It’s Dickens you say

Not only do fictitious characters generate eponyms, but they also spawn terms derived from the name of an author. For example we often use the term Dickensian to explain oddball characters, squalid surrounding and schemes full of happenstances, or farce mixed with sorrow. In addition to Scrooge, Dickens' novels are the source of several eponymous characters including Pecksniffian which is from Seth Pecksniff, a character in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Pecksniff is used to personify the characteristics of a 'hypocritically affecting benevolence or high moral principles'.

Charles John Huffman Dickens is one of the most well-liked writers in the history of literature. In his tremendous body of works, Dickens put together master storytelling, humor, pathos and irony with sharp social criticism and acute observations of people and places both real and imagined. Eventually he became renown for the adventures of a central character in narratives like The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. The path along his artistic carreer is littered with many interesting and comical people and part of Dickens' brilliance was to fill his tales with characters that personified classic human quirks and flaws.

Dickens’ Mr. Pecksniff is an insufferable fraud, always submitting a position of moral rectitude and largesse while a in fact he is an unquenchable, duplicitous creep. Seeing as nealy all of Dickens' readers had already come across at least one Mr. Pecksniff in their every day lives, the name "Pecksniff" immediately caught on as a widespread expression that summed up the character of a sanctimonious hypocrite. Michael Quinion at World Wide Words comments, “Pecksniff has become an archetype. He was turned into an adjective as early as 1851 and later became a noun, Pecksniffery.” From this origin came Pecksniffian an adjective describing someone who is: ´marked by censorious self-righteousness, hypocritically benevolent and sanctimonious. Pharisaical would be an apt synonym says one dictionary.

Great Exasperations

Teeming with deception, dishonesty, self-interest and selfishness by far, Seth Pecksniff is the most ideal spirit to be discovered among the comic characters of Dickens. There is shadiness in his Pecksniffian profile that’s made to order for ridiculing. Dickens takes a cutting and disparaging pitch by regularly injecting the narrative with insults that rain on his poor characters and Pecksniff is the miserable beneficiary of this authorial abuse. Seth Pecksniff as the worst, the most hypocritical and vile villain imaginable is contrasted against Tom Pinch, a better man and friend than anyone could ever ask to meet. Martin Chuzzlewit is an apprentice architect who is fired by Seth Pecksniff and is also disinherited by his own eccentric, wealthy grandfather. Pecksniff plots one move after another until Chuzzlewit, Sr. exposes and denounces Pecksniff by for trying to force Mary Graham to marry him.

Seth Pecksniff--who, in terms of the amount of the narrative given over to him, is probably the real main character. No one can lay a hand on him when it comes to hypocrisy and self-serving conduct, he is simply the most terrible and full of himself with his high art of dissembling and cunning. You may recognize some Pecksniffers in your vicinity. Consider this brilliant dialog from Martin Chuzzlewit:

    ”It has been remarked that Mr. Pecksniff was a moral man,” wrote Dickens. “So he was. Perhaps there never was a more moral man that Mr. Pecksniff: especially in his conversations and correspondence. . . He was a most exemplary man: fuller of virtuous precept than a copybook. Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there: but these were his enemies; the shadows cast by his brightness; that was all. His very throat was moral. You saw a good deal of it. You looked over a very low fence of white cravat . . . and there it lay, a valley between two jutting heights of collar, serene and whiskerless before you. It seemed to say, on the part of Mr. Pecksniff, "There is no deception, ladies and gentlemen, all is peace, a holy calm pervades me." So did his hair . . . So did his person . . . So did his manner . . . In a word, even his plain black suit, and state as a widower, and dangling double eyeglasses, all tended to the same purpose, and cried aloud, "Behold the moral Pecksniff!" The moral Pecksniff skillfully - almost instinctively - turned every occasion into a testimony to his own moral gravity.”

A Tale of Two Countries

Even more interesting may be the story behind the book about the character behind this word. In December 1833 Dickens began publishing a series of sketches on the daily life on Londoners under the pseudonym Boz. He later transformed this particular project from a set of loosely connected vignettes into several narratives one of which is the novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1844).

