The portrait of America, eternally boasting of their freedom whilst glorying in slavery (Chuzzlewit was written in 1843, almost twenty years before the American Civil War), and full of gluttons and sharks who will do their very best to fleece every one they can, must have damned Dickens in the USA. There is only one good American who eventually lends Martin the money he needs to escape back to England.
In terms of the book, the sojourn in America is a good chance for Dickens to be at his most bitingly sarcastic but does nothing to feed the plot except to bring Martin to his lowest point and, upon redemption, to rid him of his selfishness. As a consequence, Dickens has to keep the action moving back and forth across the Atlantic so that the main focus of the story becomes the behaviour of Jonas Chuzzlewit, nephew to old Martin, who comes into his own inheritance when his own father dies, marries, becomes a wife-batterer, and then falls in with a fraudulent insurance company.
In many ways this novel is classic Dickens. There are tremendous descriptive passages which can go on for pages with metaphor upon extended metaphor. These really slow the action down, especially in the vulnerable early part of the book. Later on there are some utterly cringing declarations of love and purity. Dickens really couldn't see a pudding without over-egging it. And he really couldn't do 'show don't tell'. We know from page one that Pecksniff is a hypocrite because Dickens tells us. And of course Pecksniff has no redeeming features. We know straight away that Tom Pinch is a saint because Dickens tells us. And Tom has no faults. Even the characters who change, Martin and Mercy, scarcely change. And you have to feel sorry for Charity not just because her marital ambitions are multiply thwarted but because Dickens so clearly revels in thios, seeing it as just punishment for her crime which is basically being Pecksniff's daughter. The other daughter, Mercy, also comes off worst.
So the book is full of the faults of Dickens. But it is also full of his strengths. There are some brilliant characters:
- Pecksniff himself, the self-righteous hypocrite who is so brilliantly adept at always being found accidentally in possession of the moral high ground.
- Mark Tapley, a bit of a clone of Sam Weller, who is irrepressibly jolly and so decides that in order to gain moral credit he has to put himself into the worst possible situation so that his natural optimism is tested in as hot a furnace as possible.
- Sairey Gamp, the alcoholic nurse, who holds monologues of breathtaking brilliance which purport to be dialogues between herself and 'Mrs Harris' but which always show Sairey herself in the best possible light.
- Mercy (Merry) Pecksniff who persuades Jonas to court her by the stratagem of always putting him down and calling him 'that fright'.
- Bailey Junior, a bit of a bit part, but one of the cheeky young cockney boys in whom Dickens excelled.
- Montague Tigg, the shady financier.
- Jonas Chuzzlewit, a baddy in the Alan Rickman mould, whose downfall is a rather neat piece of irony.
But there are others who are there merely to help get the lead characters out of difficult situations and to resolve the story. Old Martin and John Westlock are the most obvious.
If there is one thing I would learn from this novel it is the comic brilliance of Mrs Gamp.
Huge. Could be cut down to 300 pages without missing much. But plenty of fun and some great Dickensian characters and dialogue. December 2014; 837 pages.