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Martin Chuzzlewit | Themes

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Greed

The elder Martin Chuzzlewit describes the curse of the Chuzzlewit family as "the love of self," saying it has "ever been." He admits he has long known this without realizing he has "wrought it upon others." Selfishness inspires another character failing: greed. For instance, the elder Martin's relatives all try their best to get the old man's fortune. Every single one of them is only interested in the old man for his money, just as he described when talking about the family curse. Mr. Pecksniff is an example of a character who is in denial about his own greed and selfishness, making him frequently hypocritical and a sycophant.

The younger Martin illustrates a character who begins as selfish, though perhaps not particularly greedy for money, and is able to change for the better. At first, Martin doesn't give consequence to those who befriend him, like Tom, because he sees them as beneath him. He is wrapped up in his own status and issues, and though he likes many of the people who befriend him, he doesn't value them. While in America with Mark Tapley, Martin almost dies of fever and then takes care of Mark while the same fever nearly kills him. He is struck and moved by the difference in how Mark handles the fever, and suddenly sees how self-centered and ungenerous he's been. This revelation changes Martin utterly, and this change is reflected in his behavior to his friends and his grandfather through the rest of the book.

Fraud

Various characters commit fraud throughout the story, but the motive is always the same—money. Mr. Tigg commits fraud to get rich presumably because he knows no other way to make the money he wants. Jonas, however, commits fraud because he prefers to get his money by duping people instead of honestly. This illuminates a stark difference in the two characters. Mr. Pecksniff also tries to con the elder Mr. Chuzzlewit in order to get his money, as Mr. Pecksniff is a character who will stoop to all kinds of lows in order to get money, all the while covering up his actions with gestures of morality and generosity.

The effects of fraud vary, but are always more serious than a simple loss of money. Many of Mr. Tigg's clients murder the people they have bought life insurance for. Mr. Tigg himself ends up murdered as a result of his own scheme. Mr. Scadder commits fraud by convincing people to buy land in a town called Eden, which is a rotting hellhole in a swamp. Like the others, the fraud Mr. Scadder commits results not only in people's destitution, but also causes the deaths of many innocent people, including children.

Murder

Murder is a theme woven throughout the story of the Chuzzlewit family. Jonas is not the only person to consider murder as a way to get what he wants, but he is the only one who is shown going through with it. Jonas commits two murders: The first is his father, whom he wants out of the way so he can inherit the family fortune. The second murder has a different motive, though it is also rooted in selfishness and greed. When Jonas murders Mr. Tigg, he is acting out of a desperate and mentally unstable desire to be free of Mr. Tigg's scheme and his blackmailing.

However, there are some examples of murder and its implications that are not as straightforward as those that Jonas commits. For example, the character of Mr. Scadder is not just a con artist, but could be considered a murderer as well. He not only takes people's money in exchange for unusable land, but also sends them to Eden knowing that they will likely die there. Most of the inhabitants of Eden died of fever, including almost all of the children in the settlement. What Mr. Scadder did in conning those people not only deprived them of their money, but sent them to their deaths as well.

Mr. Tigg is another representation of a character capable of committing murder. Like Jonas and Mr. Scadder, he is rather mercenary in using of murder as a tool. Mr. Tigg is more direct about the idea of murder than Mr. Scadder, however. He sees it as a way to get rid of inconvenient people or people who might have information that could compromise him. This is not so different from Jonas, who saw his father as an inconvenience. Jonas also considers killing Mercy and Mr. Chuffey—the first to get her life insurance money, and the second to keep particular information from coming to light. These are common motivations for murder throughout the story.

Filial Piety

The concept of family is an important theme in Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens's story illustrates the complexities of family connections. Much of the elder Martin's family has no true filial piety, or respect for one's parents and family elders, and they are only loyal to money. However, the younger Martin and his friends, as well as the older Martin Chuzzlewit himself are very loyal to their family. The younger Martin rebels initially, but realizes the importance of family and loyalty after nearly dying, and comes back to make amends.

Mr. Pecksniff has no true family loyalty, as is evident by the end of the story. Initially it appears that he might at least care deeply for his daughters, but when tested he happily packs them off to be dealt with by others. Mr. Pecksniff covers up all of his selfish actions with the illusion of filial piety, which is one of the things that makes him such a hypocrite.

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