The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity Shop

Little Nell
Punch in the Churchyard

The Old Curiosity Shop was the fourth novel of Charles Dickens.  The novel was published in installments in the periodical “Master Humphrey’s Clock”.  The first installment was printed in April of 1840 and the last was printed in February of 1841.

The Old Curiosity Shop – Dickens’s Life At The Time

Is Little Nell’s Death Overly Sentimental?

During the novel Little Nell’s health begins to deteriorate.  The journey to the countryside is a one-way trip for Nell and she dies at the end of the novel.  At the time of its writing it’s rumored that people waited on the docks of New York for the last installments of The Old Curiosity Shop.  When the ship carrying the magazines arrived people in the crowd asked, “Is Little Nell dead?”

Many people have strong reactions to Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop.  However that reaction varies widely from person to person.  Some readers were greatly moved by her death.  Some were not.  Oscar Wilde, the author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, said of the novel, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

Little Nell and Mary Hogarth

Dickens was traumatized by the death of Little Nell.  As he was writing it he felt as though he were experiencing the death of one of his children.  It also brought back painful memories of the death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth.

In 1837 Mary Hogarth was seventeen, pretty and living with her sister Catherine and Catherine’s husband, Charles Dickens.  Mary was a favorite with the couple and had become like a little sister to Charles.

On the evening of May 6th Mary went with the couple to the St. James Theatre.  The group returned late in the evening and Mary retired for the night.  Shortly after that Dickens heard a cry from Mary’s room.  She was ill.  Despite her doctor’s care Mary passed away in Dickens’s arms on May 7th.

He had her tombstone inscribed with these words, “Young, beautiful, and good, God in his mercy numbered her with His angles at the early age of seventeen.”

Dickens wrote to his friend, John Forster, about Little Nell’s death, “Old wounds bleed afresh when I think of this sad story.”

Theme of The Old Curiosity Shop

In the preface to The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens wrote:

I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.

Dickens indeed carried out his fancy with The Old Curiosity Shop.  The book is a study in contrasts:

  • Youthful Little Nell versus the old curios and her elderly grandfather at the Old Curiosity Shop
  • The goodness and virtue of Little Nell as compared to the evil Quilp
  • Little Nell acting like an adult when her grandfather can’t cope
  • The masculine qualities of Sally Brass as well as the feminine qualities of  Sampson Brass
  • The passivity of Nell versus the energy of Quilp

In The Friendly Dickens Norrie Epstein writes something that can help us all understand and digest this novel:

The trick to enjoying this remarkable work is to view it not as a syrupy period piece or a realistic novel but as a fairy tale for adults, filled with unsettling elements, startling, inexplicable symbols, and dark meanings just below the surface.  Like all tales of enchantment, it transforms unspeakable and primal anxieties and taboos—such as incest, freaks, sadism, separation anxiety, and death—into something manageable and strangely compelling.

Information about The Old Curiosity Shop on This Site

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