"I hate your virtuous people!" said the dwarf, throwing off a bumper of brandy, and smacking his lips, "ah! I hate 'em every one!" [XLVIII]
ick Swiveller steps into the Old Curiosity Shop for the first time in order to introduce the logic of Mr. Wardle: "Why should a grandson and grandfather peg away at each other with mutual wiolence when all might be bliss and concord? Why not jine hands and forget it?" (II). Why not indeed? It is just this argument which could settle for ever the friendly differences in Pickwick Papers; it is a sane argument and ought to have great force in a sane world. But it has no relevance at all to the madhouse world of The Old Curiosity Shop, and Dick Swiveller is funny precisely because he is so incongruously sane. He sees, for instance, that Nell's grandfather is really "the jolly old grandfather" and Fred "the wild young grandson" of the comic theatre and that everything ought to come out "all right and comfortable". But no one will play these reasonable roles; "the old dotard", as Quilp not unfairly calls him, becomes a type of demonic selfishness, and Fred sinks in lurid degradation. Dick suggests that they all pack up and go to Dingley Dell. But there is no room for the bright simplicity of Dingley Dell in this novel; it is both too dark and too complex. There is, for instance, an awful and subtle irony in the narrative structure. For all the travelling and frantic rushing about that goes on, no one really moves anywhere or finally escapes from the pursuers (both Miller, pp. 95-6; Kirkpatrick, p. 20, argue that the immic, identification of rural "escape" with death functions as a criticism of the ending of Oliver Twist).This irony is also present in [76/77] the narrative tone. For all the "quietness" (to Thomas Latimer, Letters, i. 305, 13 Mar. 1841) Dickens worked for-and achieved-in the atmosphere, there is an underlying bitterness and a dominant motif of retribution which makes this quietness much more sinister and dark than soft and sad.
But soft and sad we continue to think it, and complexity is about the last quality ordinarily granted to The Old Curiosity Shop. More than any other Dickens novel, this one has tended to be rewritten in critical mythology and has become grossly oversimplified in the process. For many, in fact, the novel has been distilled into the climactic page and a half, of which the following is a fair example: "She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever" (LXXI). Perhaps even this is not representative, for the bitterness reflected in this passage, the rather ugly vindictiveness suggested by the reference to the bird, and the strange urge to wallow not with Nell but with the worms are not part of the popular myth. The Old Curiosity Shop has often become "The Death of Nell", and even that episode has been simplified in this century to the image of "ineptitude and vulgar sentimentality" (the phrase is Aldous Huxley's, p. 57) attending the awful iambs with which the two-headed monster (this one is Swinburne's, p. 22) is slaughtered. The contrasts between the Victorian response to Nell and our own have been often described and variously explained. Obviously more is involved in this change than can be [77/78] discussed here, but one thing, at least, seems to me clear. Our rather hysterical rejection of Nell is at least as much a rejection of those crowds on the docks in America, waiting for the ships from England and calling out, "Is Nell dead?", as it is of the novel itself. We strongly resist identifying ourselves with that group and that society, partly, I suppose, out of the snobbery which, assuming the progress of taste, allows us to sneer at the Victorians; but surely more important is the inability to respond to or even admit the existence of the extraordinarily intimate appeals in that novel. We may laugh at the boorishness of those who could admire such unsophisticated art, but there is something challenging and therefore frightening about the openness with which they invested so much of themselves in Nell.
There is the same threat and challenge in the novel itself. When Dickens speaks in the Preface of "the many friends it won me, and the many hearts it turned to me when they were full of private sorrow", he is talking about something more than a novel, and he is asking for something more than a conventional response. The Old Curiosity Shop, for all its hatred of Little Bethel, uses evangelical rhetoric and clearly expects something like a religious conversion to Nellyism. In this expectation, then, the novel is clearly antagonistic, implying that a failure of response is not an aesthetic but a spiritual failure.
