Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dickens' Fairy Tale

A book review

Many readers have been critical of The Old Curiosity Shop, feeling that it is too sentimental, too melodramatic, and poorly constructed. They are displeased with the lack of reality. This unreality, however, is exacly what one should expect, since the novel is not designed as a reflection of every~day life. Quilp the dwarf, Sally Brass the dragon, pure and innocent little Nell, and the puppets, giants, performing dogs and other grotesqueries are the cast of a highly imaginative and richly embroidered fairy tale.

Dickens' description of Daniel Quilp emphasizes his physical deformity: the oversized head, face and hands, the short stature, the mirthless grin, the long, crooked, dirty fingernails like claws. He is an animal, a monster who sleeps by day and prowls by night. In his deformity evil is embodied. And yet, as in all fairy tales, the villain must have some attraction or charm with which he draws his victims into his power. Quilp's is two-fold. He has the power to seek out his victim's greatest weakness and use it as a tool of destruction; and, according to his strangely infatuated wife, he has some personal charm, despite "his ugliness.. his ferocity or his natural cunning" (Penguin 73) He exercised his power over Nell's grandfather by lending him money. The sums are increasingly larger and larger, feeding the old man's mania for gambling, until everything he owns is lost to Quilp, who then assumes possession of the curiosity shop and all its contents. Nell and her grandfather are forced to run away from his overwhelming intimidation. He intimidates his wife as well, according to his mother-in-law:

"He is the greatest tyrant that ever lived, she [his wife] daren't call her soul her own, he makes her tremble with a word and even with a look, he frightens her to death, and she hasn't the spirit to give him a word back, no, not a single word" (Penguin 77).  But when Mrs. Quilp is encouraged by her neighbors to rebel against her lord and master, she defends herself by saying, " it's 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 he chose to make love to her" (Penguin 76).  Through intimidation or charm, this grinning ogre, this prancing goblin, overpowers his victims, until he finally meets disaster.

Small, delicate and beautiful, Nell is the embodiment of perfection, the idealized heroine whose nature encompasses perfect innocenee and goodness. As are almost all fairy tale heroines, she is an orphan, and her remaining relatives are so different in nature and treat her so poorly that one is tempted to think she is a misplaced foundling. Her brother has no real affection for Nell; he seems interested in her only as a means of gaining the fortune which he is convinced the old grandfather intends to bestow on Nell. The grandfather speaks often of his love for Nell, his desire to see her a lady, and his ambition to make her wealthy. But his fascination with gambling drives him to leave the little girl locked up alone night after night, while he pursues his elusive dream of winning a fortune. The gambling fever has such a grip on him that he even steals the few coins Nell earns working for Mrs. Jarley at the waxworks exhibit. He speaks frequently of his loving care of her, but tells Mrs. Jarley they can t be separated, or who would care for him? Instead of his caring for Nell, she cares for him, leading him as they flee London to search for peace and safety in the countryside. Ironically, it is not until Nell is at the end of her earthly journey, when it is too late, that he attempts to care for her as he should.

Their headlong escape from Quilp and London is the nightmare we have all experienced; the threat is not clearly defined or understood, and there is no safe haven, but flight is infinitely preferable to confrontation. The phantasms of the nightmare are the distorted figures of a dreamscape. Codlin and Short arise from among the graves, with the dismembered Punch leering over the top of a tombstone. The Jolly Sandboys Inn, which seems to offer refuge from the storm, is filled with threatening, or at least grotesque, characters such as week-kneed giants, dwarfs, gypsies, and dogs who wear clothes and walk on their hind legs. Mrs. Jarley offers respite from the wearying road, but Nell's nights among the waxwork figures are waking nightmares:

Quilp indeed was a perpetual nightmare to the child, who was constantly haunted by a vision of his ugly face and stunted figure"... Then there were so many of the [the waxworks] with their great glassy eyes--.. .they looked so like Living creatures, and yet so unlike, in their grim stillness and silence, that she had a kind of terror of them for their own sakes.. until she was obliged to rise and light a candle..." (Penguin 289)

Dick Swiveller's story is a parallel fairy tale in which the orphaned "Marchioness", like Cinderella, lives in a cellar, starved, mistreated, virtually a slave to Sally Brass, "a female dragon" (Penguin330). Dick is unconsciously a prince in disguise, who educates, then marries the waif, and redeems Kit's good character. Kit, Nell's faithful servant, marries his sweetheart and lives happily ever after, in service with the Garlands.

The single gentleman, Nell's would-be fairy godfather, arrives too late to save her, but is reconciled with the grandfather at last. Nell is not the traditional fairy-tale heroine who lives happily ever after; her story is more like the Victorian morality stories in which the wicked are punished, but the extremely virtuous, too good for this wicked world, are taken home to heaven lest they be corrupted by maturity. In Kit's children are reborn namesakes of many of the characters, but Nell is unique, the mortal girl who becomes, if not a fairy, then an angel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for share.