reves fictionalized Merrick much as Dickens had Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). In discussing Freud’s Wolf Man, Peter Brooks points out the connection between case history and fiction. Case histories are stories didactically presented to the public; they are exemplary biography.14 Certainly the lives of both Merrick and Little Nell served as lessons to the Victorians. Both figures emerge as the long-sufferers who earn death as relief from pilgrim-like wandering, travail, and victimization. Both have heroic rescuers who remove them from society and find them sanctuaries in which to die. And the praises of both are couched in similar language. Dickens’s schoolmaster in The Old Curiosity Shop listens to Nell Trent with astonishment:
'This child!' he thought. 'Has this child heroically persevered under all doubts and dangers, struggled with poverty and suffering, upheld and sustained by strong affection and the consciousness of rectitude alone! And yet the world is full of such heroism.'15
Dickens and Treves chronicled their stories as they did because they felt that their readers wanted to believe in such heroism and in easeful death as a reward for it. But then so did the two authors. Dickens always tried to reassure himself that his young sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, had died peacefully and was in some way requited for her good, short life. Similarly, Treves needed over thirty years to convince himself that his charge had not laid down his ungainly head in order to spare London Hospital the trouble of his upkeep, but in fact had simply needed to “sleep" like others.
There is nonetheless a darker side to Little Nell’s story as there is to Merrick’s and to Dickens’s’ own. For if Dickens’s memory canonized Mary Hogarth, it also captured the horrific and macabre images of dead men in the Paris morgue. In “Travelling Abroad," from The Uncommercial Traveller (1861), the novelist would write that he was haunted by a mental picture of a drowned man whom he had seen laid out in that house of death. Darkened and disfigured by water, the remembered and the recreated drowned man pursued Dickens to the public baths and then onward for the better part of a week. Earlier, in Dickens’s fiction, Daniel Quilp, Little Nell’s cruel, lecherous persecutor in The Old Curiosity Shop, knew just such a disfiguring death. In more ways than one it would befit him, for Quilip, like Varney, was a monster of self-destruction.
From his first entry into Dickens’s novel, Quilp is depicted as deformed both inside and out:
The child was closely followed by an elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect, and so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome. But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face, was a ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connexion with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog (OCS, 65)
Later, Kit calls him “the ugliest dwarf that could be seen anywheres for a penny" (OCS, 95) while others dub him “monster." Like Merrick, Quilp is of freak-show proportions, although unlike him he becomes everybody’s dreaded, darker other self, especially Nell’s. Dickens makes this clear by creating several more innocuous “monsters": the crippled Master Humphrey, the deformed factory worker, and the group of circus freaks. None of these figures has an interior to match his physical deformity, a realization that Nell quickly makes. Her sympathy with them and her horror over Quilp will eventually haunt Nell’s nightmares and become confounded in her dreamlife with Mrs. Jarley’s waxwork figures of murderers and wild boys. By day a sexual threat, Quilp becomes by night a threat to life itself.
Thus Quilp comes to serve as Nell’s moral opposite. Evil is excluded from Nell, good from the monstrous Quilp. In keeping with their deserts, they are meted out to their deaths. It is important to realize that in The Old Curiosity Shop no one escapes death. 16 Although Dickens’s devotees clamored to save Nell’s life, Dickens had to kill his young heroine. Death in this book is inevitable, but it can be either a release—a beautiful and easy transition like Nell’s—or a torment like Quilp’s miserable, self-induced drowning. “Everything in our lives," Dickens tells us, “whether of good or evil, affects us most by contrast" (OCS, 493). Nell has been faced with inhumanity both in the city, where “ruin and self-murder" crouched “in every street" (OCS, 72), and on the road; eventually, however, she finds an Edenic, prelapsarian place and slips into a death that seems more like a birth. Quilp, on the other hand, locks himself away from all possible aid, loses his footing, and drowns miserably in the Thames:
Another mortal struggle, and he was up again, beating the water with his hands, and looking out with wild and glaring eyes that showed him some black object he was drifting close upon. The hull of a ship! He could touch its smooth and slippery surface with his hand. One loud cry now--but the resistless water bore him down before he could give it utterance, and, driving him under it, carried away a corpse. (OCS, 620)
Quilp is one of Dickens’s “accidental" suicides. Attempting to escape his fate like cruel Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, Quilp actually seals it. In each of their cases, self-destruction works like the hand of justice. Their worlds are bestial, primitive, and sexual—fraught with dangerous forces seemingly beyond individual control. Nevertheless their excessive desperation to live is what causes their demise. In the world of The Old Curiosity Shop, to accept death quietly is to conquer it, while to attempt to escape it is to succumb to it. Dickens reinforces this lesson by making the deaths of his two characters nearly simultaneous. In Nell’s case, he tells us,
It is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach, but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty, universal Truth. When Death strikes down the innocent and the young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer’s steps there spring up bright creations that deft his power, and his dark path becomes way of light to Heaven. (OCS, 659)
In Quilp’s case, however, we learned of the harsh consequences of excessive and senselessly cruel vitality. Quilp has become the primitive, death-fearful second self that many Victorians strove to hide or kill. Fittingly, the inquest on his body determines that Quilp was a felo-de-se, and he is left to be buried at a cross-roads with a stake through the heart. Although rumor contends that this grisly ceremony was dispensed with, it is clear that Dickens wanted his villain associated with the demonic in the minds of his readers.
Dickens paired sentimental and suicidal deaths in several of his earlier novels. In Dombey and Son (1848), young Paul Dombey embraces death and is easily borne away on an ocean of immortality, while Carker meets a bloody end by suicide on the railroad tracks. In Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), Smike is unafraid to die and “almost" does not wish to recover from his final illness, while his father, Ralph Nickleby, shakes his fist at the world in frenzied hatred as he prepares to hang himself. Carker and Ralph Nickleby are not accidental suicides. Tired of their misdeeds, these two will to die. More men than monsters, they finish life aware of their capacity for cruelty. They therefore do not become emblems of bestiality but rather of calculated and misguided behavior--in death as in life.
Thus the demonic imagery of otherness that surrounds Quilp inside and out haunts Ralph Nickleby mainly from the outside. On his last night, Nickleby conjures up images of suicide. As he passes a graveyard, he recalls being a juryman for a felo-de-se, remembers the look of the corpse, and then sees a macabre, hump-backed figure performing what looks like a dance of death. For a while he becomes softened, but a vision of crippled Smike on his deathbed rekindles his hatred of Nicholas Nickleby. When he looks about—and inside—for a devil to help him out of his frenzy, only the image of the suicide appears. And Ralph Nickleby, who could have converted himself into a better man as Scrooge does, instead transforms himself into a dead man. As Nickleby prepares to hang himself, he is addressed by voices on the other side of the door. When he answers, the outsiders do not at all recognize his voice, “‘That’s not Mr. Nickleby’s voice surely,’ was the rejoinder. 'It was not like it, but it was Ralph Nickleby who spoke,’" 17 says Dickens’s narrator. The voice belongs to a living man who has already pledged himself to death—to Ralph Nickleby as other. Nickleby has sealed his fate by internalizing the suicide that so haunted his memory.
Last modified 18 May 2023