Martin Chuzzlewit is structured around the three variations on the theme of personal selfishness in all its many manifestations, institutional selfishness by way of an insurance scam, and national selfishness in the form of hypocrisy served up American-style. While there is hypocrisy appearing in the persona of Pecksniff , thoughtlessness is fully clad as young Martin Chuzzlewit and suspiciousness and distrust cloaked as old Martin Chuzzlewit and so on. There is also the customary cast of good characters to offset the bad. Before it was novelized episodes appeared where young Martin Chuzzlewit tries his luck in America. It was written with some anti-American opinions that led to antagonism between Dickens and the American public. Here is an excerpt by a reviewer:

    The American interlude takes young Martin and his sidekick, jolly Mark Tapley, to the United States where they meet various members of the American establishment: media moguls, literary luminaries, the American aristocracy, multifarious military men. One and all, they extol the virtues of Democracy and Freedom, American style. Unfortunately, the young travellers' experiences don't quite live up to the advertising and they find themselves going up a river without the proverbial paddle.

    On the whole, these themes are convincingly illustrated. The problem with the book is not the structure, but the tone of the narrative, or how Dickens tells the tale when dealing with personal selfishness. By contrast, when Dickens narrates the American episode, he takes a combative, indignant tone, and far from obtruding, he is happy to hold his pen and let his characters incriminate themselves.

It's this inconsistency in the narrative that mars this book, particularly Dickens' habit of interjecting his moral imprecations. When these publishers did a hatchet job of Mr. Dickens' reputation, explains literary historians, this added to a couple of other reasons..." first, Martin Chuzzlewit simply did not have the sales figures of previous novels. Anti-American books seemed to be "the thing." Indeed many reviewers say that the book reads like a lecture series on selfishness.

Many American publishers were pirating their own copies of Dickens novels at cut rates and not sharing their profits with Dickens or his British publishers. When Dickens and his wife set sail for America, he declared himself a republican at heart that yearned to visit this classless people founded upon the democratic principles of the Enlightenment. While he was there he had hoped to make a plea for intellectual property rights. He attempted to convince Americans to honor British copyright, using the woeful case of Sir Walter Scott who had died deeply in debt to justify his position that American publishers should not be permitted to pirate the works of British authors.

His pleas fell upon deaf ears. He was astonished at the arrogance of Americans and their lofty disdain of foreigners, as well as their tendency to use violence instead of compromise to solve disputes. Noting the inconsistencies between American ideals and conduct and along with the plummeting sales of his Chuzzlewit series Dickens’s decided to change the plot and have young Martin also voyage to America. He expanded upon the Pecksniffian theme as a hypocrite who shuns no one when it comes to making a profit. Dickens’s tried to convey the comatose failure of America's self-reflection wanting to put on display her role as a "national Pecksniff". This permitted the novelist to depict America satirically as a rough backwooded wilderness pocketed with charlatans and untrustworthy hucksters. With regards to writing Martin Chuzzlewit Dickens said, “My main object in this story was, to exhibit in a variety of aspects the commonest of all the vices: to show how Selfishness propagates itself; and to what a grim giant it may grow, from small beginnings" Dickens eventually returned to America in 1890 and apologized.

The Ghost of Peckinsiff’s Future

Martin Chuzzlewit marked a crucial phase in the author's development as he began to delve deeper into the 'springs of character' and America would eventually join the International Copyright Union, but not until 1896 when Canadians pirated Mark Twain and other American authors.

Two decades later when looking for satirical caricatures for an assortment of societal opponents, artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler frequently referred to Londoners and the British as "Podsnaps and Pecksiffs." In the spring of 1881 he utilized the Dickens character in a correspondence sent to fellow artist and brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden accusing him of having a “Pecksniffian whim.”

Martin Chuzzlewit remained highly popular throughout the nineteenth century due to its social criticism. However many today regard it as an artistic failure because the central character has since become a simple cipher eclipsed by Dickens’ multitude of captivating and eccentric minor characters. The work of fiction is considered the last of his picaresque novels and there’s no doubt that he had a great talent to create amazing characters. If you ever get a chance to read it, the whole novel is worth Mr. Pecksniff.


Centre for Whistler Studies:

An Overview of Dickens's Picaresque Novel Martin Chuzzlewit (serialised in monthly parts January, 1843, to July, 1844):

Previous Columns/Posted 09/30/98:

Public Domain text for v taken from:

Reviews of books about Frederick: Maryland/Frederick/Frederick_96.html

World Wide Words:

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