And the proof of responsiveness is very simple and very extreme — tears. The Old Curiosity Shop is alone among Dickens's novels in being so emphatically centred on the dominant emotion of pathos, the most horrifying and deceptive of appeals. As Northrop Frye says, "Pathos, though it seems a gentler and more relaxed mood than tragedy, is even more terrifying. Its basis is the exclusion of an individual from a group, hence it attacks the deepest fear in ourselves that we possess" (p. 217). The intimacy demanded by the novel, then, is an intimacy with desolation and death. We tend to escape these extremities, paradoxically, by concentrating on Nell alone; for even though she is the central figure of the pathos, the weight of the rhetorical burden is carried by other figures. While it is certainly true that Nell can, by herself, support [78/79] very little meaning or emotion, she does receive enormous reflexive strength from her surroundings. Dickens's decision to surround Nell with the "grotesque and wild" (Preface, p. xii) was made not simply to gain picturesqueness but also to provide complexity and strength to the central figure and the central emotion. To a very large extent, Nell is made possible by Quilp and by Dick Swiveller, and the pathos is guaranteed by the humour.
For it was laughter that moved those dock crowds as well as tears, and laughter is primarily important in fixing our relationship to the central figure. In fact, for all its celebration of the grave, The Old Curiosity Shop is rooted in a comic impulse. Certainly the impulse is perverted and narrow, but it is there none the less. Since Dick cannot carry everyone off to Dingley Dell, we all go to the churchyard; Nell is fed to the worms in lieu of a Christmas festival. The unconscious logic of this movement towards death is comic in the sense that it is so strongly dedicated to youth and so violently opposed to age: if youth and its attendant values can no longer win in this world, then they will turn to the greater victory in death, thereby defying the aged, who want them to adopt their corruption. The grave becomes almost sanctified. In the child's defiance of the parent and the protection of the pleasure principle through suicide, the novel suggests the last desperately ingenious defence of the comic spirit.
But this description puts too grossly what is in the novel a subtle and submerged tendency. It is also true that this suicidal tendency is disguised by the existence of its opposite: the glorification of the grave is matched by a repulsion from it. At one point Dickens says that to mourn the death of children is to forget the "bright and happy existence [to which] those who die young are borne, and how in death they lose the pain of seeing others die around them" (XXVI). This, it must be admitted, is not an indication of subtlety or complexity; it is mere confusion. Death is seen both as a victory and as an escape from the pain which somehow comes from seeing others attain that victory. Dickens's ambivalence towards death neutralizes any meaning. The ambivalence is understandable, of course, but it does tend to weaken the novel by dissolving many of its ironies. The perverse comedy of Nell cannot ultimately be [79/80] sustained because the grave cannot be sanctified for the young. The old die too.
But because of the conflicting attitudes toward death, the comedy can be maintained for long periods, primarily through a relentless underground attack on the old. At the funeral of Nell, the narrator makes this attack explicit by arguing that these old horrors are more dead than Nell: "Old men were there, whose eyes were dim and senses failing grandmothers, who might have died ten years ago, and still been old-the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied, the living dead in many shapes and forms, to see the closing of that early grave. What was the death it would shut in, to that which still could crawl and creep above it!" (LXXII). Notice that these ancient vermin "crawl and creep", quite a change from old Wardle and old Pickwick. Usually, however, Dickens's attack is much more subtle and uses the mask of humour. Even Dick Swiveller contributes to this warfare: ". . . these old people there's no trusting 'em, Fred. There's an aunt of mine down in Dorsetshire that was going to die when I was eight years old, and hasn't kept her word yet. They're so aggravating, so unprincipled, so spiteful — unless there's apoplexy in the family, Fred, you can't calculate upon 'em, and even then they deceive you just as often as not" (VII). The light tone and the physical absence of Dick's aunt provide the disguise for the aggression, but the tendency of the joke is serious indeed.
