Charles Dickens just turned two hundred. To celebrate his birthday, I am reading all his novels and short stories. Why not join me?
My first was Martin Chuzzlewit, because it deals with selfishness, which seemed appropriate around the Holidays. Selfishness is so easy after getting gifts. My desire for Epic Mickey 2 and the new Madden games were not the only kinds of selfishness I had to battle, like Mickey killing a blot. I also had to fight off a selfish desire to insist that the Holidays be perfect as I define perfect.
Martin Chuzzlewit helped. Like all Dickens novels, the first hundred pages were tough and the last one hundred wonderful. I am patient with Dickens–or, better, he is patient with my foolish cravings for literary excitement–and the payoff is a better soul.
Here are six questions to ask as you read the book or when you finish it, with a few comments to get you started.
1. The Chuzzlewit family is selfish. It is their family curse. The younger Martin is a good enough fellow, but deeply flawed at the start of the book. What does he learn? How?
2. Dickens relates hypocrisy to selfishness, because the selfish man often disguises his lusts in order to gain his desires. Pecksniff is the model hypocrite in the book. How does his apparent virtue fool Tom Pinch? What is the difference between Pecksniff’s good actions (the ones that are really good) and Pinch’s?
3. I love Dickens’ condemnation of slave-holding America. What hypocrisy and folly does Dickens find in the US? Is any of it still here? Read the preface he put at the start of later editions after reading the book. What does he “retract?” What does he quietly affirm? How might an outsider critique secular America today? Religious America?
4. Mark Tapley wants jollification, but he wants virtue too. Why does he think this necessary? How does he relate external happiness to internal virtues?
5. Both Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit are very bad men. Both behave damnably, but Tigg is a lovable rogue while Jonas is utterly vile. What virtue keeps Tigg from being as wicked as Chuzzlewit? What is the relationship between vice and virtue in both villains?
6. Finally, Tom Pinch truly loves, but because he is “not a character in a novel,” he does not expect his love to be returned. What can Pinch teach moderns about romantic love? What is “appropriate” for a lover to expect?
Tom Pinch is not a Hollywood hero, but he is a Victorian one. Compare him, for example, to Doctor Who. The comparison makes sense. In the 2013 Doctor Who Christmas special, the Doctor took on “Victorian values,” so it’s safe to say no future incarnation of the Doctor will look like Dickens’ beloved character. Yet Tom Pinch is the kind of hero each of us really could become (like Frank Capra’s movie heroes), while the Doctor is beyond us, a kind of god.
May this new year find all the Wheatstone chums becoming as good as we can be instead of yearning for powers and loves we will never fitly possess!