The Good Versus Evil
Without a doubt, Charles Dickens is one of the most influential and most important writers of the 19th century, not only in his native Great Britain but across the world. He has a prolific career that produced hallmarks of English classic literature such as Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and David Copperfield. He has established quite a reputation for concocting the most interesting and engrossing literary characters. They carried whimsical names and while they are often monochromatic, they have become some of literature’s most memorable. The legacy of Dickens’ oeuvre reverberates in the contemporary. His works have transcended time and the passage of time has not affected their potency as they remain seminal parts of literary discourses in the contemporary.
If there was another facet of Dickens’ prose it was renowned for it would be its portrayal of Victorian-era society. He established a reputation for being a vocal critic of the maladies of his time, with the examination of these prevalent maladies forming an integral and critical part of the blueprint of his works; Dickens was also a journalist. This exploration of social maladies was also evident in his fourth major work, The Old Curiosity Shop. Like most of his works, The Old Curiosity Shop was published serially from 1840 to 1841 before it was published as a single volume in 1841. It was also one of his two novels – the other being Barnaby Rudge – that was published along with his other short stories in Master Humphrey’s Clock, a weekly periodical conceived by Dickens after publishing his first three serialized novels. Its contents were entirely written and edited by Dickens.
The story transports the readers to the slums of Victorian London. The Old Curiosity Shop charted the story of Nell Trent who was fondly referred to as Little Nell. In true Dickensian fashion, Little Nell was an orphan of “not quite fourteen”. Pretty, innocent, and adorable were among the adjectives that can be used to describe the young girl. After losing her parents, Nell has been raised by her maternal grandfather who remained anonymous until the end of the story. In Little Nell, her grandfather saw vestiges of his departed wife and daughter. Together, the grandfather and granddaughter duo lived in the titular Old Curiosity Shop, a shop located at the back of a crumbling house on a dirty and obscure street. It was a shop of ends owned and run by Nell’s grandfather. It derived its name from the miscellany of oddities, curiosities, and nick-nacks being sold at the shop.
“The fire? It has been alive as long as I have. We talk and think together all night long. It’s like a book to me – the only book I ever learned to read; and many an old story it tells me. It’s music, for I should know its voice among a thousand, and there are other voices in its roar. It has its pictures too. You don’t know how many strange faces and different scenes I trace in the red-hot coals. It’s my memory, that fire, and shows me all my life.”~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
Like any grandfather, Nell’s grandfather doted on his granddaughter. He adored her so much and he wanted nothing but the best for her. Unfortunately, the shop was barely earning them a living. The merchandise the shop sells, comprised of old furniture, odd toys, and other discarded items deemed not fit to use, were basically worthless. These were items no one would bother to buy. This was a huge cause of concern for Nell’s grandfather which was further exacerbated by Frederick, Nell’s older and lazy brother. He kept dropping a visit to the shop to coax their grandfather to give him money in order to fund his addiction; Frederick was fond of the bottle. To keep a steady stream of cash, their grandfather turned into a different form of addiction. At night, he gambled what little penny he earned from running the shop. However, he had not the wisdom of a seasoned gambler. Instead of gaining more monies, he was incurring heavy losses.
It was at this critical juncture that Nell’s grandfather turned to Daniel Quilp, a dwarfish but affluent man. In his paranoia of sinking deeper into the quagmires of poverty, and by extension to fund his own form of addiction, Nell’s grandfather borrowed heavily from Quilp. When push came to shove, the Old Curiosity Shop served as collateral for his indebtedness. Getting entangled with Daniel Quilp soon proved to be a terrible decision, so terrible that it would be the harbinger of more misfortunes that would befall Little Nell and her grandfather. Daniel Quilp was a scheming man filled with malicious intentions. His evil designs had him lusting after Little Nell. The moment grandfather Trent was unable to repay his debts, Quilp immediately seized ownership of the Old Curiosity Shop. To escape Quilp’s evil designs, Nell and her grandfather fled from London. Their departure, however, has not precluded others from pursuing them.
