It is easy to lose oneself in Dickens’s baroque prose and enchanting, lightning-past plots. He is one of my favorite Victorians, just behind Charlotte and Emily Bronte; Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are two of my favorite novels. And yet I complained bitterly this month while reading Dickens’s picaresque novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. This weird, asymmetrical novel proceeds haphazardly and plotlessly, until it finally comes together in a sentimental, fantastical ending.
The loose plot centers on the separation of old, rich, cantankerous Martin Chuzzlewit from his grandson, also named Martin Chuzzlewit, after a quarrel about the young man’s determination to marry Mary Graham, old Martin’s companion. The youthful Martin ends up traveling to America to make money and almost dies in a swampy settlement called Eden, saved by Mark Tapley, a working-class Englishman who wants to prove he can be” jolly” under any circumstances. (He does.) Meanwhile, old Martin falls under the thrall of a creep named Mr. Pecksniff.
It is undoubtedly the villains who drive this book. I could not tell you who the hero is, or if there is a hero. But it will be a long, long time before I forget Mr. Pecksniff and Jonah Chuzzlewit. I wish I could!
The sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff, a fraudulent architect, hypocritical churchgoer, and windbag of an orator, swindles, plagiarises, and schemes to acquire money, including the fortune of old Martin Chuzzlewit. And Jonah Chuzzlwit, who courts both of Mr. Pecksniff’s daughters, and abuses Merry Pecksniff after he marries her, is willing to commit murder if it will advance his financial dreams.
Eventually good prevails, and evil is punished. The dead even come back to life. (I’m not making this up.) But even though there is a happy ending, it does not end altogether happily for Tom Pinch, one of my favorite minor characters. Even the good can live in darkness in Dickens.
Dickens sketches Tom as a kind, merry, and moral character who does good deeds and will never get what he wants—and yet must feign happiness.
Tom is the one loyal apprentice of pseudo-architect Mr. Pecksniff. Tom thinks the best of everyone. And as, one by one, the other apprentices discover Mr. Pecksniff’s true character and are driven from his employment, Tom tries to persuade them that they are mistaken. Martin, who has briefly been an apprentice, underestimates Tom, whom he thinks simple. Fortunately, others esteem Tom highly despite his credulousness. It is only after Martin’s departure that Dickens reveals Tom’s true depth.
Tom is not a sentimental Dickensian stick figure, though it may seem that way at first. We learn he is musical and transported through music. He is enraptured when he plays the organ at church, and when Mary Graham, who is staying with her employer Martin at a nearby inn, comes into the church for solace and listens to his practicing, he begins to play music she especially enjoys. It is his way of courtship/worship.
Tom even saves Mary from Mr. Pecksniff, after she confides that he has tried to bully her into marrying him. Mind you, Mary is grateful to Tom and loves him as a friend, but it never occurs to her to think of him as a lover. Martin is handsome and Tom plain, so there is no rivalry. But actually, Mary has a very small role in the book, so we know very little of her. She IS one of the stick figures in the book.
At the happy ending, characters marry left and right, but Tom stays single. He finally has a good job as a librarian, but his fate is to live with his sister Ruth and her new husband, and to be a happy uncle. Dickens’ final portrait of Tom–the last few pages are about Tom–disturbed me. Yes, the writing is sentimental, but Dickens doesn’t spare us the reality of the life of a man who lives through others. Dickens writes,
And that mild figure seated at an organ, who is he! Ah Tom, dear Tom, old friend!
Thy head is prematurely grey, though Time has passed thee and our old association, Tom. But, in those sounds with which it is thy wont to bear the twilight company, the music of thy heart speaks out—the story of thy life relates itself.
Thy life is tranquil, calm, and happy, Tom. In the soft strain which ever and again comes stealing back upon the ear, the memory of thine old love may find a voice perhaps; but it is a pleasant, softened, whispering memory, like that in which we sometimes hold the dead, and does not pain or grieve thee, God be thanked.
There are a few more pages of this. Tranquil? Happy? Maybe. Dickens goes overboard. He is not this mawkish in his later books.
I am haunted by Tom! I cannot think this a happy ending. I can’t think Dickens does.
Dickens can be very dark, but maybe I’m reading things into this because it is NOT one of his best books and I am floored by this ending.