heart just isn’t in it with this novel.
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While most of the characters are off-putting, I do find Tom Pinch pathetically endearing. I, too, am frustrated by his naiveté, but when he wanders off to lose himself in his organ music, I get the sense that there is something more to Tom. Or maybe I just need to like someone!
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Reading Discussion 2 (Serial Parts III and IV): When Are We Going to Get to America?
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Beth: I confess that I still find this novel TIRESOME. I’m surprised that our eponymous hero isn’t more likeable. Based on the synopsis I read in advance, I expected Martin to be a bit like Nicholas Nickleby: foolish, perhaps, but essentially good-hearted. Martin seems a peevish and entitled. I presume that he will mature and become more likeable since this seems like a bildungsromish kind of plot, but he’s not there yet. Quite apart from that, I’m happy that we’ve finally arrived in London. Up until this point the novel has felt quite insular, and London puts me back on familiar Dickensian turf.
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One more thing: I did finally find a funny passage this week, and in light of last week’s post I feel that I should give credit where credit is due. This is the first Victorian novel in which I can recall a character discussing his own, uh, bowel movements. Now, Elizabeth Gaskell hints at “filth” in the slums of Lancashire, and Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus has a few quips about dung, but I’m pretty sure that Seth Pecksniff’s self-congratulation on the charitable nature of his own defecation is a first (ch. 8). I can’t say I particularly admire this passage, but in some ways it’s right up there with the cat-vomit episode in Cranford.
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Susan: I should acknowledge that I knew very little of this novel’s plot going in. That said, I did know the novel famously features a very nasty treatment of America. In this section of the novel I find myself impatiently waiting to get to America, and not just because I’m curious about the American scenes: I feel, in this early section, that we are in a sort of holding pattern. We are waiting for something to happen, but it isn’t clear what that “something” might be. The pacing feels off.
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Like you, Beth, I’m glad we moved things to London, but somehow this move doesn’t help my feelings of stagnation. I think this is because London in this novel feels smaller and more cramped than the London of Bleak House or Little Dorrit. The description of Todgers’s neighborhood near the start of Chapter 9 sums this up for me: “You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood as you could in any other neighbourhood…A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and round about, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall or was stopped by an iron railing…Todgers’s was in a labyrinth, whereof the mystery was known but to a chosen few” [1]. I feel like we are all—characters and readers alike—trapped in this maze of a novel. I can see this other London, this more recognizable Dickensian novel, just on the other side of the row houses or the other side of the Pecksniff plotline. I just can’t seem to get there.
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Reading Discussion 3 (Serial Parts V and VI): Still Waiting
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Susan: I’ve been thinking a lot about David Copperfield in this section of Martin Chuzzlewit. On the one hand, DC and MC are both pretty episodic. My students are having a hard time tracking all the details and characters in DC right now. On the other hand, though, DC has a coherence of narrative that is notably lacking in MC. In MC, everything seems to connect, but relationships unfold in a non-narrative sort of way. Martin’s intense love of Mary seems to come somewhat out of the blue. The Chuzzlewit/Pecksniff interaction seems to bubble up somewhat unexpectedly. However, we are getting to America! I feel as though the novel up to this point has been one arduous boat ride, and as Mark says at the end of Chapter 15, “Any land will do for me, after so much water!” [2].
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Beth: So do you remember how I was trying to read Martin as a variation on Nicholas or David: naïve, misguided, but good-hearted? Well, so much for that. Dickens is going to great lengths to show us not only that Martin lacks self-awareness, but also that the character’s pretentions annoy the people around him. Tom Pinch is clearly wounded by Martin’s arrogance. Mark Tapley (who is appealing in a pale-shadow-of-Sam-Weller kind of way) is clearly “managing” Martin’s bad behavior during the sea voyage. The narrator comments on Martin’s entitlement in almost every scene that involves Martin. The only thing that makes our protagonist tolerable as a character is his misfortune, as well as the reader’s assumption that since he’s the titular character, he has to get better at some point. But what if he doesn’t get better? I’ve never seen Dickens go this far to make a protagonist unlikeable before, and while I’m annoyed, it’s an interesting shift from his other novels. I wonder, too, what we make of this protagonist in light of this being the novel about America. Is this the protagonist America deserves?
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Stay tuned for Part 2…
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Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature. She writes about Victorian literature and visual culture. Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.
Elizabeth Coggin Womack (a.k.a. Beth) is Assistant Professor of English at Penn State Brandywine, where she offers courses on Victorian and modernist British literature. Her research focuses on gender, poverty, and material culture in nineteenth-century fiction.
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[1] Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 131.
[2] Dickens, p. 248.
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