Selfishness is a strong family trait in Martin and Anthony Chuzzlewit, two aged brothers. From his cradle, Anthony’s son, Jonas, has been taught to think only of money and gain; in his eagerness to possess his father’s wealth, he often grows impatient for the old man to die. Old Martin Chuzzlewit suspects the world of having designs on his fortune; his distrust and lack of generosity have turned his grandson, his namesake, into a model of selfishness and obstinacy. The old man’s heart is not as hard as it seems, for he has taken into his house as his companion and ward an orphan named Mary Graham. He tells her that she will have a comfortable home as long as he lives but that she should expect nothing at his death. His secret wish is that love might grow between her and his grandson, but when young Martin tells him that he has chosen Mary for his own, old Martin is displeased, afraid that the young couple are acting in their own interests. A disagreement follows, and the old man turns his grandson out of his house.
Thrown on his own resources, young Martin decides to become an architect. He arranges to study with Mr. Pecksniff, an architect and land surveyor, who lives in a little Wiltshire village not far from Salisbury. Mr. Pecksniff agrees to train two or three pupils in return for a large premium and exorbitant charges for board and lodging. He thinks highly of himself as a moral man, and he has a copybook maxim to quote for every occasion. He and old Martin Chuzzlewit are cousins, but even though there has been bad feeling between them in the past, Mr. Pecksniff sees in young Martin a possible suitor for one of his daughters, and he accepts him as a student without requiring the customary fee.
Mr. Pecksniff has never been known to build anything, a fact that takes nothing away from his reputation. With him live his two affected daughters, Charity and Mercy, both as hypocritical and mean-spirited as their father. His assistant is a former pupil named Tom Pinch, a meek, prematurely aged draftsman who looks upon Mr. Pecksniff as a tower of knowledge.
Young Martin arrives in Wiltshire and takes the place of John Westlock in Mr. Pecksniff’s establishment. Westlock was never a favorite in the household, his contempt for Mr. Pecksniff having been as great as his regard for the honest, loyal Tom Pinch. At first, Martin treats Tom in a patronizing manner. Tom, accustomed to the snubs and ridicule of Charity and Mercy, returns Martin’s slights with simple goodwill; before long, the two become friends.
One day, Mr. Pecksniff and his daughters depart suddenly for London, summoned there by old Martin Chuzzlewit. The old man calls on them at Mrs. Todgers’s shabbily genteel rooming house and accuses his grandson of having deceived the worthy man who shelters him. Mr. Pecksniff pretends to be pained and shocked to learn that Mr. Chuzzlewit has disowned his grandson. When the visitor hints at future goodwill and expectations if the architect will send the young man away at once, Mr. Pecksniff—even though the old man’s proposal is treacherous and his language insulting—agrees eagerly. Returning to Wiltshire, he puts on a virtuous appearance as he announces that young Martin has ill treated the best and noblest of men and has taken advantage of his own unsuspecting nature. His humble roof, Mr. Pecksniff declares, can never shelter so base an ingrate and impostor.
Homeless once more, Martin makes his way to London in the hope of finding employment. As the weeks pass, his small store of money dwindles steadily. At last, when he has nothing left to pawn, he decides to try his fortunes in America. A twenty-pound note in a letter from an unknown sender gives him the wherewithal for his passage. Mark Tapley, the hostler of the Blue Dragon Inn in Wiltshire, accompanies him on his adventure. Mark is a jolly fellow with a desire to see the world. Martin cannot leave London, however, without seeing Mary Graham. He reads her a letter he has written to Tom Pinch, in which he asks his friend to show her kindness if the two should ever meet. Martin also arranges to write to Mary in care of Tom.
As steerage passengers, Martin and Mark have a miserable voyage to New York. Martin is not fond of the bumptious, tobacco-chewing Americans he meets, but he is excited by accounts of the fortunes to be made out West. Taken in by a group of land promoters, he writes to Mary, telling her of his bright prospects.
Meanwhile, old Anthony Chuzzlewit dies suddenly in the presence of his son, Mr. Pecksniff, and a faithful clerk, Chuffey. Sarah Gamp is called in to prepare the body for burial. She is a fat, middle-aged Cockney with a fondness for the...
(The entire section is 1922 words.)