Monday, February 26, 2018

The World Is a Curiosity Shop

The more I learn about Charles Dickens, the more he amazes me. Brilliant author. Reformer. Midnight wanderer. Actor. Hero at fatal railway accidents. One of the most amazing aspects of his career was his ability to create coherent artistic wholes while writing in a periodical format. The Old Curiosity Shop, which I read this month for the third time in my life, starts out as a vignette about characters met by a first-person narrator on a late-night perambulation through London (no doubt based on some real people Dickens encountered on one of his night-time walks). Only after this short item appeared in print did the Inimitable decide to turn the story into a novel. He even had to make an explicit change of narrators in order to lengthen the story. How could he have kept the whole thing unified?

Yet somehow he did. Several consistent themes run through the entire book and, in spite of the difference in tone and narrator, even incorporate the opening chapters. One such theme is one’s relationship to death. Nell often thinks about her approaching death. Other characters try to put off their approaching death, ignore it, fear it, and cause it.

Another theme explores attitudes of loyalty. Loyalty cannot be simply professed, as Tom Codlin does to Nell and Sampson does to Kit. It must be consistently shown, as with Nell to her Grandfather, the Marchioness to Dick, the Clergyman and the Bachelor, and the Sexton and his assistant. It must sometimes be earned, as with the pony and Kit. (Is this the only Dickens animal whose end is told in the wrap-up chapter as if he were a major character?)

But the theme that struck me most during this reading was that of the Old Curiosity Shop itself. Nell and her grandfather leave the actual, physical shop behind early in the story, and yet Dickens retained the title. Did he have a notion of using that title figuratively at the beginning of his creative process? Nell and her grandfather are certainly seen as curiosities by the first narrator. Or did Dickens decide to make a figurative theme of the title only after the abandonment of the literal Curiosity Shop made that title an inappropriate curiosity of its own?

One way or another, displays of curiosities abound throughout the book. (Humanoid curiosities stood out to me. Perhaps the figurative Curiosity Shop specializes in figurines.) Nell says that the rows of chimneys she sees at night appear to have faces. She works for a while at a traveling wax museum (and sleeps among the historical characters). The crowd at a race are described as being in a panorama, as are a group of pupils in the school, seated all in rows. Puppets make several appearances in the book (once sitting on tombs). And Quilp, perhaps Dickens’s most odious villain, often appears at a window, his bizarre face on display in a frame. All these images lead in the end to the effigies on the tombs in the church where Nell sits alone pondering her impending death (continuing the frequent connection of the curiosity-display theme and the death theme) and the imagined crowd of angels that accompany Nell’s soul to Heaven.

As I think about it longer, though, maybe it isn’t so strange that the title of Dickens’s fourth novel should shine light on a metaphoric thread running through its fabric. All of Dickens’s works are displays of curiosities. It’s the way he saw London, England, the world. He regularly set out in the wee hours to find and interact with social outcasts: prisoners, asylum inmates, the homeless. He did this partly out of a sense of Christian charitable duty (by contrast, I admit, with bowed head, that when I find myself on a night-time errand in a big city, I generally try to avoid human contact) and partly to feed his understanding of the wondrous variety of humanity. Even in daylight, Charles Dickens had an eye for the eccentricity in every human being. The artist René Magritte seems to tell us in his work that individuality, if it exists, is always hidden and that a person always presents as and instance of a type: the Lover, the middle-class Suit, and so on. But the author of The Old Curiosity Shop, like Rembrandt, reminds us that every human we are tempted to parse as nothing more than an embodiment of a category is actually a Dickens character.

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