Having heard that Dickens considered this book one of his best works, I was quite looking forward to reading it. It’s always interesting to see what an author likes best out of his own works as it gives a bit of insight into his own personality, only in this instance, I can’t quite put my finger on what he must have liked about it, or not for certain anyway.
The book is actually not just about Martin Chuzzelwit, but about the extended Chuzzelwit family. Martin Chuzzelwit the Senior is simply the head of the family who sets events in motion. Much of the book is about the how the characters deal with what Martin Sr. has put into motion. The whole story becomes very complicated with all of the characters who are involved. It can be a bit difficult to remember who is related to whom and how and if not related, how are they involved in the story. As much as I’d love to go into all of the characters and who is who and related to whom how, it would take an age to do so, so I’ll just refer anyone who’s interested to the Wiki page (Spoiler warning! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_and_Adventures_of_Martin_Chuzzlewit) where there’s already a good list.
The short version is that Martin and Anthony Chuzzelwit are two wealthy brothers who both lose their trust in humankind as they assume that everyone is out after their money. Such is Martin’s fear that he hires a young girl, Mary, as a servant and pays her well with the understanding that as soon as he dies, she will get no more out of him. This is supposed to ensure that she puts all her efforts into making sure that he lives as long as possible. He trusts none of his relatives because he “knows” that they want him dead so they can inherit his money. Unfortunately, Martin Sr.’s grandson, Martin the younger, falls in love with Mary and intends to marry her. That would, of course, destroy Mary’s disinterestedness in Martin Sr.’s will, so he disinherits Martin the younger who must then go off and seek his fortune alone, ultimately leading him to abandon England for the United States to try his fortune there.
The story’s villain is Mr. Pecksniff, a cousin of the Chuzzelwits who uses their mistrust of others and the absence of Martin to insinuate himself into a place of importance in old Martin’s life. He sucks up and brown noses Martin Sr. to the point of becoming an emetic. Both Pecksniff and his two daughters are a cause of outrage to the reader as he goes about promoting himself, especially by defaming honest people, whenever he feels it will be to his advantage. His is literally prepared to do anything to secure his own comfort, and is introduced into the story as a “teacher” of architecture who actually passes off his pupil’s work as his own and gleans both credit and money for the work. His character becomes more and more devious and audacious as time passes and he feels himself more secure in receiving an inheritance from Martin Sr.
There are many, many side and sub plots in the novel and it eventually begins to bounce back and forth between the US and England. The US does not come out smelling of roses, however, Dickens was very careful about printing his own comments about the American episodes with the novels. He begs his audience to take the book as fiction and to forgive him for his rather exaggerated portrayal of the more negative traits of the Americans. He was actually quite fond of the country and it’s people, but it did serve his purpose in making certain points about Martin the Younger’s personality and character development. My only qualm with this was that he should have put it at the beginning of the novel and not at the end, at least in all printings of the book which took place after completion of the series (This was another of Dickens’ serial works. He didn’t intend to send Martin to America from the outset, but changed his mind after the first parts had been published.).
Did I like the book? Yes and no. I found that some parts dragged and some were really suspenseful. Many of his larger than life characters really got on my nerves, specifically I would have liked to smack the Americans for being so annoying and Martin the Younger for being so stupid and gullible. Pecksniff really gets up your nose on occasion too. Still, it’s a good work and I’m not sorry to have read it. I’m giving it a 3 out of 5 rating, 2 points lost of annoying characters and occasionally dragging bits.
In my bid to finish all of Dickens’ works I still have the following to read:
The Old Curiosity Shop
Dombey & Son
Our Mutual Friend
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
I’m curious how I’ll like these in comparison. I’ll be sure to let you know when I’m done with them :0)