Week 5 of reading The Old Curiosity Shop.
Dear reader! Be advised I am talking about the end of The Old Curiosity Shop so if you haven’t read it or don’t know what happens in the end (which is almost common knowledge about this novel if you know something about Dickens’s life) Just in case, if you known nothing about what happens by the end of the novel then PLEASE STOP READING.
I currently reside in Mexico City, a wonderful place with amazing people and very lovely customs and traditions that I try to honor in my life here. One of these traditions is the celebration of Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. I spent my weekend caring for our Ofrenda (on which Dickens has a place of honor because he is like family to me) and visiting family members that live here.
Maybe this background to my reading is what is making me write today about this. I wasn’t expecting to discuss this yet, but this has been a recurrent theme I have been seeing a lot as I read and I am wondering how I missed it the first time I read it.
First of all, Little Nell dies. It is one of the most significant deaths in Dickens’s work, the one he said hurt him the most, and the one most of his readers (contemporary or otherwise) remember. She became the symbol of the death of innocence that appears in most of Dickens’s works. Of course, she wasn’t necessarily killed by the city of London or by poverty (like some of his other characters are) but her death is still very significant.
I am not focusing this post on her death, however, but on all the signs of it that I seemed to have overlooked during my first read of the novel.
I was first taken when Little Nell is waiting for her grandfather and she is reminiscing by the window and thinking about death. The passage makes Nell almost into one of the objects in the show as she sits as “still and motionless as their inanimate occupants” (Dickens 78).
She thinks of how “She had been [happy] once” (76) but thoughts of the death of her grandfather, who goes away every night, are beginning to haunt her and so she sees partings everywhere.
I’ve highlighted that passage for further inspection later because what really struck me was the death of the tiny scholar.
‘Death doesn’t change us more than life, my dear’ (Dickens 136)
When Dickens was twenty-five years old, recently married and enjoying a bit of fame, he experience the death of his 17-year-old sister in law Mary Hogarth and it changed him. Mary died suddenly of unknown causes although it is suspected that it was heart failure or stroke. The death of someone so young, and so suddenly, would affect anyone and, it affected Dickens greatly. It was actually the only time he missed publication and Mary’s death is cited as an inspiration for a lot of his character’s deaths, including Little Nells.
Dickens idolized Mary because she was innocent, young, gentle, and pure and in death she remained so forever.
Like the old woman says to Nell while she is in the graveyard, what I have quoted above, “death doesn’t change us.” The old lady’s husband, who died when he was 23, would be forever young in death while she aged in life.
Similarly, the perfect young pupil that Little Nell meets in one of their stop through their pilgrimage, will forever remain young and innocent in death.
I hadn’t noticed before, when I first read Old Curiosity Shop, how similar Nell and the little pupil are and how Dickens is preparing us readers for what is to come.
The most obvious similarity between them is that they both live with their grandparent and both of them die because of the pressure of trying to please the adults in their lives and Dickens seems to favor the idleness of the young scholars who just wanted to play. But unlike Little Nell, the young boy is not being pressured by his grandmother but by his schoolmaster.
The grandmother blames the schoolmaster for the boy getting sick telling him that if the boy hadn’t “been poring over his books out of fear of [him],” he would still be alive (198) and the schoolmaster holds the boy’s hand until he is gone.
Little Nell is also present and she becomes grateful of living “in a beautiful world, when so many young creatures — as young and as full of hope as she — were stricken down and gathered to their graves. How many of the mounds in that old churchyard where she had lately strayed, grew green above the graves of children!” (199). Need I say more? I’m not sure if this is social criticism since he is not pointing to an overall cause here, but he is definitely thinking of his beloved sister in-law and how he felt after her parting.
Immediately afterwards, Nell’s thoughts change tone when she thinks that perhaps she didn’t sufficiently consider “to what a bright and happy existence those who die young are borne, and how in death they lose the pain of seeing others die around them” (199). Is this a consolation for the death he was already planning? Perhaps.
I do not have very cohesive thoughts about this, I was just struck about Dickens’s brilliancy at setting the end of the novel up from the start and also a bit baffled at myself missing a couple of things during my first read; not seeing how much death surrounds Nell. It is not just the grotesque, but she is really close to death in all her journey and she even looks for these places or situations that connect her with death (like accompanying the schoolmaster to visit the little scholar on his deathbed).
It strikes me that all the Nell sections are very sad and it may be why my reading has slowed down. I am missing some of the Dickens comedy that lightens the dark mood of his works. This may be why the Dick Swiveller section is one of my favorites, you really need that lightness to soften the heaviness of what he is writing about.
Thank you for reading and may we meet again!