That character’s a real character: Mark Tapley

Secondary characters can steal the show. They may be quirky, funny, villainous, exceptionally noble, or just one-of-a-kind.

One of my favorite “characters” is Mark Tapley from Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit. A strong, handsome, good-humored fellow, Mark has a good position as ostler at the Blue Dragon Inn and has the mutual regard of its kind owner, widow Mrs. Lupin. But “there’s no credit in being jolly,” as Mark often says, in staying at a comfortable place like the Blue Dragon, so he sets off to find somewhere gloomy, dismal, and trying to prove that he can “come out strong under circumstances.” He applies to become a grave digger, but they don’t need him.

I enjoyed the 1994 BBC adaptation.

I enjoyed the 1994 BBC adaptation.

Then the perfect opportunity shows up in the person of young Martin Chuzzlewit. Arrogant, broke, and at odds with his grandfather for falling in love with his grandfather’s ward without permission, Martin could prove whether or not Mark can be jolly in misfortune. Together they set off for America. Martin thinks it’s a place to make his fortune so he can marry Mary Graham. They find a place of swindlers and pestilence (the satire concerning American is the most interesting part of the story to some).

Mark, ever jolly, brings cheer and kindness wherever he goes, nursing sick people on the long, miserable voyage across the Atlantic, and trying to uphold Martin’s courage when they learn that Eden, the promising new city they’d invested all their money in, is but a miserable few cabins in a swamp with bad air. They’re greeted at arrival by a glassy-eyed old man who tells them not to worry about their luggage being stolen–the fever is so bad that the few survivors are too weak to bury their own dead, much less steal.

Mark Tapley is played by Steve Nicolson in the 1994 BBC adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit.

Mark Tapley is played by Steve Nicolson in the 1994 BBC adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit.

After barely surviving the fever himself, Mark decides that there might be some credit in being jolly in sitting beside the fire at the Blue Dragon with Mrs. Lupin after all. But of course he doesn’t return there for good until seeing a now humbled Martin reunited with his grandfather and fiancé.

Ever a character, when Mark surprises Mrs. Lupin on his return to the Blue Dragon, he asks her what she thinks of changing her name to Co. In American, when Martin asked him to be his partner (that is, help fund their Eden disaster), Mark refused the name “Chuzzlewit and Tapley” for their proposed architectural firm, insisting it be called “Chuzzlewit and Co.” He’d always wanted to meet a “Co,” but he “little thought [he’d] be one.”

So, Mark Tapley, the man who doesn’t seek happiness and ease but a miserable situation, for that’s the only place to test a jolly disposition like his. All I can say to him is “ ‘There’s not credit in being jolly with you,’ Mark, for you make everywhere you go better.”

Who are your favorite character characters?

Note: Martin Chuzzlewit is a great story chock full of notable characters, including umbrella carrying Mrs. Gamp, who was so popular that “gamp” became a slang term for umbrella. You can download a free electronic version of it through Project Gutenburg (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/968), or you can watch the 1994 tv adaption.