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Book Report: Martin Chuzzlewit

There is a line in Martin Chuzzlewit that I can’t remember exactly off the top of my head, but it says that Americans have a consuming passion for Liberty, which perhaps explains why they pursue her so hotly, and take such liberties with her when they find her. Other than that, the American section of the book isn’t very good. I don’t think that’s just my American eyes on it; I think that it just doesn’t work very well. I should say—the description of the Florida swamp that young Martin winds up in is very good. Charles Dickens does a good job with landscape, when he gets inspired to; like everyone else, I tend to forget that and remember his characters.

As for those, this book has two trustworthy-servants-of-untrustworthy-masters, which is one too many. The great character is Mark Tapley. Mark Tapley believes he is a man of cheerful character and helpful mien, but he worries that this is only because he is always in such cheerful surroundings. There is little merit, you see, in being cheerful when he is the barman at a successful pub, with a charming and lovely widow of a landlady in love with him, and all the village friends to come in and drink and chat and play darts. So he leaves the pub and takes up as personal servant to Young Martin, because Young Martin is a selfish, thoughtless and penniless young idiot charging off to America to make his unlikely fortune. When they are steerage for a rough crossing, trapped in a dank and filthy underdeck with impoverished and ailing emigrants, then there might be some merit in being jolly—only they are all so grateful for the little help he is able to be to them, they all form such good friendships as he shares with them what little he has to share, their children treat him like a favorite uncle when he plays with them and sings to them and helps to bathe them and dress them, and everybody compliments his cooking so highly when he volunteers to take over for the steerage cook who is too ill to prepare any food, that, well, there is hardly any merit in being jolly in circumstances like that, is there? So it is still untested whether he is really a cheerful, helpful, jolly sort of fellow, or if it is just his circumstances. And so on and so forth; he is a great, great character.

Other than that, it’s a fairly good Dickens, except for the American bits, which are sub-par. So. Not a Top Five, but enjoyable anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,