Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thoughts on Chuck D, and specifically, 'Martin Chuzzlewit': Part II

Consistently referred to as one of Dickens' weaker novels overall, there is still a great deal to recommend the novel "Martin Chuzzlewit" to those who appreciate the full-throated, maximalist experience of a 19th century novel. Of these, there is certainly no writer who deserves more merit than Dickens.

This novel was published in 1843, on the heels of his "American Notes", the nonfiction account of his first visit to the United States as a literary celebrity. Despite his great popularity in America, which he continued to enjoy until his death, Dickens was evidently rather disillusioned with this country. I have not read his "Notes", so I can't comment on them, but if "Chuzzlewit" is any indication, he was not terribly impressed with our citizens or our system of government, and was fast to point out disparities, as he saw them, between the ideals this nation was founded on, and Americans' abilities to live up to those ideals. As I stated in my previous comments, this novel is not for strict patriots who don't want to see our country dissed. It gets dissed good in this novel; and yet, interestingly enough, the American portions of the book are almost inconsquential to the rest of the story. The story goes that he shipped his character, Martin Chuzzlewit the younger, and the namesake of the book, to America just because the sales of the serialization of the book as he was writing it lagged. So, he sent them to America to take some pot shots at us to stir up some interest in the story. Whether it worked or not, who knows. But in any case, the characters return 3/4 of the way through the book and join the rest of the cast for the novel's conclusion.

Dickens novels are hard to summarize, but this one is about two elderly brothers, Martin and Anthony Chuzzlewit, and their sons, Martin (the younger) and Jonas, respectively. Martin the elder is a rich man but has disinherited his son at the novel's outset; many of the other characters in the novel spend much of the time jockeying for position to inherit his money, including the reprehensible buffoon Mr. Peckniff, a sham 'architect' who takes Martin the younger in as his pupil. When Pecksniff and his pupil have a falling out, Martin (younger) shoves off for America with his assistant, Mark Tapley, in search of his fortune, which leaves Jonas in place as Chuzzlewit's relative to make his name. The novel contrasts the journeys, both literal and metaphorical, of the younger Chuzzlewits, Jonas and Martin. Martin experiences disease, poverty and defeat, ultimately forced to return home, but learning valuable lessons and salvaging his character in the end. Jonas, on the other hand, merely an irritating, spoiled child at the beginning, descends into a vortex of his own greed and connivance, and is corrupted into something wholly evil, capable of just about anything to advance his own ends.

The book contains numerous subplots and the usual assortment of memorable Dickens characters: the aforementioned Pecksniff; the childishly innocent Tom Pinch, who remains loyal to the Chuzzlewits come what may; Mary Graham, who tends to the health of old Martin and is betrothed to Martin the younger; Nasgett, the undercover police officer who serves Martin the older; Mrs. Gamp, the blustery nurse whose main purpose is the collection of gossip.

The great thing about Dickens novels to me are the way his long, ambling plots ultimately tie in at the end with great flourish and sudden twists and turns. Dickens' flair for the dramatic serves his long novels well, as each surprise, when it comes, carries the punch of a great stage entrance and a trumpeting of music. You're not going to find a lot of subtlety in his books, but what you always do get is great storytelling, entertainment, social commentary, rich humor, and above all for me, incredibly vivid and diverse characterization. Many Dickens novels have over 50 characters. In this particular novel, there is an outstanding murder scene in which Dickens ratchets up the tension considerably for many pages, creates a cinematically chilling scene of the murder itself, and convincingly evokes the desperation and tormented conscience of the killer after he performs his deed. This character ultimately receives his comeuppance, but not before he struggles mightily on the hook in a series of episodes that might have done Dosteovsky proud.

In the end, all of the secrets are revealed. Thrillingly, in "Martin Chuzzlewit", the power of sheer storytelling and the triumph of goodness over selfishness and greed are once again vindicated by a great novelist and a 'grandfather' to all of us who attempt to write stories.


Duke Altum said...

I'm not sure I've seen a better-written post on this whole dang blog... outstanding review essay on 'Chuzzlewit'/Dickens, Mutt. I may have been the guy to get this blog going, but there is no doubt that it's Mutt's writing that gives the thing whatever class/quality it has... (other than the material under discussion, of course).

This is clearly the product of a lot of both reading AND thinking about Dickens' work. The only reason I have started reading Dickens again at all is the enthusiasm that Mutt brings to the table for his work. And he builds up a convincing case. It's interesting though to me that the few Dickens novels I have read all exhibit these same characteristics that Mutt describes... the extensive list of dramatis personae, the theatric twists and turns of plot, the humanistic moral messages. It's like he figured out what his template was going to be and used it throughout his career... and yet, because of his skills at creating and fleshing out interesting characters and at sheer storytelling and plotting, the novels are never the same thing twice. Each seems to be a unique and gripping work of art in its own right. This is all the more remarkable considering his prolific output of large, sweeping novels (and shorter fiction as well).

Only one question remains in my mind now that Mutt has chuzzled 'Chuzzlewit': what will next year's featured Dickens novel be??? I suppose we all need to stay tuned to this blog to find out...

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke, thanks a lot for the comment on my post. I didn't think it was that great but I am glad you got something out of it. Not hard to sell Dickens to those who love literature. He does frequently seem to follow the same loose 'template', but I think people still love the books because 1) no one could do that model like him, 2) people enjoy great drama which his plots always provide, and 3) while the structures and the amounts of characters are instantly recognizable, each plot is large and unique to its own novel, which is quite incredible. Books like 'Oliver Twist', 'A Tale of Two Cities', 'Barnaby Rudge' and 'Hard Times' are all very different from one another.

As for next year, I can give a few candidates, based on what I already have on my shelf. A leading candidate for now is 'The Pickwick Papers', his first novel. 'Great Expectations', which I have never read, is certainly in the running. And lastly, I am not sure if this would really 'count', but I do have a fascinating volume of his nonfiction journalism columns, collected from his entire life. There are literally hundreds of columns on all kinds of diverse subjects. The only collections of journalism I have seen of this level of diversity would be something like Chesterton's collections of columns (some of which you have read) or maybe the book 'Byline Ernest Hemingway'. So this could be a contender too. But, as you said, if you want to know what ultimately gets the call, you got to keep grabbing on to the Thread: ALL YEAR LONG!