The central symbol for this attack is, of course, Nell's grandfather. Directly responsible for her death by removing her from every point of safety and kindness, he, it is clear, is much closer even than Quilp to being the chief villain. He serves as the archetypal parental butt, the object of the comic if vicious revenge of the child on the adult. He is allowed none of the conventional superiorities of age; he is simply a "hollow mockery" of "childishness", an adult ludicrously attempting to be a child, but justly (according to the comic logic) denied "the gaiety", "the light and life", "the hope", and "the joys" of childhood. Instead, be is to childhood what "death is [to] sleep" (XII). The key joke against him is, significantly, made by children who run along beside Mrs. Jarley's caravan, "fully impressed with the belief that [Nell's] grandfather was a cunning device in wax" (XXVIII). The point of the joke is certainly clear, and [80/81] it coalesces with many others to reinforce the secret dream wish: that the old might be annihilated.
Our laughter here, as in Pickwick Papers, is asked to reject the pompous and stuffy formulas of the old for the freshness of youth. The rejection in The Old Curiosity Shop, however, is much more desperately violent, and the alternative turns out not to be freshness but youthful death. In this basic way, then, laughter pushes us toward the ultimate terror of pathos invested in the solitary child.
And it is certainly the pathetic Nell who is at the centre of the novel and who makes the primary demands for our responsiveness. But the dominant critical error is to separate Nell from her surroundings. Despite her central importance, she is defined and made effective by the figures around her. I think we can, therefore, best understand Nell and the pathos she represents by dealing with the major forces exterior to her, primarily those represented by Dick Swiveller and by Daniel Quilp. In this most dreamlike of novels, the connection of the important motifs exists almost entirely beneath the conscious level of the narrative. The major figures and attitudes are logically involved with one another, but the involvement is scarcely explained at all by the logic of the plot. Instead, we have a conflict of very basic tendencies, or, as Gabriel Pearson says, "fields of force", arranged in patterns of opposition and contrast often tangential to the plot itself. On one hand, there is the movement of Nell, her grandfather, Kit and the Garlands. Witherden the Notary, and those associated with this group towards peace, sanctity, the expected, acquiescence, and stasis.
Diametrically opposed is the force of Quilp, mostly isolated, but echoed to some extent in Sally Brass and Tom Scott, toward energy, violence, surprise, rebellion, and motion. Paradoxically, the mutual repulsion of these extreme forces tends to push them so far apart from each other that they meet in common self-extermination. Despite Quilp's continual and brilliant parody of the Nelly-group, he ends in the same position [81/82] exactly. As Pearson points out (p. 90), this opposition of forces creates a more and more apparent vacuum in the centre, which becomes filled, more and more adequately, by Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Dick is not, I think, primarily a parody on either group but a sane alternative made possible by their extreme and self-destructive antipathy. One can easily see this pattern as a simple extension of the one which existed only in potential in Oliver Twist. Rose Maylie (as Nell) is pushed happily into the grave where she belongs and Fagin (as Quilp) is made specifically subterranean. By carrying these tendencies to their logical conclusions, one could argue, there is room for a middle position in Dick, not possible when the split is as tenuous as in Oliver Twist. At any rate, the unity of The Old Curiosity Shop and its elemental force are determined by these three groups and the ways in which they reflect on one another.
The novel is not, however, really kaleidoscopic, nor is the pattern quite this neat. The determining reflections come from outside into Nell, and there is relatively little interplay in the other direction. The main problems, then, have to do with Nell and with the pathos she is meant to generate. In my opinion, the laughter which is exterior but thematically relevant to Nell makes that pathos possible and effective. Providing for the pathetic is one of the two main rhetorical functions of laughter in this novel; the other is to provide for the final comic solution centred in Dick and the Marchioness. Dickens, by our laughter, leads us to the grave and back again, provides us with tears and with joy. But the tears are unquestionably dominant for a large part of the novel and even help make possible by reaction the final joy. The first and main issue, then, is the relationship in the novel between laughter and pathos.