At its heart, The Old Curiosity Shop was the archetype of the familiar good versus evil trope. In Nell, we see the personification of goodness in people. She was the projection of the purity of soul and was the quintessence of innocence. She had a zest for life and showed affection to the people who cherished her. She was so delicate that her grandfather tried to protect her from the ills of the outside world. His most stringent measures, however, were for naught for it would also be his actions that allowed Quilp to penetrate their world. On the other hand, Quilp was Nell’s antithesis. Quilp was abusive towards his wife. He can turn on the charm should a situation require it but this charm belies his evil and manipulative mind. He was a sadist, finding pleasure in stirring trouble for no reason and watching other people suffer from the chaos he caused. He was lecherous, despicable, and whimsical. With no single redeeming quality, Quilp was one of the vilest villains literature has produced.
With the good versus evil trope as its backbone, the book often draws comparisons to fairytales. Dickens even referred to giants, dwarves, and fairies. Nell was being pursued by evil forces but all hope was not lost. The universe, in the form of people with good intentions, was aligning to save her. The story required the suspension of disbelief. The world that Dickens conjured contained elements of fantasy which the readers must take in with the rest of the book’s other elements. The comparisons to fairytales, however, belie the social realism that was rife in the story. The growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor was prevalent. The affluent exploit the poor while the poor turn to other avenues to generate quick income. Caught in the crossfire of this injustice are the children who, oftentimes, had to bear the weight of the consequences of the actions of adults.
“Whereas, the world would do well to reflect, that injustice is in itself, to every generous and properly constituted mind, an injury, of all others the most insufferable, the most torturing, and the most hard to bear; and that many clear consciences have gone to their account elsewhere, and many sound hearts have broken, because of this very reason; the knowledge of their own deserts only aggravating their sufferings, and rendering them the less endurable.”~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
As such, Nell was forced to mature than her age required. She had to take of her grandfather to whom she was equally devoted. Her grandfather was devastated by his losses that his health started to decline. This, with the innate goodness Nell possessed and the evil mind of Quilp, were just among the several paradoxes that permeated the story. Nell’s youth, for instance, was the contrast to her aging grandfather. The beauty of Betsy, Quilp’s wife, on the other hand, was the antithesis of her husband’s deformities and physical limitations. Quilp’s facade was a reflection of his inner character. She was a draconian character, equally vile as Quilp. Moreover, the rustic landscape and charm of the English countryside where Nell and grandfather retreated was a stark contrast to the tumult of highly-industrialized and overcrowded London.
Like the rest of Dickens’ oeuvre, The Old Curiosity Shop was overrun with several plotlines. The connections of these plotlines, at times, were tenuous. There were, however, plotlines that were superbly executed. One of the finely drawn threads charted the story of Christopher “Kit” Nubbles. Kit was once employed by Nell’s grandfather. He was also the only friend that Nell had. However, he was slow-witted and gullible. He was also loyal and deeply devoted to his employer and his granddaughter, and above all, to his mother. After losing employment at The Old Curiosity Shop, Kit was employed by the Garlands, a kind and benevolent couple. Kit, however, was not safe from the evil designs of Quilp. Quilp was basically a boogeyman, a child’s biggest nightmare. Kit’s story, rife with hope, provided an equilibrium to the melancholy that Nell’s story was wrapped in; Nell’s story was brimming with sentimentality. As the story moved forward, Kit developed into a promising young man.
A Charles Dickens novel would not be complete without a vast and eclectic cast of characters, which range from the good to the bad, from the barely perceptible to the most memorable. Among the most memorable are siblings Sally and Sampson Brass. Sampson was a corrupt lawyer employed by Quilp. The driving force behind their business, however, was his tyrannical sister. Sally was characterized as more manly while Sampson was spineless; the dichotomies between their personalities were another form of contrast in the story. Mrs. Jarley, on the other hand, was one of many individuals Nell and her grandfather would meet on their journey. She was kind but like most of the characters in the novel, her appearance in the story was brief.
