A Chapter for Our Times

December 19, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens seems angrier in this book than in the others I’ve read (although he certainly has his moments in all of them, and especially in Bleak House).  I hope I’ll write a little something about hypocrisy — one of the major targets of ire — and Dickens’s irony in this book a little later, but for now let’s focus on one of the least hypocritical characters in the book: Jonas Chuzzlewit, who is, at least, a forthright scoundrel.

In chapter 11 we get a grotesque little domestic scene, with Anthony Chuzzlewit and his son, Jonas, entertaining the Misses Pecksniff.  The Chuzzlewits are two of Dickens’s monsters of commerce, obsessed with business.  They are especially fond of ill-gotten gains.

We are also introduced to one Mr. Chuffey, an ancient clerk in the Chuzzlewit’s employ.  Chuffey intrigues me as a kind of anti-Bartleby: both seem to be ciphers, blanks reduced in the drudgery of office work to a single characteristic, but whereas Melville’s scrivener would prefer not to do nearly anything asked of him, including anything asked of him by his employer, Chuffey is responsive only to the suggestions and commands of his employer, Anthony Chuzzlewit.  If anyone but Anthony asks him if he is ready for dinner, he either does not or chooses not to hear them; if Anthony suggests a joke is funny, Chuffey finds it hilarious.  He’s a human being who’s forgotten how to be, having become so used to someone else deciding for him.  Whereas Bartleby, the consummate misanthrope, preferred not to, Chuffey prefers to, losing himself in the opposite direction.

It is, as the title of this post says, a chapter for our times.  Jonas loves to abuse this old man, calling him “Stupid” and “Old Chuffey” and showing off his wit in cracking jokes at the clerk’s expense.  This figure lurks in the background of the scene in the Chuzzlewits’ den, choking on his food as Jonas “entertains” the Pecksniffs, attempting to woo them both simultaneously.  Jonas also scorns his father, calling him “ghost” and dropping unsubtle hints that the old man has hung around for too long and should probably feel free to die soon so Jonas can have his money.  Of this, his father approves, as signaling his son’s proper attitude toward the world of business.  (These interactions make me think of Jonas as the ancestor of Walker and Texas Ranger, the sons of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, with their threats to come after their grandfather Chip “like a spider monkey” if he gets in their way.)

But this has been a week of $50 billion dollar Ponzi schemes, and a budget deficit nearing 14 digits, and very smart people like Paul Krugman pointing out that a huge chunk of our economy for the last decade has been more or less a sham dedicated to gigantic personal bonuses based on imaginary dividends, a massive theft from investors.  It’s been an unjolly week.  So here’s an exchange between Anthony and Jonas:

‘You may overdo anything, my darlings.  You may overdo even hypocrisy.  Ask Jonas!’

‘You can’t overdo taking care of yourself,’ observed that hopeful gentleman with his mouth full.

‘Do you hear that, my dears?’ cried Anthony, quite enraptured.  ‘Wisdom, wisdom!  A good exception, Jonas.  No.  It’s not easy to overdo that.’

‘Except,’ whispered Mr. Jonas to his favourite cousin, ‘except when one lives too long.  Ha, ha!…’

‘There’s another thing that’s not easily overdone, father,’ remarked Jonas, after a short silence.

‘What’s that?’ asked the father; grinning already in anticipation.

‘A bargain,’ said the son.  ‘Here’s the rule for bargains.  “Do other men, for they would do you.”  That’s the true business precept.  All others are counterfeits.’

It’s the refutation of any goodness in the world that Dickens so disdains.  This is the worldview that leads to monstrous unfettered capitalism.  When Alan Greenspan seemed so shaken by the utter lack of regard for shareholders and reputation in the financial services industry, I think this is what he was responding to: the shortsighted nihilism of its leaders.  Unchecked greed is, in the end, a horrible long-term business strategy, unless you only care about your own personal paycheck and making enough money before the bubble bursts that it doesn’t really matter to you that your company, your industry, your country has gone bankrupt.

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