Discussion Post: The Old Curiosity Shop

May 6, 2010 at 12:10 am 2 comments

Welcome, Challengers! Let’s get right down to it — next week, we’re talking about Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, but for now, we’re talking The Old Curiosity Shop by the inimitable Charles Dickens. Participate here or on your own blog, and you’ll be entered in our drawing for the Penguin Clothbound Classic. The questions and my answers are below, but please share your thoughts as well!

So, what did you think about Little Nell? Did you find her sympathetic or just annoying? How do you think a Victorian audience would have felt about her?

I kind of wanted Nell to die earlier, or maybe put on her big girl panties and deal with it. She spends a lot of time swooning around the countryside and smiling wanly whenever someone mentions death, God or heaven. And what does she die of, precisely? Dick Swiveller comes through consumption with nothing but spiritual redemption and a bit of lost weight, but Nell essentially dies of an arduous walk — far after the walk is over, I might add.

But how I feel about Nell is clouded by my modern sensibilities. I think she’s a pansy, but the Victorian response to Nell would have been much different. Yes, the book was criticized for sentimentality, but readers (except Oscar Wilde) still loved Nell, saw her as a paragon of virtue and didn’t want her to die.

It’s probably close to how I feel about supermodels; I know they are unrealistic, but I still want to be like them. They might be really unhealthy, but they still look great. On the same note, Victorians probably would have known that it was pretty terrible for innocent children to die. However, death was also seen as a preserver of innocence, and a child who died would never be corrupted by the sinful world.

So while it’s pretty unhealthy for Nell to waste and pine away with little to no provocation, the Victorian attitude may have been that at least she was saved from the temptations and miseries that her grandfather (and brother, perhaps?) had to suffer for a full lifetime.

How do the themes and characters of The Old Curiosity Shop anticipate those of Dickens’ later works? (Think A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times and Great Expectations if you need some direction.)

The parallels I noticed were mostly with Great Expectations; I’m sure there are more, but I am more familiar with that novel than the others. Kit reminded me of an early version of Pip, and not just because they both have monosyllabic names. Kit’s love for Nell (his “bright star”) reminds me very much of Pip’s love for Estella, though the later is a much more complex and interesting relationship. Mrs. Joe always threatening that Pip will be transported or locked up in the hulks one day also recalls Kit’s own troubles with the law.

In general, though, traditional Dickensian themes of innocent dead girls/children, poverty, dishonest lawyers and earnest young boys make appearances in this novel. The Old Curiosity Shop reads a little like Essence of Dickens — everything you think you know about the author and have seen in various forms in his other works all culminate in this one novel.

Do you think the title is appropriate for this novel, considering the role of the actual curiosity shop? If not, what would a better title be?

The only claim to the title the curiosity shop has is that it brings all of the various characters together. It’s how Kit and Quilp and everyone in that plotline know Nell and her grandfather, but otherwise, it doesn’t play a central role.

However, the curiosity shop is depicted as a dark place filled with mysterious and malevolent objects in which Nell is frequently abandoned and alone. Possibly this is a metaphor for the rest of Nell’s story, in which she makes her way through a world full of grotesque characters with evil intentions, without anyone to help her.

Of course, the second she does find a friend or two, she dies, so who knows what that means. Augh!

Hope you all enjoyed this week’s read! See you back here on Tuesday for the questions on Song of the Lark.



Entry filed under: Classics, LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Moeann  |  March 13, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    I felt sympathy for Nell’s character, she cares deeply for her grandfather and sacrifices herself for his care. She creates foreboding with her character and enables the reader to walk with her on her journey with some apprehension of what’s going to happen in the unfolding of the plot. I feel Victorian audiences would have loved her and wondered what events would fall her as she journey with her grandfather. The unfolding of the events at the end of the novel surprise the reader and make the novel a page turner.

  • 2. Rex Hamann  |  April 20, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    Nell was the quintessential protector, the mother bear, whose emotional bond with her grandfather is so deep she is willing to forgive his transgressions and march onward through the fog with him, no matter what trouble he seems to happen upon along the way. She is a goddess, a delicate, unearthly character who will remain in my memory for a long time to come. I just finished reading this book last night having spent a few months dedicated to it, poring over every word. Nell held me spellbound. She was the glue which held the entire intricate story together. Without her there is no sympathetic character in whom we can become emotionally attached, unless it would happen to be Kit, without whom the story would have held so much less portent, so much less emotional weight. Nell is the lifeblood of this fabulously complex and delightfully charged novel. I’m so glad my brother-in-law gave this book to me for Christmas in 2009!


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