If there was something palpable in Dickens’ characterization in his works, not just in The Old Curiosity Shop, was his compunction for creating monochromatic characters. In the same manner, his stories also build on redemption arcs, such as in the case of A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrouge. Scrouge’s counterpart was Mr. Richard Swiveller. Dick, as he was referred to, worked as a clerk for the Brass. He was laid back, good for nothing, and can be easily manipulated. Once freed from the clutches of Fred, Dick developed into one of the novel’s heroes. Apart from Nell’s grandfather, some characters were anonymized. One of them was the Marchioness, who was also referred to as The Small Servant. Like Dick, she worked for the Brass and was the subject of Sally’s abuses. Another anonymous but seminal character was the Single Gentleman. On the contrary, the novel exemplified Dickens’ seemingly whimsical art of naming his characters.
“Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fire, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses.”~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
During Dickens’ lifetime, The Old Curiosity Shop was his most popular work. It was also among his most commercially successful. One anecdote often associated with the story was how his American readers flocked to the New York wharf, just to wait for the ship carrying the story’s final installment to arrive in 1841, bewildering the sailors. The readers were impatient to learn about the fate of Nell. Such was her pull but it was also this tenterhook that was one of the banalest facets of the story, including the melodrama that pervaded the main storyline. The novel’s saccharine conclusion was also one of the most renowned conclusions in the literary world.
The Old Curiosity Shop grappled with a plethora of strong subjects and themes, several of which are elements of the Dickensian literary blueprint. The novel underscored death, loss, and addiction. It was another scintillating portrait of the social conditions that were prevalent during the Victorian period, particularly the dichotomies among the social classes; it was said that the Queen herself read the book. It was also an intimate peek into human conditions, albeit Dickens can be quite literal in his character study. One of the novel’s most interesting facets, ironically, was his characterization and development of wicked and villainous characters, Daniel Quilp the most prominent and most memorable among them. Equally enthralling was Dickens’ knack for storytelling. There is a reason why Charles Dickens is one of the most heralded writers even the passage of time has not dimmed the power of his prose.
“When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer’s steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to Heaven.”~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
It has been over a decade since I discovered the pleasures of reading the works of Charles Dickens. Back then, I never for once thought that I would be indulging myself in the works of classic English literature. Charles Dickens, by then, was just a name that I have encountered countless times but was never curious enough to know better. As the old adage goes, “Curiosity killed the cat.” I wasn’t “killed” but I was like the cat, curious so when the opportunity to read one of his works presented itself, I embraced it with open albeit reluctant arms; I am venturing into uncharted waters. All my worries were all for naught when David Copperfield, and eventually, Great Expectations swept me away. The latter especially left a deep impression on me that it instantly became one of my all-time favorite reads. It would, however, take me a decade before I get to read more of his works. The Old Curiosity Shop was my fifth of his oeuvre, and my third in the past two years. I admit I struggled a bit with the story. Dickens’ works are often complex, multi-layered, and crowded with several characters. Reading his works takes patience but once I was able to find my balance, the story started unfolding. The sad ending, I have learned, is quite popular, hence, is no spoiler. The journey to this conclusion was the novel’s backbone.
P.S. The physical “Old Curiosity Shop” did remind me of the home I grew up in: brimming with relics and miscellaneous items one would not expect to find in a typical household.
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 1985
Number of Pages: 672
Genre: Historical Fiction
Giants, dwarfs, tricksters – here is the dark side of Dickens at its most powerful and bizarre.
The story of ‘Little Nell’ gripped the nation when it first appeared. Described as a ‘tragedy of sorrows’, it tells of Nell uprooted from a secure and innocent childhood and cast into a world where evil takes many shapes, the most fascinating of which is the stunted, lecherous Quilp. He is Nell’s tormentor and destroyer, and it is his demonic energy that dominates the book.
The Old Curiosity Shop is a novel of contrasts: youth and old age, beauty ad deformity, freedom and restraint. Expansively comic, sentimentally tragic, it is sometimes fairytale, sometimes myth and often Victorian life at its most bleak – haunted by the figures that live in the shadows, some of the strongest of Dickens’s many creations.
About the Author
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