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 the novel than she does in the contemporary reader. Many other thoroughly good characters, such as the Garlands, Kit Nubbles, the poor schoolmaster, and the Single Gentleman, support the romantic concept, more widely held in Dickens’s time, that those who are good are naturally good. One of the few characters who manages to span the gap between the evil and the good characters is Dick Swiveller. Although originally the pawn of Frederick Trent and Quilp, Swiveller switches to the side of goodness by revealing to the police Quilp’s part in framing Kit Nubbles because, as the narrator assures the reader, Swiviller is “essentially good-natured.”
Quilp, the dwarf, is the figure of consummate evil who dominates the novel. Quilp possesses such vitality in his evil designs that he enlivens the scenes in which he appears. At one point, his voice interrupts a conversation criticizing him; he seems as omnipresent as the devil. Another set of evil, materialistic characters, Samuel Brass and his “dragon” of a sister, Sally, also provide examples of moral degeneration. Samuel’s subservience in his avowed admiration of Quilp, regardless of that man’s outrageous treatment of him, rivals Sally’s determined competitiveness. Eventually the greed of these siblings is appropriately rewarded by a life of destitution. Such is the majesty of fiction. They wander through the worst slums of London scavenging for food.
One of the...
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serious weaknesses of the novel lies in the weak connection between the two plot lines. The experiences of Nell and her grandfather as they try to escape the pursuit of Quilp is one plot line, and the events in the lives of those who remain in London is the other. Toward the end of the novel, these two strands meet, but at one point even the narrator apologizes for abandoning one set of characters for an unconscionable period of time while he deals with the other group.
The Old Curiosity Shop contains one of Dickens’s favorite recurring themes: the reversal of roles of parent and child. In this novel, granddaughter Nell cares for her gambling-addict grandfather. Amy Dorrit cares for her debt-imprisoned father in Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and Jenny Wren supports her alcoholic father in Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). This theme probably originated in Dickens’s childhood experience. When his father was put in debtors’ prison, the young Dickens was forced to support himself in a blacking factory until an inheritance paid off his father’s debt.
Dickens expresses, through the voice of the narrator, some comic and forgiving perceptions of human nature to counterbalance the novel’s satiric attacks on social justice. Some examples include the dialogue between the aged sexton and the deaf gravedigger regarding the age of the corpse they are burying. One insists she is their contemporary; the other protests she must be at least ten years their senior. The second estimate gives them ten more years before they need to consider their own deaths. In another scene, in which several friends of Mrs. Quilp come like Job’s comforters to criticize her choice of a husband, she astutely observes that if she died, any one of those present would agree to marry him. Another example of the work’s ironies is that the pragmatic, materialistic Sally Brass, after years of self-sufficient spinsterhood, is quite smitten with the lazy, improvident Dick Swiveller when he comes to clerk for her brother.
Dickens’s observations of human inconsistency appeal to today’s readers as much as they did to the readers of the nineteenth century. The title of the work suggests a central theme: Only the past contains peace and joy. Nell is looking for such peace when she leaves the curiosity shop, but at the end of her journey she finds only the ultimate peace, death.