Friday, August 24, 2012

I Read Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit

Both the theme and the plot of the novel is concerned with fraud and hypocrisy. The actual, technical frauds are generally pretty simple to explain. Mr Pecksniff, an architect, passes off the work of his students as his own. He also takes their fees, teaches them nothing and tell the world what a fine, upstanding, generous man he is, who unfortunately is blighted by ungrateful former students.

The Eden land fraud, in Dickens satirical version of America, is also simple. The land office shows a map of a bustling town out West* and sells you a prime plot for $150 dollars. You travel for several days upriver past such grand holes in the mud as New Thermopylae, to find that Eden is a swamp, and then you die of fever**.

The Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company is relatively straight forward in essence. It is a Ponzi scheme***, in which the early investors are paid from the premiums of later investors. There are a few flourishes that make it of interest. They offer loans, but then insist that the person getting the loan, and the two offering security for the loan, get policies; then having charged the maximum lawful interest they then charge for the bond, the secretary, the man who does enquiries. Their medical officer makes it clear that he is not a member of the company, so gets no benefit, but what a great opportunity it is. Also, they have very fine offices, and Montague Tiggs, or Tiggs Montague as may be, is a generous host and very active in talking up how rich he is and how his company is safe thanks to his large Indian estates acting as surety.

This links into the themes; that people who talk about their great moral probity may just be talking about their moral probity rather than doing some actual moral probing action.

Dickens turns a harsh, harsh eye on America. It is full of blowhards and ignorant people who nevertheless hold opinions and hold forth on them. The cities are filled with cheats and scoundrels, and the rest is wilderness. Slavery also takes a battering, juxtaposed with Americans, usually described as one of the most remarkable men in the country, talking about liberty, sometimes with violent threats. It is unsubtle and not as clever as Dickens' usual satire; the joke gets stale fairly quickly.

The satire of the Pecksniff's (Mr Pecksniff has named his daughters Charity and Mercy) is not exactly featherlight, but compared to the American chapters is at least well designed and moves the plot forward. As the family try to get in with Martin Chuzzlewit the elder, in the hope of becoming beneficiaries of his will, Mr Pecksniff strikes a disinterested pose in order to cut out everyone else. He mixes lies and truth to send everyone away from Chuzzlwit grand-père, then plots to marry his companion Mary, the very thing that he sent Chuzzlewit the younger away for. This is some pretty great hypocrisy.

Jonas Chuzzlewit, thinking everyone is dishonest, is naive in his roguery. When Tiggs/Montague explains the fraud of the Anglo-Bengalee etc. he then trusts him implicitly, never suspecting that Tiggs intends to blackmail him for his terrible crimes.

Meanwhile it all wraps up neatly, due to Chuzzlewit elder being more cunning than everyone else, in one of those annoying reveals that Dickens likes so much, but which seem cruel and arbitrary. All in all, enjoyable, if disjointed.

Read This: For some heavyhanded satire on America, and some interesting frauds
Don't Read This: For the usual Dickens reasons; longwinded Victorian prose, coincidences****, nonsense plots. Also domestic abuse in this one. Dickens does not approve.
More on Cons: The Ponzi scheme.
Online editions: One here from Australia.

* I need hardly tell you that the investors explain what a great opportunity it is, a bargain for the architects Chuzzlewit & Co.
** The surprising thing is that the township of Eden actually exists, although I suppose it's more difficult to get people to travel a week from civilisation if the boat captain has never heard of the place.
*** Although it predates Charles Ponzi. There are no new cons etc.
**** Many of the characters are members of an extended family, making some of the coincidences a bit more likely, as they have existing connections.

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