decorative initial 'D' he approved goals of the Nell group are peace, serenity, sameness, and acquiescence-finally, of course, death. Nell is not alone in having these negative aspirations; she shares them with associated characters, such as the Nubbleses and the Garlands. The Garlands, when hiring Kit, explain their extreme carefulness on the ground that they are "very quiet regular folks". Because of this, they say, "it would be a sad thing if we made any kind of mistake, and found things different from what we hoped and expected" (XXI). The direction of this force is characterized very aptly by the sort of life described here: quiet and regular, without surprises. The whole group really distrusts change and excitement so much that its members are even unable to resist feeling guilty after the night at Astley's (XL). All their energy and rebelliousness seem to have been transferred to the pony; the rest huddle desperately together in a pathetic search for safety.

It is this same search for safety which motivates the travels of Nell and her grandfather, an attempt above all to elude the nightmare enemies, those who are "searching for me everywhere, and may come here, and steal upon us, even while we're talking" (XXIV). The awful irony is that they are running from their avowed friends. More horribly ironic still is the suggestion that they really don't go anywhere, that they simply move from death to death. Dickens makes this literally vicious circle symbolically clear by connecting the original Old Curiosity Shop with their final home provided by the schoolmaster. Both, of course, are associated with death, decay, and disuse, but the tie is made even more explicit. The shop contains "fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters" (I), [87/88] and the final home "a pile of fragments of rich carving from old monkish stalls" (LII), and they both have "strange furniture". Even the old church where Nell is so attracted to the dead contains rusty armour corresponding to the "rusty weapons" of the original shop. Finally, Nell's grandfather is described as simply returning home; at the original shop, Master Humphrey says, "The haggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches, and tombs, and deserted houses, and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself; nothing that looked older or more worn than be" (I). And just before his death the same association is made: "He, and the failing light and dying fire, the time-worn room, the solitude, the wasted life, and gloom, were all in fellowship. Ashes, and dust, and ruin!" (LXXI). The circular structure insists that they have run desperately hard only to remain stationary in the tomb where they began. And behind this structural circle of futility is a similar thematic one: Quilp is chasing the old man for the non-existent gold the old man is also chasing; the dog is, indeed, chasing its tail and driving itself mad. The delusive and frustrating search for security in a commercial world ends in death.

For underneath all are those satanic mills and the system of life they have created. When Nell persuades her grandfather to leave London, she is clearly thinking of an escape from the industrial present. But it is equally clear that he cannot loosen himself from the premises of industrialism:

"If we are beggars-!" "What if we are?" said the child boldly. "Let us be beggars, and be happy." "Beggars — and happy!" said the old man. "Poor child!" [IX]

At the heart of their problem is the fact that they are unable to be happy outside the commercial system. This suggests an imaginative failure (Dick Swiveller is certainly an alternative in this regard) but partly an inescapable fact. The most intensely imagined scene in the novel shows Nell and her grandfather alone in the midst of a seething business crowd:

The throng of people hurried by, in two opposite streams, with [88/89] no symptom of cessation or exhaustion; intent upon their own affairs; and undisturbed in their business speculations, by the roar of carts and waggons laden with clashing wares, the slipping of horses' feet upon the wet and greasy pavement, the rattling of the rain on windows and umbrella-tops, the jostling of the more impatient passengers, and all the noise and tumult of a crowded street in the high tide of its occupation. [XLIV]

Here is the root cause of the central isolation, the separation of man from man by the cash nexus. Dickens's attack on the mercantile organization of life in this novel is more indirect than in the later novels, but it is none the less powerful. The novel is more than a "failed idyll" (this descriptive term is used by Steven Marcus and discussed at some length, pp. 135-42); it is an exploration of the defeat of the Romantic imagination, the disjunction of man from nature and from his fellows. Even the divine child of the Romantics and of the parable is distorted: "It was plain that she was thenceforth his guide and leader. The child felt it, but had no doubts or misgivings, and putting her hand in his, led him gently away" (xii). And she leads him to loneliness, defeat, and death.

It is against this background that Dickens introduces the "grotesque and wild, but not impossible, companions" he intended as a counterpoint to "the lonely figure of the child" (Preface, p. xii). And it is through these companions that Dickens begins the humorous juxtaposition that controls the form of this novel and makes effective its pathos.

