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Martin Chuzzlewit | Context


British Victorian Society

Dickens's childhood experience working long hours in a disease-ridden factory and walking five miles home was common. Many children even younger than Dickens, as young as six or seven years old, held down dangerous full-time jobs such as hauling coal or cleaning chimneys. Children less than 10 years old accounted for almost half the funerals held in London in 1839. Their most common causes of death were malnutrition and contagious diseases for which there were no vaccines at the time. The average lifespan of a Londoner during the 1800s was 27 years, but life expectancy was reduced to 22 years for the working class.

Life in 19th-century England was also perilous for many adults. In 1847 the need for sanitation was not yet recognized. As a result, about one-quarter of London's population (half a million residents) suffered from typhus, a bacterial disease transferred to humans by infected fleas or lice. During Dickens's childhood, more than 220 crimes were punished by hanging, such as stealing five shillings from a shop or vandalizing Westminster Bridge. Criminals were hanged in public, and their deaths were widely attended.

Everyone wore a hat, even children, and that hat conveyed social status. Most people walked miles to work and back home every day. The London Underground was built in 1863, and despite initially covering fewer than four miles, almost one million Londoners used the railway line in its first year. Streets were cobbled or fashioned from materials like cast iron or wood. A lamplighter, carrying a barrel of oil, lit the streetlights at night and extinguished them each morning. Vendors sold produce on the streets until hours after dark. Evening entertainment was offered by brothels, sing-along inns, and theaters.

The roles of women at the turn of the century were, for the most part, limited to being wives, mothers, nurses, and teachers. This is best exemplified in Martin Chuzzlewit through the characters of Mary Graham, an orphaned young lady hired to be Elder Martin's nursemaid, and the Pecksniff daughters, whom their father is desperate to marry off to the most financially viable prospects. These characters likely mirror the restrictive roles played by women in Victorian society more so than Dickens's own personal philosophy toward women.

Probably as a result of his own struggles with money and the Victorian social hierarchy, many of Dickens's novels revolve around middle-class characters and their respective fortunes (or lack thereof). Martin Chuzzlewit is no different—the novel features characters from across the spectrum of social standing and goes out of its way to equalize the footing of characters who would traditionally have been viewed as socially unequal. This is evident in the relationships between the protagonist, younger Martin, and his friend Mark, as well as Tom Pinch and various wealthier characters who consider him their friend and equal. Dickens wasn't interested in the lives of the gentry or in glossing over the incredibly harsh reality that faced the lower classes in Victorian England. His personal experience with those realities seems to have influenced the subject matter of his stories, and he was one of the few writers at the time who wrote starkly about the plight of the everyman.


Martin Chuzzlewit is above all a satire that mocks selfishness and greed. The tools Dickens uses to convey his disgust with these common failings include the following:

  • Hyperbole: exaggeration and overstatement to make a point. This includes the use of characters who are caricatures, or one-note portraits meant to portray a point. In particular, the villains Seth Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit act as caricatures of greed and self-centeredness. Pecksniff is the ultimate fraud, an architect who never designs or builds anything. Instead he collects large sums of money from young men who study under him and then takes credit for their talents. Readers see that Jonas is willing to do anything for money, including most likely murdering his own father. Not only is Jonas the primary suspect in his father's poisoning, but he marries a Pecksniff daughter for money as well and then treats her terribly.
  • Verbal Irony: meaning that is the opposite of what is written. Dickens employs verbal irony frequently in exposing the hypocrisy of Pecksniff. For instance, in Chapter 5, Pecksniff vouches his love for Tom Pinch by telling him that if either of them were to be run over while crossing the street, "the other will convey him to the hospital in Hope, and sit beside his bed in Bounty!" Later in the same chapter, he says of Pinch, "Poor fellow, he is always disposed to do his best; but he is not gifted."
  • Sarcasm: mockery and scorn directed at society and ideas. The omniscient narrator of the novel often uses a mocking tone, and the characters do as well. For instance, when an American character hears an English servant call his employer "master," the American says, "There are no masters in America." Martin's sarcastic retort is, "All owners are they?"

Serialization and Popularity

Sometimes a satirist, in making fun of contemporaries and the opinions they hold dear, becomes the target of disdain. It is not always possible for people to look at their own flaws objectively. This was most likely the case when Dickens published Martin Chuzzlewit. Sales of the initial installments were so disappointing that the publisher threatened to sue the author. In an attempt to improve sales, Dickens wrote in a plot twist in which the protagonist visits America, as Dickens had done himself the previous year. This addition allowed the author to ridicule Americans, rather than his British colleagues, neighbors, and friends.

The novel's American installments paint the country in an unfavorable light, as a savage, malaria-infested swampland. This portrayal did not win Dickens any friends or supporters across the pond. In response, the author pointed out that he ridicules his own people, the British, just as vehemently as the Americans.

Dickens was rather outspoken in his disdain of the institution of slavery in pre-Civil-War era (1820–60) United States. He openly criticized the vulgarities of American culture, such as spitting in public and enslaving other people in his book titled American Notes (1842) as well as the novel Martin Chuzzlewit.

The Gunpowder Plot

Mentioned in Chapter 1, the Gunpowder Plot was a failed attempt by Catholic extremists to overthrow the Protestant government in England on November 5, 1605. Conspirators sought to end the British persecution of Roman Catholics and replace England's Protestant government with Catholic leadership. Organized by English Catholic Robert Catesby, the Gunpowder Plot involved an unsuccessful assassination attempt of the British King James I. Around midnight, English Catholic Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellar of the Parliament building with barrels of gunpowder before he could do any real damage. The botched scheme failed, and the participants were tried and executed for treason.

Guy Fawkes Day, also called Bonfire Night, remains a holiday in England where the British burn Fawkes in effigy and set off fireworks on November 5 every year. Dickens humorously suggests that one of the Chuzzlewits was definitely involved in the plot, and that Fawkes himself could have even been a distant Chuzzlewit relative.

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