The Martin Chuzzlewit Support Group (Part 2 of 2)

By Susan E. Cook (Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, NH) and Elizabeth Coggin Womack (Penn State Brandywine)

You can read part one here.

Reading Discussion 4 (Serial Parts VII, VIII, and IX): In America (Can We Go Home Now?)

Susan: Well, this section was a downer.  To summarize, Dickens does not like America or Americans.  Between Chapters 16 and 23, we learn that Americans: sustain a totally corrupt press, which regularly engages in forgery (Ch. 16); are either slave owners or racists all (Chs. 16, 17, etc.); rabidly adhere to party politics (Ch. 16); are actually pretty boring (Ch. 16); marry children (Ch. 16); really only care about money (Chs. 16, 17, etc.); are impossible snobs (Ch. 17) but probably shouldn’t be, because they are also uncouth (Ch. 17); attend silly lectures (Ch. 17); are pretentious and speak with ridiculous accents (Ch. 21); are hypocrites when it comes to Freedom (Ch. 21); and are basically just wretched (Chs. all).  Okay, so some of these criticisms may be based on widely-acknowledged aspects of American culture still very much with us today, but this section is unrelentingly negative.  Dickens can be pretty caustic about his own countrymen and women, but his criticisms are wielded against individuals and individual institutions—not the nation wholesale.  There is also a notable difference of style in the America section.  When Dickens critiques British individuals and institutions, he does so with humor and pathos, making us laugh at the creeps (Pecksniff) and cry over society’s failures (Jo from Bleak House).  The America sections, by contrast, are an onslaught of stereotype after stereotype, using individuals to represent what Dickens wants to say about an entire nation.

Beth: Susan, I think you’ve summed things up nicely. It’s hard to fault Dickens for being appalled at the notion of slavery and at the hypocrisy of people who boast of their freedom while sustaining that institution.  But Martin seems like a poor choice to ride this novel’s high horse.

Since I don’t have much more to say about this section (ho hum), I thought that this might be an interesting time to start thinking about why we read books we don’t want to read.  This experience with Martin Chuzzlewit marks the first time that I have both diligently and resentfully read a book I don’t care for since my first semester of graduate school ([title redacted], I’m looking at you).  After that first semester, I lapsed became much more willing to prioritize my reading; when I lose interest in a book, I usually put it down and reach for something else. At the very least, I skim. Martin Chuzzlewit has given me a sense of what I often ask students to do: to read a book thoughtfully even though they may not like it.  It’s useful for me to remember what this is like, I think.  Often, the divide between me and (some of) my students boils down to our varying levels of enjoyment in the act of reading difficult texts.  Sometimes I need a refresher in what it really means to dislike reading.

There are, of course, other ways of knowing texts than to read cover to cover, and believe me, I’m starting to consider those options!  Since I’ve begun reading this novel, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people who are invested in some small detail of Martin Chuzzlewit without having read it.  A friend of mine named Sarah knows of Sairey Gamp, because she likes to keep tabs on literary Sarahs.  At a recent conference, a professor from a nearby university told me that he referenced a useful passage from Martin Chuzzlewit without having read the book (a choice that seems increasingly wise).   I myself am reading this book now only to extract useful source material for an upcoming conference paper, and without you, Susan, my temptation would be to focus now on the useful passages that I’ve already found and make do without the rest.  What keeps me going at this point is this feeling of community we’ve created by reading the novel together.  It’s much more like watching a television show during a bad season, hoping against hope that it will start being good again.  So thanks, Susan!

Reading Discussion 5 (Serial Parts X, XI, XII, XIII, and XIV): We Fell Behind

Beth: I worked up a bit of momentum and got through the next five parts or so, and I think the novel is finally picking up a bit.  Martin gains empathy, the sisters Pecksniff face the consequences of their awful behavior, and a character dies under mysterious circumstances. Best of all, Tom is really coming into his own: decking Jonas, facing the reality of Pecksniff, standing up to his sister’s employers, and so on.  I feel so justified, Susan!   How far will this new, sterner Tom go?  All in all, I’m much cheerier.

That said, I’m starting to lose track of the details, and I can’t tell if this I have read inattentively or if Dickens is just winding things down clumsily.  Who is John Westlock’s sick friend? How has the elderly Martin Chuzzlewit became so vulnerable in such a short time?  Is he brainwashed?  Senile? Poisoned?  Did I miss something? Is there going to be a quiz? But no going back at this point; I’m plowing on toward the end!

Susan: We missed a week in there and decided, in a fit of Victorian Duty, to catch back up.  Or rather, Beth, you did and I felt compelled to follow.  The novel is picking up here towards the end, and I find I don’t dislike Tom nearly as much as I did.  In fact, I loved his rant at Ruth’s employer in Chapter 36.  I kind of think this should be photocopied and handed out to parents of school children who publicly scorn teachers and then fail to understand why their children’s teachers have trouble with their precious darlings.  As Tom puts it, “no man can expect his children to respect what he degrades” [1].

