t the opposite pole is Daniel Quilp (Marcus also sees Quilp as the polar opposite of Nell and notes that he is her "other half" [p. 151], though he does not pursue this suggestion), dedicated to life literally with a vengeance. Sensitive to all personal attacks, he makes his existence over into a brilliant retaliation in order to attack the dehumanizing enemy and protect his own being. An expert parodist, he has enormous capacity for delight in "the rich field of enjoyment and reprisal" (XXIII) he creates around him. He is really a more elemental Alfred Jingle, whose wit was also hostile and defensive and who was likewise caught in the system by the continual necessity of defence. The system, in other words, is so powerful that it absorbs all reactions to it that use its weapons; Quilp, like Jingle, is trapped by his very anger. Fighting bitterly against everything Nell suggests — the passive, the calm, and the dead — he meets the same end. Like Jingle he fails to see that it is the economic weapons which are really at fault, and he is finally destroyed by them. [94/95]
Before his death, however, he provides an important parody of the main plot. The humour of this parody, however, is qualified locally by Quilp's viciousness and finally by his death. That is, our laughter is often made difficult in individual instances by Quilp's own demonic laughter, or by his cruelty (Dyson, pp. 114-17, discusses this point and other interesting aspects or Quilp), and we finally recognize, as we see him caught in the same economic quagmire, that his parody has lacked the freedom and detachment for validity. His humour ultimately reinforces rather than undercuts the pathos of the main plot. Just as much as the old grandfather, he represents the brutal power of the economic mill, and nearly as much as Nell is he a victim of it. Our laughter at Quilp, then, is contributory to our tears for Nell.
He is, first of all, an outlet for much aggression, a safety-valve for our hostility against purity, women, and pathos itself. Among other things, he cleanses our reactions and makes possible an unqualified response to Nell. His witty sadism checks our possible impatience with gentleness and drains off our mischievous impulses: "I don't cat babies; I don't like 'ern. it Will be as well to stop that young screamer though, in case I should be tempted to do him a mischief" (XXI). Quilp is the deadly enemy of the stock sentiment, of babies and all little, presumably helpless objects of easy tears. He hates the terrible meek and their grinding demands, and he loathes the falseness of the transference of sympathy to babies, little girls, or even dumb animals. When Kit finds Nell's little bird and tearfully asks, "What's to be done with this?", Quilp responds immediately, "Wring its neck" (XIII). There is surely a part of every reader that applauds the appropriateness of that response. Quilp allows our impulse to wring necks an outlet in laughter, so that the counter-impulse to protect and love the small and helpless might be expressed more fully. He is a very functional enemy of sentimentality.
But he is more than that. His sarcasm amounts to an insistence that life be met head-on, without paralysing precautions. When accused of being in the Little Bethel chapel for nefarious purposes, he answers with a wonderful burlesque of prudence:
"Yes, I was at chapel. What then? I've read in books that [95/96] pilgrims were used to go to chapel before they went on journeys, to put up petitions for their safe return. Wise men! journeys are very perilous — especially outside the coach, Wheels come off, horses take fright, coachmen drive too fast, coaches overturn. I always go to chapel before I start on journeys. It's the last thing I do on such occasions, indeed." [XLVIII]
The exaggerated politeness of his tone also suggests his central attack on all insulating gentility and his affirmation of a primary relation between human beings.
The primary relation with Quilp is at times strongly sexual and always extraordinarily physical. His most constant threat, "I'll bite you!", is both frightening and innocent in its purity; for we recognize it as, basically, a cry from the nursery, the insistence of the child that he be noticed. Quilp is the elemental naughty boy, protesting with his very life against indifference. And it is the positive nature of this rebellion and its attractiveness in this cold novel that draw laughter to this partly demonic figure.
But in this demon is still the sense of physical freedom and self-gratification of the child. What other demon would choose to assert his selfhood and power by something as childish as staying up all night and smoking, especially after the mother has been sent to bed ? Surely this is a childhood fantasy of the tables turned, both attractive in its simplicity and pathetic in its limitations. Quilp further loves physical tricks that are both satanic and pure, that are, in fact, little more than an exaggerated "showing off": "he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again" (V), and performed other variations of sandbox tricks. He delights further in practical jokes or, as Dickens calls them, "childish pranks" (XI). At one point, he wrestles with Tom Scott over a stick and manœuvres Tom into "tugging at it with his utmost power, when [Quilp] suddenly let it go and sent him reeling backwards, so that he fell violently upon his head". His success so tickles Quilp that he laughs and stamps the ground (VI). Perhaps most central to Quilp's boyishness, however, is his extreme vulnerability to personal remarks. He obviously lives in dread of the [96/97] pointing fingers of playground mockery. One of his chief reasons for tormenting his mother-in-law is that she has called him names: "I'm a little bunchy villain and a monster, am I, Mrs. Jiniwin? Oh!" (V). Most important, his primary motivation for revenge in the novel comes from Kit's remark that Quilp is "a uglier dwarf than can be seen anywheres for a penny" (VI). And his greatest delight comes in reversing the terms: "Kit a thief ! Kit a thief ! Ha ha ha! Why, he's an uglier-looking thief than can be seen anywhere for a penny. Eh Kit — eh? Ha ha ha !" (LX). Quilp is extremely sensitive, with just the sensitivity of a child, and he lives to avoid, anticipate, and reverse insults.
