The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
In this lesson we take a look at ''The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit'' by Charles Dickens, focusing on the plot as well as a number of key characters.

A Story of Selfishness

How would you act if you had a rich elderly relative? Hopefully, the money wouldn't matter and you would still enjoy spending time with them, and if they decided to leave you any money that would be a welcome surprise. However, you may wonder if all of your cousins have the same altruistic motivations as you, or if some of them, maybe even if only sometimes, want to make sure that they are remembered in that uncle's will. After all, selfishness is part of human nature.

Selfishness is the idea that Charles Dickens explores in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, often just called Martin Chuzzlewit. Martin is elderly and rich, and everyone knows this. Through the story, we see just how far people will go to make money, and just how quickly everything can come crashing down for those who exist only to con others out of their cash.

Dickens on Chuzzlewit

As a quick aside, you should know that this is perhaps the one work that Charles Dickens appreciated most of his writings. When it was met with low sales, he was surprised. Also, Dickens does not hide his contempt for those who would defraud others, or the society of the United States during this period, throughout his work.

Plot Summary

Martin Chuzzlewit is a rich old man who has hired a nurse to take care of him named Mary. Mary will only be paid as long as Martin is alive, while many others want Martin dead so they can inherit his money. Meanwhile, Martin's grandson, also named Martin, falls in love with Mary and wants to marry her. For a reason we don't yet understand, this infuriates Martin the elder, so he throws Martin the younger out.

Martin the younger goes to architect Seth Pecksniff in hopes of learning how to design, but the fact is that Pecksniff is a crook. Tom Pinch, Pecksniff's assistant, on the other hand, is humble and honest, so he and Martin become friends. Martin the elder is not amused, so he throws his money around to get Martin the younger fired. However, Pecksniff is a con man, and soon has Martin the elder doing his bidding.

Meanwhile, Pecksniff is unhappy that he is getting conned by Martin the elder's nephew Jonas. Jonas had arranged to marry one of Pecksniff's daughters, but changes his mind as to which daughter to wed and now wants a higher dowry as the present fiancee is less attractive. This Jonas is nothing but greedy - there are rumors that his father's ill health is a result of Jonas's greed. Don't worry, Jonas is about to get what is coming to him, as he is also mixed up in a Ponzi scheme which he has to murder his way out of.

While all this is happening, Martin the younger goes to America with Mark Tapley, who just wants to see if he can be happy when faced with horrible circumstances. The two catch malaria, which confirms that Mark can indeed be cheerful when miserable. Meanwhile, Martin figures that he has been a bit too proud so he goes back to his grandfather to apologize. However, Martin the elder isn't having any of it. At least things are going well for Tom, however, who has left Pecksniff and has his dream job, although we don't quite yet know with whom. We only find out when he and Martin the younger run into each other.

It turns out it was Martin the elder.

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