I was also proud of the way Tom left Pecksniff in Chapter 31, though it was sad to see him so mistreated: “The start of his whole life from boyhood, had become, in a moment, putrid vapour.  It was not that Pecksniff: Tom’s Pecksniff: had ceased to exist, but that he never had existed.  In his death, Tom would have had the comfort of remembering what he used to be, but in this discovery, he had the anguish of recollecting what he never was” [2].  I cannot help comparing this to David’s reflection after Steeforth absconds with Emily in DC, as my students just read and commented on this passage: “I never had loved Steerforth better than when the ties that bound me to him were broken.  In the keen distress of his unworthiness, I thought more of all that was brilliant in him…What his remembrances of me were, I have never known…but mine of him were as the remembrances of a cherished friend, who was dead” [3].  I wonder whether the contrast between these two scenes helps to either solidify the view that David is still, at this time in the novel, kind of annoyingly naïve, or whether the comparison highlights a realism in David’s reaction?  There is something more complex and somehow more believable about David’s reaction.  Tom’s is the reaction of a character who, despite finding himself in the midst of a 782-page novel, has no real time for character development and whose epiphany must come and go abruptly.

Reading Discussion 6 (Serial Parts XV-XX): The End is in Sight

Susan: The conclusion of this novel feels like a play—a ham-handed one, in which soliloquies become plot devices and every character must be present for the important scenes.  This begins with Tom’s soliloquy above in Chapter 31—he actually outs Pecksniff as a cruel character (and thus propels us towards the novel’s conclusion) by talking out loud to himself.  Then we have Jonas’s final scene, which features Jonas, Mrs. Gamp, Mr. Chuffey, Lewsome, Old Mart, John Westlock, Mark Tapley, Nadgett, three other dudes, and a partridge in a pear tree.  Why would all these people gather together?  They wouldn’t.  Dickens is expediting things for us, so that we can quickly move through this part of the plot and on to Old Martin’s showdown with Pecksniff.  This all felt very theatrical to me in a “this is actually not a novel but a play in disguise” sort of way.

Beth: The ending does feel quite awkward and hastily resolved—a bit like the end of a Shakespearean comedy, as you suggested.  It also reminds me of another novel with similarly staged moments: Our Mutual Friend.  The inheritance plot, the test and redemption of the protagonist’s character, the heir who returns from abroad after a family rift, complex schemes to promote or prevent true love, various freshly dead corpses sliding into abjection, and the escape of the murderous character in costume.  It lacked the character development that makes similar moments in Our Mutual Friend more entertaining, but I can see the shadow of better things to come as this novel winds down.

But perhaps such comparisons speak less to any qualities of Martin Chuzzlewit than to my own longing to read a better novel. I’ve had several moments of Dickens déjà vu in the past weeks.  For example, Mrs. Todgers’s neighborhood reminds me of Tom-All-Alone’s in Bleak House, and Tom Pinch’s affection for the Martin and Mary’s daughter recall’s Sydney Carton’s affection for Lucie and Charles Darnay’s children in Tale of Two Cities.  If only I were reading one of those books! These fragments I have shored against my . . . dissatisfaction.

Final Thoughts

Susan: The title of the final chapter is “Gives the Author great Concern.  For it is the Last in the Book.”  This summed up my experiences of MC as well.  The novel Gave this Reader great Concern.  For it Marks her Last Unread Dickens Novel.  I feel I’m leaving the major novels with a bit more of a whimper than a bang, but I’ve been preparing myself to be disappointed in MC for some time now.  This has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.  But there are things I have enjoyed about the experience.  I’ve enjoyed joining a community of dutiful MC readers.  I’ve enjoyed reading echoes and foreshadows of other Dickensian tropes, descriptions, and characters.  Mostly, though I’ve enjoyed reading and writing about this novel with you, Beth–you are hilarious and your company has made this experience amusing, reflective, unexpected, and for that all the more Dickensian.

Beth: Wasn’t it fun, Susan?  I, too, have been grateful for your virtual hospitality, cheerful fortitude, and wit.  I tend to think of “collaboration” as a term for the writing portion of research, but my own writing on Martin Chuzzlewit has benefited so much from this collaborative reading.  I wonder if our little project would have been as meaningful with a more enjoyable novel, or if Martin Chuzzlewit’s weaknesses have instead prompted us to rely on companionship to supply the laughter and reflection that we didn’t find in the book?  If so, let’s raise a glass to all the tedious nineteenth-century novels that remain!  Romola, anyone?

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.

[1] Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. 540.

[2] Dickens, p. 467.

[3] Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 461-2.

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