Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805
Maypole Inn. Old building near the real English village of Chigwell, twelve miles northeast of London. It is believed to be based on an actual Chigwell inn, the King’s Head, that Charles Dickens liked to visit. However, Dickens gave it the name of another inn found in the neighboring village of Chigwell Row. The inn is the site of a homelike little community in which the innkeeper, John Willett, enjoys the company of his regular customers. Its bar is a snug, cozy place, and fragrant odors emanating from its kitchen, along with the pleasant hum of voices and warm glow of the fireplace in its common room, make it a tempting refuge from stormy weather for Gabriel Varden, the traveling locksmith. When participants in the Gordon Riots attack the inn, the damage they cause seems to be a desecration of an almost sacred place.
However, the inn also has gloomy stables and grotesque carvings. Its timbers are decaying, and its bricks have become yellow and discolored. Homelike though it may seem at times, the Maypole is actually no longer a home but a commercial establishment, and its convivial community is repeatedly disrupted by antagonism between John Willett and his son Joe. The complex world of the Maypole reflects the larger world of England in being both flawed and enticing. Its attempted destruction, however, is clearly portrayed as a horrifying crime.
*London. Like his portrayal of Maypole Inn, Dickens’s portrayal of London is contradictory. His first description of it comes after a scene in which the Maypole’s appealing aspects are emphasized. In contrast, London is described as a dark shadow and a labyrinth, lit by its own lights rather than Heaven’s. It is as if this urban world is less wholesome and blessed than the rural world of the Maypole.
Praise of the rural world and Nature, in contrast to the city, continues a few pages later, but this time the picture is complicated by another contrast: between the London of 1775 and the London of Dickens’s own time. The earlier London is much more rural than the London of 1841. Fields, trees, and gardens are nearby; Nature is not far off; merry hay-making goes on. This London, says the narrator, is purer and fresher than its modern, squalid descendant. However, in a later chapter the presence of fields in the London of 1775 suddenly shows a bad side because it is easy for thieves to escape into the fields. Moreover, the London of 1775 is so poorly lighted at night that crime is rife, making the streets unsafe at night. Eighteenth century London is also the place of such vices as gambling.
It is not entirely clear whether Dickens wants his readers to prefer the old London to the new, or even if he wants them to prefer Nature to the town. What is clear, though, is that however flawed London is, the riots that nearly destroy it are worse: the London the rioters create is a hellish, horrifying one of a city set ablaze.
Warren. Decaying, melancholy mansion near the Maypole Inn whose owner was murdered years earlier. Unlike the Maypole, which is restored after the riots, the Warren is reduced to ruins, perhaps reflecting its sad past, perhaps reflecting Dickens’s unhappy personal memories of working as a child in Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, whose name he borrowed for the mansion.
Golden Key. Combined home and workshop of the locksmith, Gabriel Varden, in Clerkenwell, a suburb of London. Another site of contradiction: at times a jovial place of honest labor, at other times a place of antagonism between Gabriel and his wife, his wife’s maid, and his apprentice. There is also some contradiction in the fact that Gabriel’s honest labor is in the service of creating locks for such unsavory uses as prison doors.
*Newgate Prison. Notorious London prison. A harsh example of...
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