Charles Dickens completed Martin Chuzzlewit immediately upon his return from a trip to the United States in 1842, and the novel reflects some of the same concerns as his nonfiction work American Notes (1842). Although the novel lagged disappointingly in sales—a situation that ultimately led Dickens to sever his connection with the publisher Chapman and Hall—he felt himself at the top of his creative powers and believed the book to be his best work yet.
Both in structure and in vividness of character portrayal, Martin Chuzzlewit does reveal Dickens at the height of his creative power, and it marks a transition from his rather loosely organized earlier novels to the more structured later works. Yet, while not an absolute failure with the public, it met with perhaps the poorest reception of any of his novels. A number of theories have been forwarded to explain why Dickens’s audience did not respond to the book, among them the fact that in this work Dickens treats his characters and themes rather harshly and with less of his previous tongue-in-cheek manner. Martin Chuzzlewit has little of the genial warmth and affectionate comedy that mellows even the bitterest of Dickens’s earlier satire.
Another reason put forth for the novel’s disappointing initial performance is its biting satire on America and Americans in those portions of the novel in which young Martin seeks his fortune in the United States. In his earlier American Notes, Dickens had been careful to balance his criticisms with observations on the many virtues he found in the young nation; the American press nevertheless reacted to his polite criticism with hot anger, and Dickens felt obliged to pull out all the stops the next time. Indeed, his own enjoyment in creating a scathing portrait of America may perhaps have led him to indulge it to a greater extent than was warranted by the structural importance of the American episodes. The American scenes are an important part of the overall story, if only because Martin’s sufferings in Eden and his grateful appreciation of Mark Tapley are needed to drive home his awareness of his own selfishness. Throughout a large part of the young men’s American adventures, however, the focus is less on Mark and Martin than on America itself.
In all fairness, Dickens saves an even fiercer scorn for the evils at home. He shows nothing in America to equal the whining insolence of a Chevy Slyme or the greedy meanness of the whole Chuzzlewit family. No American impostor comes close to the insincerity of the hypocritical Pecksniff. The Eden Land Corporation is no more disreputable a swindle than the Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Insurance Company. It is this deeper inwardness of vision that distinguishes Dickens’s handling of evil in his native land from his pictures of trickery and folly in America.
Despite the extraordinary vividness with which he exposes a wide range of American types and their mannerisms, and despite his wit in parodying their methods of speaking, Dickens never gets inside these characters. The British characters, in contrast, even when they are melodramatically lurid or outrageously satirized, are seen to some degree from within as well as from without, which endows them with an imaginative sympathy lacking for the American portraits. Dickens has no love for Jonas or Montague, but he knows their thoughts, just as he knows Pecksniff, too, to his very depths. It is this difference that makes the hilarious satire of the American scenes appear more sharply hostile than the far deeper condemnation with which Dickens surveys corruption at home.
Perhaps the supreme achievement of the novel...
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is in the characters of Mrs. Gamp and Mr. Pecksniff. Mrs. Gamp, with her imaginary friend Mrs. Harris, represents such an almost transcendent vision of character that she threatens to overwhelm the rest of the novel. She has been hailed as one of the greatest comic creations in English literature, an adept in the use of language who would not be surpassed in literature until James Joyce’s creation of Molly Bloom. Perhaps even greater is Dickens’s achievement with the character of Pecksniff, who has been hailed as a prodigious achievement of imaginative energy, likened to a Tartuffe despoiled of his terrifying and satanic power and an embodiment of all the bourgeois hypocrisy of Victorian England. Dickens constructs this character with great elaborateness and illustrates him from a thousand angles.
Critical response to Martin Chuzzlewit changed significantly after the initial aloofness with which the book was received, and it became recognized as perhaps second only to Pickwick Papers (1836-1837, serial; 1837, book) in the degree of its comic achievement. The work also came to be seen to mark an important stage in Dickens’s development as a novelist; his subsequent works became increasingly panoramic, striving toward a coherent overview and sense of totality. Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit out of the whole available literary tradition as it bore on his chosen subject, and it was in this work that he began to discover the subjects and technique that he eventually made wholly his own.