Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Martin Chuzzlewit" Charles Dickens

In the way that Plato’s dialogues each examine a particular virtue, Dickens's novels each revolve around a specific vice. Dombey and Son examines pride, Bleak House examines greed, Barnaby Rudge examines religious fanaticism, Martin Chuzzlewit examines hypocrisy.
The main vehicle for this is of course Mr Pecksniff, who, in spite of the comedy surrounding his scenes, is one of the vilest characters Dickens created. On occasions where he is being most duplicitous, his language reaches for the most sublime (ridiculous) in a marvelous parody of high-flown Carlylese:
“Behold the wonders of the firmament, Mrs Lupin,! How glorious is the scene! When I look up at those shining orbs, I think that each of them is winking to the other to take notice of the vanity of men’s pursuits. My fellow men, you are much mistaken; my wormy relatives, you are much deceived! …Oh do not strive and struggle to enrich yourselves, or to get the better of each other, my friends, but look up there with me.” …“Look up there with me”, repeated Mr. Pecksniff, stretching out his hand, “with me, an humble individual who is also an Insect like yourselves…”
How one longs to punch him in the face! However, Dickens knows that the best reaction to such bullshit is the snigger, and Pecksniff always makes us laugh, especially when he gets drunk at Todgers, one of the most hilarious moments in this most hilarious (and darkest) of novels. The other weapon Dickens uses against him is sarcasm, and the opening chapter of the novel is one extended sarcastic rant against the pretensions of good breeding.

The duplicity of Pecksniff is contrasted against the innocent honesty of Tom Pinch, who is one of Dickens’ most likable characters, and another example of the holy fool who takes his place among Dickens’s gallery of holy fools. The one note of weakness in this novel is the apostrophizing voice the narrator takes on when commenting on the goodness of Tom Pinch: Tom! Tom! The man in all this world most confident in his sagacity and shrewdness; the man in all this world most proud of his distrust of other men, and having the most to show in gold and silver as the gains belonging to his creed, Every man for himself, and God for us all… Dickens seems to be unaware that he is in danger of sounding as ridiculous as Pecksniff in these moments. Perhaps he was not sure that Tom’s actions and behavior alone would do the job for him in getting the reader to love him. The malign influence of Carlyle again…

In Dickens’s world view, a philosopher is a dirty thing (cf this from Oliver Twist: Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with the beautiful maxim that self preservation is the first law of nature.
And this from The Old Curiosity Shop: Mr Codlin talked very slowly and ate very greedily, as is not uncommon with philosophers and misanthropes.) Philosophy symbolizes a callous disregard for the reality of human suffering. This was partly due to his distaste for abstract systems in general, and Utilitarian thought in particular, whose social philosophy underpinned the main legal and social framework of his time. It must also surely be partly due to his ignorance of classical and continental philosophy, which more often looks at the problem of how to live a good life and how to define goodness on an individual level, a project that preoccupies Dickens in his own way in this novel and throughout his career.
In a sense this novel is an extended meditation on the Socratic question of what it means to be a good man, with goodness measured in terms of honesty, and evil measured in terms of the disconnect between one’s actions and one’s words. Mr Pecksniff, the narrative voice tells us sarcastically, is a moral man. The characters fall into place along a spectrum of morality, with Pecksniff at the evil end: the arch hypocrite with the biggest gap between words and actions, and Tom Pinch at the other: the man incapable of duplicity. Mark Tapler is also at this end. At the centre of the spectrum is the double figure of Martin Chuzzlewit: the old and the young. Old Martin is duplicitous, but ultimately working for a good end. Young Martin is not duplicitous but very selfish. These characters change, as does the character of Merry Pecksniff. Jonas Chuzzlewit is not on the spectrum as he is the thoroughly evil man and doesn’t disguise the fact. The main characters may each be thought of as embodying a philosophical type: Mark Tapler the Stoic, Pecksniff the Cynic, Old Martin the Machiavellian Pragmatist, Tom Pinch the Virtuous Man, Jonas Chuzzlewit the Vile Man.

It’s fitting, then, that Martin junior takes off to America, the Republic of Bullshit itself. Dickens’s description of America in the novel is ironic to the point of sarcasm, and alarmingly prescient. He loves to make fun of the mad names Americans give themselves: Mr LaFayette Kettle, Mr Jefferson Brick, Mr Hannibal Chollop, (perhaps Condeleeza Rice is really a Dickensian character…) and sends up the disconnect between the discourse of liberty, freedom and independence on the one hand (President Bush: “This war is about peace”…), and on the other the thuggish behavior of a place where the right to carry a gun and bully others with it is guaranteed by the constitution. There’s an awful lot of spitting, a superabundance of military titles, a lot of rather unwashed people and not much civilization. Plus ca change, it would seem….

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