A fascinating novel of humor and dark suspense, with some irritating stereotypes.
Old Martin Chuzzlewit has a large fortune that brings him little pleasure, and a large family that brings him even less. Everyone is after his money, in one way or another, and when Martin disinherits his grandson, everyone is bent on wriggling into his will. In this way Dickens portrays the central vice of the Chuzzlewit family, the love of Self, from the pious and hypocritical Pecksniff to the wicked, conniving Jonas. At the same time, the selfishness of the Chuzzlewits is contrasted with the jollity of the character Mark Tapley and the innocence and selflessness of Tom Pinch.
Dickens often developed characters who portrayed vices, and 'Martin Chuzzlewit' is no different. Almost all of the characters are selfish; Pecksniff - a hypocrite, a liar, and a selfish man - and Jonas are the worst of the cast. Two nurses are neglectful and inhumane. One character is a swindler, another a murderer. All wicked behavior is, however, dealt with by the end.
Pecksniff is considered to be very religious and pious, but is Pharisaical. One scene occurs in a church. Tom Pinch plays the church organ. There are quite a number of solemn references to God and a few to Heaven and Hell.
One character is both abusive to his wife, and a murderer, and Dickens spends some pages musing over the workings of that person's mind. Considering Dickens' great ability to create characters and deepen those vices or virtues that he gives them, this particular one is quite creepy.
One person dies in a grotesque manner (though not violently) before Mr. Pecksniff's eyes. Two characters nearly die from fevers and witness a couple's children passing away. A carriage is upset at one point and the spooked horses nearly trample a man to death; a boy is injured during the escapade. There are two suspected murders, one violent, and blood is mentioned. A dead body is frequently referenced in the last half of the book.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wine is consumed frequently, and several lesser characters at least appear to have had a little too much in different scenes. In two different scenes Mr. Pecksniff, and then Jonas, are shown as intoxicated. Beer or ale is drunk at taverns, and the Blue Dragon Inn, which is also a tavern, is referenced repeatedly. Americans chew tobacco. A great deal of tobacco.
There are several romances in the story, and there is a lot of kissing and embracing in some scenes. There are references to "legs" in rather indecent contexts. Jonas is said to "squeeze" a girl.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
"Lord!" is used very frequently, as is "Lord bless me!" and the like. Jonas says "Ecod!" ('ye gods') in almost every sentence, and also says "d----d" sometimes, with the word marked out like that. One could also call Pecksniff's hypocritical language 'profane.'
"Martin Chuzzlewit" is one of the most acclaimed of Dickens' earlier writings, and it is an interesting blend of mystery, romance, humor, and morals. The characters, too, are memorable (which is to be expected from Dickens), and the end result of Good conquering Evil is timeless. Of course, Dickens was a master of suspense and intrigue, so the dark thread of Jonas' misdeeds is very black indeed.
The parts that most detracted from the effect of the book were the scenes set in America, where Mark Tapley and young Martin Chuzzlewit go to seek Martin's fortune. Whether for laughs or not, Dickens stereotypes the people and land of the United States to the nth degree. Everyone chews tobacco; everyone loudly proclaims liberty, while going against what they say; everyone is titled a colonel, major, captain, or the like; and everyone is called "the most ingenious person in the country." For the first few pages this was humorous, especially since Dickens portrays the Americans as being prejudiced and ignorant of England, but after the first chapter it grew tedious and galling.