Codlin and Short, the first of these contrasts, act as an awful parody of comic existence and of warm affection. At the "Jolly Sandboys" they are joined by Mr. Grinder and his weird company, Vuffin and his Giant, the dogs — in short, a kind of circus of feasting and revelry. The economic attack, however, becomes more and more insistent as the talk turns to the marketability (Short would use this sort of jargon if he knew it) of giants. "Once get a giant shaky on his legs, and the public [89/90] cares no more about him than they do for a dead cabbagestalk" (XIX), says the experienced Mr. Vuffin. Economically obsolete giants, he explains, are protected, not on account of kindness, but because they must be kept scarce: "Once make a giant common and giants will never draw again. Look at wooden legs. If there was only one man with a wooden leg what a property he'd be!" (XIX). The alternative to protection is suggested by the case of the giant "who took to carrying coach-bills about London, making himself as cheap as crossing-sweepers". "He died", Vuffin ominously continues; "I make no insinuation against anybody in particular ... but he was ruining the trade;-and he died". Laughter is used to reject this system and this cruelty. In case we were inattentive, Dickens suddenly reminds us that Nell has never laughed at this group but has, in fact, been wearily trying to urge her grandfather to leave. We realize, perhaps with some guilt, that she has been utterly alone in this company of economic freaks, unamused and unhelped. The presumed friends, Codlin and Short, then complete the reversal and turn the laughter back on us. It becomes finally clear that they are also protecting Nell and her grandfather for economic reasons, and when Short calls through the keyhole, then, we see how sinister the note of friendship is and how deceptive the circus joy has been: "I only wanted to say that we most be off early to-morrow morning, my dear, because unless we get the start of the dogs, and the conjurer, the villages won't be worth a penny" (XIX). The perfect burlesque of this sort of cruel economic life is surely the picture of an enterprise which is determined to "get the start of the dogs".

Nell and her grandfather escape, however, and after a brief stop with the lugubrious schoolmaster, come on "a Christian lady, stout and comfortable to look on" (XXVI), Mrs. Jarley, a figure paralleled to Dick Swiveller in her imaginative powers and her humorous strength. "Unquestionably Mrs. Jarley had an inventive genius" (XXIX), the narrator says, and that genius offers a potential solution to all the problems Nell faces; it is, in fact, a foreshadowing of Mr. Sleary's circus in Hard Times and is an early alternative to the devastatingly rigid political economy. With Mrs. Jarley, even the taking of tea becomes a time for joy, and her use of the "suspicious bottle" is exactly [90/91] like Mr. Pickwick's: to make everything and everyone comfortable, Comfort is, in fact, just what Mrs. Jarley exists for — in a sense what she is; she has "not only a peculiar relish for being comfortable herself, but for making everybody about her comfortable also" (XXIX). Notice that this comfort is not, as with Codlin and Short, either delusive or menacing, nor is it associated with the rest and escape Nell seeks. It offers not safety but joy, not escape but active and continual combat with all the deadening economic forces. Mrs. Jarley is, most centrally, a figure who is associated with comic and comfortable life at war with death. She actively parodies calmness, low spirits, the commercial world, and, most of all, death:

"I never saw any wax-work, ma'am," said Nell. "Is it funnier than Punch?" "Funnier!" said Mrs. Jarley in a shrill voice. "It is not funny at all." "Oh!" said Nell, with all possible humility. "It isn't funny at all," repeated Mrs. Jarley. "It's calm and — what's that word again — critical? -no — classical, that's it — it is calm and classical. No low beatings and knockings about, no jokings and squeakings like your precious Punches, but always the same, with a constantly unchanging air of coldness and gentility; and so like life, that if wax-work only spoke and walked about, you'd hardly know the difference. I won't go so far as to say that, as it is, I've seen wax-work quite like life, but I've certainly seen some life that was exactly like wax-work." [XXVII]

She hates Punch for being "low", "wulgar", but most significantly, "practical" (XXVI). The perversion of all joy to ugly economic ends is suggested by this last adjective, and Mrs. Jarley's proper distaste for the practical is consonant with her parody of the deadly cold genteel. Her description of gentility contrasts so directly with her own existence that our laughter is made to reject precisely what she pretends to promote: the death that imitates life. The waxworks themselves function as a kind of portable burlesque of "life that [is] exactly like wax-work".

This abundant life-force is terribly impatient with the querulous old man — "I should have thought you were old enough to take cure of yourself, if you ever will be", she says "sharply" (XXVII) — and suggests the real alternative to [91/92] economic captivation: a comic transcendance of the economic system and its accompanying retributive morality. Even her waxworks burlesque the suffocating maxims; probably the best is the cautionary one of "the old lady who died of dancing at a hundred and thirty-two" (XXVIII). Her methods of warfare are made explicit in her confrontation with that pillar of commercial life, Miss Monflathers. Grimaldi the clown simply becomes by pronouncement the grammarian Mr. Murray, and a murderess of great renown is made to do for Mrs. Hannah More. No wonder Miss Monflathers is repulsed; only an absolute fool could miss the parody.

