Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Wilde was right
I don't seem to have read many of the Dickens books that most Dickens fans have read. I've never read Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, or David Copperfield, but I have read Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son, and now I have also read The Old Curiosity Shop. It's a bit simpering, to say the least, but then so are a lot of Dickens' novels.
There's a great Hark, A Vagrant! comic that makes the joke that Dickens must have had a personal fetish for silent, inoffensive women. The main support for this joke (which I've sort of adopted as a pet literary theory whenever I'm reading through Dickens' industrial London) is essentially every single woman the man ever wrote. Dear, sweet, dead Nell is no exception. She's so totally un-self-interested that it kills her and the grandfather she's so unselfishly trying to protect. And I can only think of one woman in the story who IS self-interested - Sally Brass is the exception and she's "a fine fellow" to all the villains of the story when Dickens isn't busy sarcastically calling her a fair flower.
So, like pretty much every one of Dickens' stories other than Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, there's not much going on with the ladies who are supposed to make up the tear-jerking subject matter in this book. What's going on with the men is surprisingly hilarious at times, but largely tedious. I really don't understand the Quilp dynamic with ANY character in the story because, holy shit, he's so terrible, he's such a caricature of a terrible, monstrous asshole, that he's wholly unbelievable and pops off the page like a grotesque little jack-in-the-box. He's tremendously amusing to read but makes absolutely no sense as a protagonist, a plotter, or anything other than a literal demon. Maybe that's what Dickens wanted to do with the character? There are enough suggestions about it, but I don't think Quilp is supposed to literally be the devil. He's just drawn that way.
And, in case there was any doubt, The Old Curiosity Shop has affirmed for me the genius of Oscar Wilde. It may seem odd for a Dickens novel from 1841 to cement the brilliance of a playwright active forty years later, but Wilde made the most accurate statement I've seen in my copy of the book (printed cheekily by Penguin on the back cover): "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears of laughter." There were several moments that made me laugh inappropriately (and the discovery of Grandfather's gambling made me throw my book at the floor) but little Nell's little death takes the cake. It's just so pathetic, and so desperate to be moving, that you can't help rolling your eyes and snorting at the page.
HOWEVER - if you ever need an illustration of The Gambler's Fallacy look no further than The Old Curiosity Shop. It's a textbook illustration of one of the fascinating ways that human brains are broken that also happens to nicely show that Nell SHOULD have been taken from her delusional, thieving, gambling grandfather.
Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. Penguin Books. Middlesex: England. 1974. (1841)