Martin Chuzzlewit

By Charles Dickens

Rating: 3 stars

I have issues with Dickens. I usually enjoy them as I’m reading them, but as soon as I put them down I don’t really want to pick them up again. This is partially why this book has taken me such a long time to read. That, and the fact that it’s about 800 pages long.

The plot is difficult to sum up since there are several meandering subplots that eventually start to come together towards the end of the book (and it was when this happened that I started to really become gripped by it). Old Martin Chuzzlewit is a wealthy man but spends his time hoarding his wealth and seeing plots all around him by his family to grab it. He falls out with his grandson and namesake over the woman he raised from a child to care for him, Mary, who Young Martin has fallen in love with. This sends Young Martin first to study with his relative Seth Pecksniff as an architect and then to America, where several misfortunes happen to him and eventually bring him back to England.

There’s no room in a short review to describe the other characters in the book: the good-hearted Tom Pinch; the hypocritical Pecksniff and his daughters; the rascal Montague Tigg; Old Martin’s brother Anthony and his villainous son Jonas and many more. Dickens’ characters have always been wonderful and these are certainly memorable. Caricatures, certainly, but lovingly rendered for all that.

One of the problems that I had with the book was its several plots, often moving between them, leaving cliffhangers aplenty. I appreciate this is probably due to the original episodic nature of the publication but I still found it somewhat irritating. This was especially apparent in the American sections, where, at one point, we left Young Martin on the verge of death, and didn’t return to him for several chapters.

Speaking of the American sections, I think these were some of the funniest in the book. They do display some degree of anti-Americanism, which Dickens admitted was down to his own perception on his first visit there. He later retracted this and left an afterword making clear that he no longer agreed with this (not in my edition, but I found it on the Wikipedia page). However, I’d argue that the American characters are no worse than the English ones, just “differently bad” with their obsession with Equality and Freedom.

I did find myself at times getting frustrated with the pace of the story and starting to skim-read, as I usually do, and having to stop and force myself to go back and read it again slowly, remembering that Dickens’ art is in his writing, not necessarily the storytelling. The gothic style of writing is certainly dramatic, at times melodramatic, but no less enjoyable for that.

Dickens is, of course, well known for his happy endings, and, despite knowing it must be coming, I was still captivated by it, but then I’m a sucker for happy endings :).

Did this book make me change my mind about Dickens? No, not really. It took me ages to work up to it, I enjoyed it while I was reading it, and now that I’m done, I have no desire to read any more Dickens. I’m sure I’ll pick up another one eventually and the cycle will repeat.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853262050
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions
Year of publication: 1844

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