This sort of life traps him in defensiveness, of course, and admittedly causes him to be extremely violent, but his sadism, pure as it is, is often neutralized by the narrative tone. As he strikes at the wrestling Kit and Tom Scott, for instance, the narrator remarks that he causes them to stop fighting, "this being warmer work than they had calculated upon" (VI). The brutality is disguised as warm work, and this disguise allows us both to expend our own violent energies in laughter and to regard Quilp as less frightening. In addition, his violence is most often released in language only. It is, of course, in language that he excels, and in the language of parody only can he break out of the defensive trap he is in. He can find temporary release in his great and aggressive creative instinct, displayed nowhere so brilliantly as in his arrangement for Dick to enter employment with the Brasses. He creates a complete parody image of Dick's legal life: "With Miss Sally . . . and the beautiful fictions of the law, his days will pass like minutes. Those charming creations of the poet, John Doe and Richard Roe, when they first dawn upon him, will open a new world for the enlargement of his mind and the improvement of his heart" (XXXIII).
We can laugh at Quilp, then, because his hostility is necessary to allow for purity, his extreme energy for extreme passiveness, but also because his "evil" is often merely mischievousness. He is not the real enemy but an actual victim. Though apparently in opposition to Nell, he is really part of her; they form a continuum, and together make up the child, both aggressive and compliant, pure and vicious. Faced with [97/98] the adult world, both try desperately to live, one by hiding, the other by attacking; and neither is allowed to survive.
The parallels between the two are numerous. Most basic is the play of Nell's pathetic littleness against the pugnacious and grotesque littleness of Quilp. Nell asks for pity; pity Quilp and he punches you on the nose. They suggest alternate responses, but they are continuous with each other. Similarly, Nell's flight to the country is perversely echoed in Quilp's association with the truly primitive, the slop and the slime. Nell's prettified country becomes Quilp's "Wilderness" (XXII) and his "summer-house" (XXI). On "the slimy banks of a great river", Quilp insists on the parody of the natural: " 'You're fond of the beauties of nature', said Quilp with a grin. 'Is this charming, Brass? Is it unusual, unsophisticated, primitive ?'" (LI). Primitive it is exactly, and Quilp provides the earthquake to Nell's rivulets arid hills, the tiger to her lamb.
The most important connection between tile two, however, involves Quilp's mock death and resurrection, the triumph of his belligerent life., and honesty over the cold and artificial mourning of the Brasses. The situation here evokes laughter specifically at the important thematic issues of death, pretence, and cold indifference masking as love. The laughter is not really at the Brasses but at the abstract and unfeeling language they use and the death they mock: " 'Ah!' said Mr. Brass, breaking the silence, and raising his eyes to the ceiling with a sigh, 'who knows but he may be looking down upon us now! Who knows but he may be surveying us from — from somewhere or another, and contemplating us with a watchful eye! Oh Lord'" (XLIX). The dramatic irony is heavy but appropriate; Quilp's reappearance is a victory over the ghouls. And he times his entrance, with true artistic instinct, so as to insist on his physical reality:
"Our faculties [said Mr. Brass] must not freeze with grief. I'll trouble you for a little more of that, ma'am. A question now arises, with relation to his nose." "Flat," said Mrs. Jiniwin. "Acquiline!" cried Quilp, thrusting in his head, and striking the feature with his fist. "Acquiline, you hag. Do you see it? Do you call this flat? Do you? Eh?" [XLIX]
He dares us to ignore him, to think he could die and leave these [98/99] terrors victorious, for it is not Quilp but the falsity he fights that is dangerous.
But his fight is doomed and he finally becomes more and more elemental. As Nell moves to purity, he regresses. From joyfully punishing Mrs. Jiniwin, he moves to kicking an idol, suggesting his primitiveness, certainly, but also the horrible frustration he must endure. He finally is forced to retreat altogether from other humans and to adopt the last desperate defence of the unwanted child, imposed isolation. He is, at the last, "convivial" only by himself and, most significantly, will laugh only when he has no company in laughing (LXVII). Like Nell, he is finally killed by shutting out help; he dies while his rescuers are at hand. The opposites meet then in a willed death, and the child, even in this divided state, has been crushed by a hostile world.
Last Modified 10 March 2010