(Originally published March 1, 2009)
Since I’ve read so much since my last update, these next few commentaries will probably be a little shorter than usual…
“The dark side of [Charles] Dickens at its most powerful and bizarre” aptly describes this influential author’s little-known work “The Old Curiosity Shop.” I had the opportunity to enjoy this haunting, mesmeric novel on the way down to this past weekend’s debate tournament…and found, upon completing the book, that it was quite possibly my favorite of all the Dickens novels I’ve read. At once both terrifying and fascinating, “The Old Curiosity Shop” is a compelling voyage into the depths of human evil and childlike innocence.
The book is primarily concerned with “Little Nell”, an angelic-natured orphan living with her elderly grandfather, who owns the titular “Curiosity Shop.” Their life is a relatively peaceful and quiet – albeit poor – existence. But always over their heads hangs the shadow of eviction and moral decay, personified in the book’s despicable antagonist.
Enter the villain: Daniel Quilp. This hideous, dwarfish madman surely ranks among the greatest foes in all of literature. In many respects, Quilp closely resembles the Joker from this past summer’s blockbuster hit “The Dark Knight” – he’s constantly laughing, even as he orders horrible atrocities to be committed, and he will stop at nothing to further his malicious goals. Quilp’s deranged lunacy is perhaps the most chilling component of “The Old Curiosity Shop” – especially when contrasted with Nell’s youthful innocence. Even more unsettling is the fact that he is obviously planning on making Nell his wife – once the first one is out of the way, of course.
As they flee from the vindictive Quilp, Nell and her grandfather venture throughout the English countryside in search of a safe haven – their journey modeled after that of Christian in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Along the way, they encounter numerous examples of vice and virtue, goodness and wickedness. This is where the book really excels – Dickens’ characters are well-drawn and eminently memorable. Also interesting is the contrast Dickens develops between the freedom and beauty of the countryside and the dingy depravity of the city. He movingly depicts the sufferings of innocent people oppressed by an out-of-date legal system and a repressive governmental hierarchy.
“The Old Curiosity Shop” is certainly a masterpiece, and well worth reading. Like me, you may find that it lingers in the mind for long afterwards – a tale of strength through suffering and triumph despite loss.
A beautifully written, haunting tale of good vs. evil.