Considered by many critics to be one of the best writers of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens continues to attract readers. The Old Curiosity Shop, the author’s fourth novel, drew a large audience when it first appeared. In the opening chapter, the narrator who meets Nell and her grandfather is probably Master Humphrey, a persona who was providing a framework for all of the serial’s literary selections. The first-person narration later changes to a third-person narration. The third-person narrator provides insightful, ironic, and philosophical commentary.
As in most of his early novels, Dickens criticizes contemporary social, political, and industrial injustices. The ethics of Victorian society allowed the gambling that seduces Nell’s grandfather into losing their livelihood and home at the hands of cardsharps. The legal system threatens to imprison Nell’s aged, mentally deteriorating grandfather and thus separate him from his beloved grandchild. Economic constraints force people, including children, to work in hellish mills. Also, Dickens’s Christian society disregards the immoral conditions of poverty and desperation that lead children to steal and then, as the novel illustrates, punishes a youth’s petty theft by transporting him over his mother’s cries of protest. From such a society, death is the only release. Despite the protests of original readers of the serial novel, Dickens therefore has Little Nell die. Her death before the Single Gentleman can rescue her may be read as Dickens’s message that the novel is not intended as mere emotional escapism, but that it is intended as a serious denunciation of his society’s moral failings.
Like Dickens’s more critically acclaimed works, The Old Curiosity Shop is most successful in its characterization. Dickens’s typical method is to identify a character, major or minor, with some repetitive speech and mannerism. For example, there are Dick Swiveller’s fantastically imaginative diction, the Single Gentleman’s abrupt actions, the tiny Marchioness’s penchant for looking through keyholes, Tom Scott’s standing on his head, and Quilp’s shrieks of laughter, to name only a few. Although this repetition tends to flatten the character, the artistic device not only provides humor and variety, it also supports the use of characters to form a moral mosaic.
As do many of Dickens’s good characters, the selfless Nell Trent inspires more loving devotion in other characters in...
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