Martin Chuzzlewit is one of Dickens's least-liked books by both readers and critics. It is also hard to characterize in a single thesis. In the introduction to the Everyman's Library edition I read, William Boyd calls Martin Dickens's funniest book. In an appendix, G. K. Chesterton calle it Dickens's most melancholy. Both are right. Dickens here is a mature writer in full command of his considerable skill. The humor is as sharp as any Dickens has ever written, but at the same time the villians are darker and more modern in amorality and unalloyed darkness than any he has drawn.
In a lesser writer's hands, this might be a schizophrenic mess, but what flows from Dickens pen is a big but relentlessly moving novel. It feels less episodic than his other writings, even though all were serial publications later published as a whole. In the preface to the first edition of the novel, published in the Everyman's Library edition, Dickens admits that he had set out with this as a goal, and he well succeeded.
In two included prefaces to later editions, Dickens addresses one criticism that Martin faced upon publication: his characterization of America, which certainly is harsh in its broadly-comic satire. In fact, Dickens even appends a Postscript quoting from a public address he made in New York documenting the growth of his respect and admiration since his initial visit there, and expressing his hope that this postscript will always be published with Martin as a token of his appreciation for America. Even this part of the book reads more modern than Dickens generally does, with stereotypes of language, culture, philosophy, and politics that will be instantly recognizable to Americans today who live in areas where those caricatures can still be found.
But what of the book itself? Martin Chuzzlewit is a wealthy recluse thought, by himself and his grasping extended family hoping for a testamentary handout , to be dieing. Never a likable man, "Old Martin" alienates them all, including his grandson and namesake, who then heads for America. Young Martin is accompanied by one of the two true heroes of the book, Mark Tapley, who continually seeks pain and suffering so that his enjoyment of life might "signify." The other hero of the piece is Tom Pinch, an almost supernaturally unselfish man who acts as a glue to keep things in the world of Martin from flying apart.
But those dark villains drawn by Dickens are having none of this. Old Martin's nephew (young Martin's cousin) Jonas is grasping, angry, violent, and thoroughly nasty. He seems capable of almost everything, and turns out to in fact capable of everything he appears to be. The other villain appears at first laughable in his bumbling hypocrisy, for which his name has entered the language for that extreme form of fawning and self-serving moralistic hypocrisy known as "pecksniffian." But his absurdity turns cruel, angry, controlling and dark, and he too proves capable of some of the vilest of villainy in a Dickens story . . .
. . . .until as usually happens in a Dickens story right and happiness prevail in the end, but not before the darkness has hurt and separated friends and family almost to the last page. In the main, then, despite the sparkling wit and control shown by Dickens at his peak, I think I must agree with Chesterton on the melancholy of Martin. Either way, though, this is a classic every Dickens reader should not miss.