Places: The Old Curiosity Shop

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1840-1841; book, 1841

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedOld Curiosity Shop

Old Old Curiosity Shop, TheCuriosity Shop. Curio shop in an unspecified part of London that is owned by Nell’s grandfather when the novel opens. The old man’s only source of livelihood, the shop provides a meager income that the grandfather tries to supplement with careless gambling ventures. When his gambling losses leave him in debt, he loses the shop to the avaricious dwarf Quilp. After Quilp dies at the end of the novel, the shop is destroyed to make way for a new building.

Dickens originally intended to make this novel a story about a lovely child surrounded by grotesque objects and remnants of ancient times in her grandfather’s shop. However, the story and the character caught Dickens’s imagination, and he extended his vision to contrast the lovely child with the grotesque images that surrounded and followed her wherever she went.

*London

*London. Dickens does not provide specific sections of the city or addresses for the most part, leaving readers to use their own imaginations to advantage and to place characters’ homes and businesses in even worse places than Dickens might suggest. However, Dickens does mention some vicinities–such as the malicious grotesque Quilp’s residence on Tower Hill and Dick Swiveller’s rooms near Drury Lane.

Dickens hoped to effect social reform in the treatment of children of the poor. His novel’s preoccupation with the child Nell Trent and her surroundings calls attention to the plights of such children. For this reason, other child characters, ever more wild and outlandish, are juxtaposed against Nell, making a kind of environment and setting in themselves. Likewise, Nell’s increasing visits to churchyards and her concern for the dead are at once setting and literary foreboding and show an image from a gothic vision: Death and the Maiden.

*English countryside

*English countryside. After Nell and her grandfather flee London to live in the country, the novel becomes even less specific about locations. Readers know only that they are headed west. At that point, Dickens lets readers know that the rest of the story will follow John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684) a Christian allegory about human beings struggling to make their way to the Celestial City.

Nell’s journey begins with a visit to the horse races. Possibly these are the famous Ascot Races, but within the text of the story, the races are Dickens’s version of Bunyan’s Vanity Fair, which tempts travelers to stay by providing them with comforts and pleasures. At the horse races, Nell is surrounded by grotesque people. Later, while working for a traveling waxwork, Nell sleeps among the cadaver-like dummies at night to guard them. The city in which she and her grandfather stay seems to be a haven, but it is the equivalent of Bunyan’s castle of the giant, Despair. In despair, Nell flees, still pursued, figuratively, by the evils of urban life.

One of Dickens’s most memorable descriptions and locations is that of coke-fired furnaces in a large iron-manufacturing town. At night, the fires leap like fires in Ghenna and turn human beings into demon silhouettes. Smoke and soot rain down and cover and kill living things and souls of the people who live there. Struggling onward through the hellish landscape, Nell makes slow progress, and this setting becomes her Slough of Despond.

Eventually, Nell reaches what becomes her Celestial City, a small country town with an ancient church and graveyard. At last, the exploitation ends and the rural life offers its blessings to the travelers. Within this natural setting, there is respite and spiritual healing and a quiet place. This point is reinforced in the conclusion of the novel when other characters find the country life and settle there in contentment. This quiet life enables them to overcome even wrongful imprisonment in Old Bailey, the most infamous prison of its time. The urban life destroys and blights souls; the country life blesses its adherents and makes them whole.

BibliographyDyson, A. E. “The Old Curiosity Shop: Innocence and the Grotesque.” In Dickens, edited by A. E. Dyson. Nashville, Tenn.: Aurora, 1970. Argues that justifications of the character of Nell on artistic grounds ordinarily emphasize the ironies that attend her and deny the sentimentality.Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952. Volume 1 of this definitive critical biography includes a criticism of The Old Curiosity Shop that defends Dickens’ sentimentality over modern cynicism.Kincaid, James R. Dickens and the Rhetoric of Laughter. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971. Argues that laughter makes the pathos effective in The Old Curiosity Shop. Bibliography.Marcus, Steven. Dickens, from Pickwick to Dombey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. Provides a lengthy analysis of The Old Curiosity Shop, ascribing the inspiration for Nell and Dickens’ absorption with death in this novel to the death of Mary Hogarth, his young sister-in-law. Proposes that Nell and Quilp, polar representations of spirituality and carnality respectively, actually represent two sides of one person.Walder, Dennis. Dickens and Religion. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1981. Shows how Dickens uses death as a moral gauge: Good Nell dies loved and mourned by those who knew her. Evil Quilp, trying to escape the police, drowns alone.
Categories: Places