Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Old Curiosity Shop

Following the publication of Nicholas Nickleby Charles Dickens started a new publication called Master Humphrey's Clock that was to be a miscellany of selections by various writers including Dickens himself. One of the first short pieces was The Old Curiosity Shop, a Tale of Master Humphrey, but when the public demanded another novel Dickens expanded his concept for this story into his next novel.
The Old Curiosity Shop
is the story of a young girl, Nell and her Grandfather. Nell is one of Dickens young girls who are beautiful and, in this case, possesses a certain strength. Her Grandfather is addicted to gambling and seems to need the care of Nell more than she needs his care. Her innocence holds some appeal but I have found her appeal is limited and insufficient to hold my interest. Early in the story Nell and her Grandfather leave London due to his indebtedness to an evil dwarf named Daniel Quilp. If this brief outline suggests the melodramatic it is not far from it. The interest of the reader is maintained primarily through Dickens ability to create fascinating evil characters in Quilp and Nell's brother Fred. Quilp seems to be almost satanic in the way his character and physical appearance are described when he is introduced in chapters three and four. Later he is described as engaging in a "demon dance" (p. 170) and when he tells Mrs. Nubbles that he "doesn't eat babies" neither she nor you as the reader are sure that he is telling the truth, although he may prefer to just torment characters rather than actually eat them.

Dickens is effective in creating a mood and establishing contrasting themes of dark and light, night and day, old and young, city and country, big and small and cleanliness and filth; fundamentally depicting a battle between good and evil. Rather than creating another novel that indites social evils like Oliver Twist or Nicholas, Dickens uses biblical allusions and references to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to establish the story of Nell and her Grandfather as, at least partly, an allegorical tale. Over the next two weeks I will find out what fate holds for this duo and where their peregrinations through the countryside lead them. This was Dickens most popular novel since his original success with Pickwick Papers; I do not share the opinion of those who made it so, but find enough redeeming features to keep me reading.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003 (1841)

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