Laughter provides for pathos primarily through its aggressive component. Like the humour of direct attack, it awakens the aggression necessary for laughter and then exposes that aggression by removing the original disguise. Both types of humour also utilize the guilt made possible by this exposure of the reader's callousness. The differences are mainly of intensity and distance. In Oliver Twist the backlash is immediate and the laughter immediately turns round on us; in The Old Curiosity Shop there is vital distance between the laughter and [82/83] the serious reversal, so that the guilt is less felt and less insisted on, and may therefore be transferred to pity or tears. In the latter case, the guilt is a medium, not a final goal, and we are not so much attacked as softened up. Another way to explain this is to use the notion of vulnerability discussed in the first chapter. According to this idea, we release the energies of aggression or hostility only when we are assured by the disguise that it is safe to do so. Once these energies are expended, we are firmly committed and also defenceless, since there is no protection for the exposed impulse. We can, then, be made to react much more intensely to pathetic appeals. To be more specific, in this novel laughter at the Quilp and Swiveller forces, and at the people Nell and her grandfather meet in their travels, is used to heighten the response to Nell's sorrows and trials. A few examples should make this relationship of laughter and pathos clearer.
Probably the most basic relationship is rooted in the fact that in Little Nell the novel dedicates itself to all the feminine virtues, whilst at the same time it is inviting us to participate in hostile laughter at all women. The softness, humility, and gentle subservience of women is both staunchly supported and ridiculed. For instance, there is the brilliant humorous triumph of Daniel Quilp over all the neighbourhood women, gathered to sympathize with Mrs. Quilp. Now Betsy Quilp is very nearly Nell's double, but we are by no means invited to share in the cackling neighbours' sympathy for her. We are, in fact, invited to laugh, first, at the cowardice, blind egoism, and petty spitefulness of the neighbours:
"Ah! ... I wish you'd give her a little of your advice, Mrs. Jiniwin ... nobody knows better than you, ma'am, what us women owe to ourselves." "Owe indeed, ma'am!" replied Mrs. Jiniwin. "When my poor husband, her dear father was alive, if he had ever ventur'd a cross word to me, I'd have-" the good old lady did not finish the sentence, but she twisted off the head of a shrimp with a vindictiveness which seemed to imply that the action was in some degree a substitute for words. [IV]
Mrs. Quilp is urged to stand up for her superficial "rights"as a woman, but she cuts through the chorus of self-deception with an admission that substantiates our aggressive laughter: "It's [83/84] very easy to talk, but I say again that I know — that I'm sure — Quilp has such a way with him when he likes, that the best-looking woman here couldn't refuse him if I was dead, and she was free, and he chose to make love to her. Come!" This provides the perfect comic reversal and the perfect justification for our hostile amusement. Women, we are assured, are ludicrous, and their pretences to power are absurd simply because they are sexually inferior. Their hilarious, snarling reactions to Betsy's truth amount to confessions of impotence: "Before I'd consent to stand in awe of a man as she does of him, I'd — I'd kill myself, and write a letter first to say he did it!" So when Quilp, the representative of pure male energy, scatters the women merely by entering and inviting them to supper, the comic triumph is complete. It is capped only by the once-proud Mrs. Jiniwin being forced to go to bed (of all things) against her will. Mothers, wives, and daughters are all routed here in this vigorous humour of expulsion.
Much less harsh but certainly parallel is Dick Swiveller's victory over the Wackles gaggle four chapters later. Dick invades the "Ladies' Seminary" ostensibly to escape from his entanglement, but really to demonstrate again the hideousness of the female and to allow Miss Sophy to foil her own predatory plot to catch him by making him jealous of the market-gardener, Cheggs. Even Sophy's sister and fellow-conspirator, young Jane, is described as "prematurely shrill and shrewish", though only sixteen. In this world all women are hags; little girls are hags-in-training. Dick's famous verbal triumph, then, is made more wonderful by being coincident with the general triumph over women:
"I am sure I don't know what you mean, Mr. Swiveller," said Miss Sophy with downcast eyes. "I'm very sorry if -" "Sorry, ma'am!" said Dick, "sorry in the possession of a Cheggs!" [VIII]
Dick's phrasing is masterful; Sophy now "possesses" — and the commercial diction is intentional — a Cheggs, as if it were a handbag or a curlpaper. Dick's sarcasm is very pointed here; since she is a woman, what right has she to want anything more? She has, after all, received just "what us women owe to ourselves".