Miss Monflathers is, in fact, another softener for the concerted pathos to come. Her very gate, clearly an extension of herself, is a joke on security: "Afore obdurate than gate of adamant or brass, this gate of Miss Monflathers's frowned on all mankind. The very butcher respected it as a mystery, and left off -whistling when he rang the bell" (XXXI). And her economic assault on Nell makes it clear that the central pursuer of innocence and purity is really the system of profit and loss:

"Don't you feel how naughty it is of you ... to be a wax-work child, when you might have the proud consciousness of assisting, to the extent of your infant powers, the manufactures of your country; of improving your mind by the constant contemplation of the steam-engine; and of earning a comfortable and independent subsistence of from two-and ninepence to three shillings per week? Don't you know that the harder you work, the happier you are?" [XXXI]

This doctrine is anathema to comedy, and it is no wonder she — or her equally hard-working gate — cuts off the butcher's whistling. Even Mrs. Jarley needs a double dose of alcohol to relieve her mind of Miss Monflathers, who almost makes her "turn atheist" (XXXII). But the alcohol does the trick, and she finds the right solution; Miss Monflathers gradually changes from "an object of dire vexation" to "one of sheer ridicule and absurdity", and it is finally decided that whenever Miss Monflathers is thought of, "she would do nothing but laugh at her, all the days of her life" (XXXII). She persuades Nell to try the same cure, the application of Freudian humour. [92/93]

But Nell's infuriating grandfather is far too deeply infected with getting and spending to be touched by this medicine, and he forces Nell to take him away. The symbolic battle between joy and economic despair has resulted in the defeat of joy, and from this point on the travellers have no chance. The recognition of their doomed state adds a special poignancy to Mrs. Jarley; she was much more than a grotesque counterpoint or a funny distraction; she was the last hope, now subsumed by the general commercial death. It is necessary to insist on the generality of the villain, for there is a tendency merely to blame everything on the old man. The inescapable temptation one feels to use vituperative adjectives for him expresses this evasion, but the dodge will not ultimately work. The. narrator demands that we regard him as a purified economic dupe, not interested in personal gain and, despite his hysterical statements to the contrary, certainly not interested in Nell. In the midst of gambling, "the anxious child was quite forgotten" (XX). It is the system that has caught him in its hypnotic power, and, by allowing that system to operate through "games", Dickens suggests how sinister and insidious the infection is.

From this point on, the route to death is unimpeded, and our laughter no longer strives for alternatives. The jokes are by now clearly preparatory for death. When Nell faints and is carried to an inn, "everybody called for his or her favourite remedy, which nobody brought; each cried for more air, at the same time carefully excluding what air there was, by closing round the object of sympathy; and all wondered why somebody else didn't do what it never appeared to occur to them might be done by themselves" (XLVI). How loaded the term "object of sympathy" is! The joke about the narrow limits of sympathy clashes with the real and pervasive indifference and makes the pathos possible. By the time Nell is ready to die, our laughter, oddly enough, moves us towards an acceptance, almost a welcoming, of death and of the impossibility of any escape for her. The old sexton, for instance, who is so resistant to death that he practises the most ludicrous evasions, stirs the darkest laughter in the novel. It is a laughter which, for once, yearns for the grave. The sexton avoids the reminder of death brought on by a woman who died at the [93/94] early age of seventy-nine by deciding that she, like all women, lied about her age:

"Call to mind how old she looked for many a long, long year, and say if she could be but seventy-nine at last — only our age," said the sexton. "Five year older at the very least!" cried the other. "Five!" retorted the sexton. "Ten. Good eighty-nine. I call to mind the time her daughter died. She was eighty-nine if she was a day, and tries to pass upon us now, for ten year younger. Oh! human vanity!" [LIV]

He and his helper, David, "seemed but buys to her". By the time they leave, David chuckling to himself over the notion that the sexton is "failing very fast", our laughter has likely rejected this absurd self-preservation and has moved to an instinctive support of the appropriateness of the grave for the limited humanity of this extreme age. As a result, we are prepared for the climactic and inevitable pathos attendant on the ironic reversal: the preservation of the sexton and the death of Nell.


Victorian Overview Charles Dickens Contents Next Section

Last Modified 10 March 2010