The Old Curiosity Shop is as good a description of the novel's characters as the business at its center. Not least of these is the wholly evil Daniel Quilp, a psychotic deformed dwarf who eats glass and bites the heads off nails. Others include Nell's grandfather, a compulsive nighttime gambler and eventual half-wit; Sally Brass, the "dragon"; Short Trotters, a Punch and Judy puppeteer; and Dick Swiveller, oscillating as his name implies, and a student of any literature that can be used to describe his own circumstances. While Kit and Nell are ostensibly the main characters, it is this bizarre menagerie of people that attracts our attention and indeed offers the thematic backbone of the novel.
Nell's grandfather spends his life trying to lay aside a fortune for her so she can live in prosperity and not the poverty of her parents. This is the purpose behind his gambling, but he's no good at cards and the supposed fortune is non-existent. Frederick, Nell's no-good brother, convinces his friend Dick Swiveller to marry Nell so they can share the wealth he believes will be hers, and they enlist Quilp (who knows no fortune exists) to help locate Nell, who has taken her grandfather to the Midlands to escape debtors. Nell and her grandfather pose as beggars and fall in with all kinds of crazy people.
In an atypical Dickensian ending, virtually everyone dies—even the shop that Nell's grandfather owned and that provides the title of the novel. The traditional round of marriages and childbirths is strangely absent, leaving us feeling more bleak than at the story's admittedly morose beginning. Why the downer, Chuck? What's with the "misery, misery, all is misery" all of a sudden? Were you having a bad day? Obviously ol' Charles had as many bad days as the next guy, and biographies would seem to suggest he had plenty during the writing of this book, but the reasons behind his unusual treatment of the characters' fates seems here to be an artistic one, rather than a reflection of his own circumstances.
Humanity in Dickens is often presented as a kind of parade of the bizarre and unusual. In this story particularly he investigates its darkest corners without providing the usual contrast of light and purity. Though Nell herself is good, she is so beset by evil and duplicity we can take little comfort in her continued innocence, especially as it often translates into her mistreatment as the rascals she encounters continually try to manipulate and take advantage of her. Even the presence of Kit in the story is less than fortunate, as through continual misfortune and doomed fate he finds himself unable to find or care for Nell, leaving her at the mercy of bad people.
While this could be interpreted as the product of a depressed imagination, it could just as easily be understood as an embrace of uncompromising realism. Dickens as well as anybody knew the world is a hard place. That he refrains from offering his characters easy outs, rewards for goodness or punishment for evil, or rest from misfortune, indicates not a diseased mind but one that is sensitive and aware, one that realizes there are more sad endings than happy ones. At the same time, that Nell is never corrupted by those around her also indicates a spirit not abandoned to despair but hopeful of the possibility of true goodness, that while evil is prevalent it is not the sum of existence. Not the happiest or brightest of Dickens' works, The Old Curiosity Shop is nonetheless one of his best.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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