Examples of humorous assaults on women could be extended [84/85] indefinitely: Miss Monflathers and Sally Brass are flayed alive, and even Mrs. Njibbles comes in for attack on account of her religious stupidity. The existence of this recurrent impulse to attack women would seem to subvert the values associated with Nell and invest that figure with a strong irony, but I think not. There is a long distance between these attacks and Nell, and the very rejection of the feminine makes us all the more ready to respond to it when it is presented seriously. Again, this is a matter of distance and great tact; if Dickens brings the attack and the celebration close together, the result undoubtedly would be parody. But it seems clear that few have ever reacted to Nell as a parody figure, and it must be remembered that while the defence of Nell's virtues is overt and explicit, the attack comes through laughter, which by its very nature hides its source, Thus, since the reader is given a breathing spell, the laughter is preparatory to pathos; our aggression against the feminine is activated again and again, but we are never forced to admit this aggression consciously, The hostility is therefore drained rather than focused and is redirected to a more intense pity for the threatened femininity of Nell.
Perhaps an even clearer example of the comic-pathetic interrelationship is provided by the use made of jokes on loneliness to heighten our feeling for Nell's desolation. There axe, for example, many jokes specifically involving the confusion of friend and foe. First, there is & fixed notion of the business manager of the travelling Punch show: "Recollect the friend. Codlin's the friend, not Short. Short's very well as far as he goes, but the real friend is Codlin — not Short" (XIX). The dark point of this humour is that neither is friendly and that both are willing to sell out Nell for the proper sum, The distinctions we are asked to make between the gruff and grim misanthrope, Codlin, and the jolly Short Trotters break down; there is no play on the appearance-reality theme here, except that under all appearances is the uniform bleak selfishness which causes everyone to be completely alone and friendless. This same point is made through humour several times by Quilp. A good deal of his success rides on just this confusion of friend and enemy, with the same awful point about human desolation being made. He traps Fred Trent, for instance, with just this ruse: "You little knew who was your friend, and who [85/86] your foe: now did you?" (XXIII). Ironically, Quilp is at least an enemy, and the existence of feeling, even of negative feeling, is better than the black indifference of Codlin and Short. Finally, in the case of the Marchioness, we have the most extensive humorous treatment of this theme of loneliness, and a completion of the three-sided humorous pattern which reflects on Nell from each of the fields of force. The Marchioness is desperately lonely but combats this, at least partially, through the resources available to her through the keyhole. Though a very complex figure, she has a fund of protective Freudian humour at her disposal which makes it possible for us, at least at first, to conserve our pity and laugh at her. The Brasses treat her purely as a thing, a noise-maker: "We have been moving chests of drawers over [the lodger's] head, we have knocked double knocks at the street-door, we have made the servant-girl fall down stairs several times, (she's a light weight, and it don't hurt her much,) but nothing wakes him" (XXXV).
The laughter in all three areas of the novel prepares us for the pathos attending the dominant emotion, the awful isolation caused by the individual pursuit of selfish concerns. At the centre of the novel is this vision of alienation, of man lost in a purely atomistic society, "an atom, here, in a mountain-heap of misery" (XLIV). Our previous laughter at the failure of human concern, at the absence of human friendship, prepares us for the heart of the pathos:
the two poor strangers, stunned and bewildered by the hurry they beheld but had no part in, looked mournfully on; feeling, amidst the crowd, a solitude which has no parallel but in the thirst of the shipwrecked mariner, who, test to and fro upon the billows of a mighty ocean, his red eyes blinded by looking on the water which hems him in on every side, has not one drop to cool his burning tongue. [XLIV]
Even the parallel to Coleridge's poem is ironic, for the loneliness here is the more awful loneliness "amidst the crowd", a crowd which emphatically does not hold out the possibility of grace or redemption, even if the commercial water-snakes are blessed. The jokes have been used as preparatory notes to establish in the reader a readiness for, really a susceptibility to, this appeal. [86/87]
The most important support for this pathetic and serious appeal comes from the humour associated with the three basic sections of the novel: the Nelly-group; its polar opposite, the Quilp-group; finally, the resultant Swiveller-group.
Last Modified 10 March 2010