Martin Chuzzlewit | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Martin Chuzzlewit | Chapters 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: Introductory, Concerning the Pedigree of the Chuzzlewit Family

In an exaggerated tongue-in-cheek fashion, the narrator assures readers of the "extreme antiquity" of the Chuzzlewit line. He states that one Chuzzlewit accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066. For example, the narrator claims thievery to be "a promising means of repairing shattered fortunes" among a man's descendants. Since mankind is most likely descended from monkeys, the narrator asserts that "men do play very strange and extraordinary tricks" upon one another.

The narrator emphasizes the less-than-savory elements found within the Chuzzlewit ancestry, and British society in general. "The more extended the ancestry, the greater the amount of violence," the narrator proclaims. Readers' curiosity is piqued when the narrator mentions there is "a murderer and a vagabond" within the Chuzzlewit family. There is also a Chuzzlewit linked with Guy Fawkes and involved with the Gunpowder Plot, the failed attempt to overthrow the British Protestant government in 1605, in an effort to instill a Catholic administration instead. At the end of the chapter, the narrator likens some of the Chuzzlewits to "having a vast number of qualities which belong more particularly to swine than to any other class of animals."

Chapter 2: Wherein Certain Persons Are Presented to the Reader, with Whom He May, If He Please, Become Better Acquainted

As Chapter 2 opens, the narrator sets the scene with the blacksmith forge and the alehouse called Blue Dragon in the town of Salisbury, which is located within the county of Wiltshire in England. Mr. Pecksniff is knocked out by his own front door and falls down the front steps of his house. Miss Pecksniff, one of his daughters, peers outside and doesn't even see her father prone on the sidewalk. When he sneezes, his other daughter comes outside and both women help him up. They bring him into the house, tend to his wounds (which include scrapes on his elbows and knees as well as a bump on the back of his head), and give him a brandy.

The dutiful daughters serve their father tea and a dinner of ham and eggs. The younger of the two Pecksniff daughters, Mercy, is described as possessing "simplicity and innocence, which [a]re very great." Her sister, Charity, is described as rather serious and intelligent. The narrator informs readers that the two sisters are both opposite of, and complementary to, one another. "Nature play[s] them off against each other," according to the narrator, an all-knowing fountain of wisdom.

Mr. Pecksniff asks his daughters if his former pupil John Westlock has gone. They tell him that John has not yet left because he stayed to dine with Tom Pinch, a former pupil and now aide to Mr. Pecksniff. The daughters and Mr. Pecksniff are disappointed in Tom Pinch for doing this, and it seems that there is bad blood between the Pecksniffs and John Westlock. John Westlock and Tom Pinch return, and Tom helps John take the last of his belongings.

Chapter 3: In Which Certain Other Persons Are Introduced; On the Same Terms as in the Last Chapter

In Chapter 3 the reader is introduced to the elder Martin Chuzzlewit and his ward, Mary. The scene opens on the village alehouse, called the Blue Dragon, and its creaking dragon sign. Up to this establishment arrive an old man and a young lady, travelling in "a rusty old chariot with post-horses; coming nobody knew whence and going nobody knew whither." The old man seems to be experiencing some sort of fit of illness, and he is taken by the landlady to a room in the Dragon. He forbids the landlady to call for a doctor and only allows the young lady to give him medicine from his own medicine chest. He causes quite a commotion with his complaints and harasses the landlady, who is described as "just what a landlady should be: broad, buxom, comfortable, and good looking" and seems to be a relatively good-natured person.

Despite the old man's requests, the landlady attempts to find help for him. As there is no doctor in town, she sends for the next most logical person: Mr. Pecksniff. Mr. Pecksniff is away, however, and does not get the message until later in the evening. In the meantime, the old man calms down and begins writing something while the landlady settles down with the young woman before the fire. They talk, and the landlady learns that the young woman is neither a relative of the old man nor married to him. This concerns the landlady greatly, and she doesn't know how to interpret their relationship, fearing for the worst.

Eventually, Mr. Pecksniff arrives and the landlady takes him into the old man's room, where he is now sleeping. Mr. Pecksniff sits for a while on the edge of the bed, until the old man wakes up. When he awakes, Pecksniff recognizes him as Martin Chuzzlewit, calling him cousin, and Martin Chuzzlewit unhappily recognizes Mr. Pecksniff. They talk about Mr. Chuzzlewit's money, and Mr. Pecksniff tells Mr. Chuzzlewit to think of him as a (disinterested) stranger, presumably so Mr. Chuzzlewit will talk to him and not think Mr. Pecksniff is only interested in his money. Then Mr. Chuzzlewit proceeds to tell Mr. Pecksniff the bad luck his wealth has brought upon him. He insists that all those who have come into contact with him and his money have become corrupted. The young girl, Mary, he explains is his ward who has an allowance while he lives but will inherit nothing when he dies. He claims that this way, he doesn't doubt her loyalty or her interest in his money.

Mr. Pecksniff listens to this diatribe, and then Mr. Chuzzlewit tells him to leave. Mr. Pecksniff agrees to go, but first tells Mr. Chuzzlewit that he must "provide for" his grandson, also named Martin Chuzzlewit. He then leaves, and Mr. Chuzzlewit wonders at Mr. Pecksniff's motive in concerning himself with young Martin, speculating that Martin has allied himself somehow with Mr. Pecksniff. He then burns the piece of paper he was writing on, which turns out to have been another will.

Analysis

Dickens introduces his characters in these first three chapters with heavy verbal irony. Almost all of his characters are introduced with lavish descriptions that are clearly satirical and not at all genuine. The exception to this seems to be Mary, the elder Martin Chuzzlewit's ward, whom he describes through the eyes of the landlady. The description is relatively simple and as she has "a greater share of self-possession and control over her emotions than usually belongs to a far more advanced period of female life."

This description is in sharp contrast to the accounts of Mr. Pecksniff's daughters, who have the much more gaudy names of "Mercy" and "Charity" to the young woman's simple "Mary." Mr. Pecksniff's daughters are also shown to be quite flighty girls, as the youngest cannot even see her father when she opens the door and he is lying at the bottom of the steps, where he had fallen. Charity is distinctly uncharitable in her response to Mr. Pinch, whom she talks about "with as strong and scornful an emphasis on [his] name as if it would have given her unspeakable pleasure to express it, in an acted charade, on the calf of that gentleman's leg."

Readers are directly told that Mr. Pecksniff is "a moral man" because some unnamed person has called him that. Therefore, readers are to accept that as fact and not question the validity of the descriptor. This is in direct contrast to Mr. Pecksniff's business dealings. He is an architect who has "never designed or built anything." Despite this, he is purported to have a profound knowledge of architecture. Mr. Pecksniff is compared with Fortunatus, whose purse magically never empties regardless how much he spends, except that Mr. Pecksniff's lips fail to produce real diamonds; instead, their product is "the very brightest paste, and [shines] prodigiously." Since Pecksniff can't do, he teaches.

Martin Chuzzlewit is introduced as a disagreeable old man who complains and carries on about his illness. Yet from his speech to Mr. Pecksniff the reader is left wondering if he is bitter with good reason. Regarding the younger Martin Chuzzlewit, the reader is given very few clues about his significance except that it seems he has been cut out of his grandfather's will.

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