Martin Chuzzlewit | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Martin Chuzzlewit | Preface | Summary

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Summary

Preface to the 1850 Edition

Dickens describes his writing of this preface as being like "a troublesome guest who lingers in the Hall after he has taken leave." His intention in this book, Dickens writes, is to describe "the commonest of vices," and argues that when a character is exhibiting a common vice, that character is usually thought to be an exaggeration. He states that this is because people often are incapable of recognizing their own faults. Dickens points to the characters of Mr. Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp as examples of this. In conclusion of his preface, Dickens makes a statement regarding the original monthly serial format of the story, and says that he tried to keep an overall design in mind and avoid writing just to meet his monthly requirements for publication.

Preface to the 1867 Edition

"What is exaggeration to one class of minds and perceptions," Dickens says in his preface, is "plain truth to another." He reminds readers that he has built his career on this type of writing. In particular, his comments on the poor and sick are meant in the vein of social commentary, to point out social ills that can be remedied if mankind puts their collective effort into it.

He remarks on both his villains in this novel. Dickens agrees that "Mr. Pecksniff is an exaggeration," but speaks about Jonas Chuzzlewit in more detail, admitting that he is "unnatural." According to Dickens, Jonas is "admired for that which made him hateful" and is a product of his upbringing. The author requests that his readers reflect on "the causes of many vices" of human beings, and of the human condition generally. Dickens recognizes that whatever failings the members of a family exhibit "is true of a whole commonwealth," since a country's residents are composed of the families that live there.

Dickens explains that his satirical account of American life is not less honest than his frequent lampooning of British citizens and culture. He remarks that he has never seen fit "to soften what is ridiculous or wrong at home." He has extended Americans that same courtesy, believing Americans to be of the same hearty stock and sharp mind as the British.

Analysis

Dickens's earlier preface seems targeted toward the reader of the original serial, as it was published in sections over time. His comments about balancing the constraints of writing in serial form with keeping the pace of the story indicate that he was writing with a whole story in mind, as opposed to just drawing out the drama indefinitely in ongoing installments.

In his later preface, Dickens clarifies his satirical intent and prepares readers for the novel's hyperbolic style. His unexpected sympathy for one of his villains, Jonas Chuzzlewit, reflects his belief in the innate goodness of humankind. As British poet Alfred Austin (1835–1913) wrote on the occasion of Dickens's death, Dickens was "for giving Man generally a chance." He takes pains to point out that Jonas is only a product of his environment and is thus a victim of nurture, not nature.

Dickens had traveled to America in 1842 and was not impressed. In particular he was appalled by the institution of slavery; he gives voice to his feelings in Martin Chuzzlewit. Yet here, too, he shows his innate sense of fairness. He says he does not treat Americans any more harshly than he treats his fellow Englishmen.

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