If you are looking for a book with a well-developed plot and realistically-portrayed characters, do not read Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. I could hardly relate to any of the characters because they were mere caricatures. Mr Quilp is completely demonic; he can hardly be said to be a man at all. Nell, on the other hand, is too innocent and sweet; she is often compared to an angel. It is hard to sympathize with such characters.
In The Old Curiosity Shop, Nell Trent is under the care of her grandfather who runs a curiosity shop. However, the grandfather finds himself in extreme poverty due to his predatory friends, profligate relatives and gambling addiction. Nell and the grandfather turn to begging to escape from Quilp and his friends. Along the way, Nell encounters such people as the sculptor of wax figures and puppet show actors.
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Written in 1840-1841, The Old Curiosity Shop was one of Charles Dickens’ earliest works. Malcolm Andrews, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics version, writes, “The Old Curiosity Shop has long been regarded as something of a black sheep in the family of Dickens’ novels. It has been consistent in its remarkable ability to alienate countless readers by its sentimentality, clumsy construction, and arbitrary melodramatic sensationalism.”
If you have never read Dickens, I suggest you start with his later works such as A Tale of Two Cities. If you are like me and wish to read everything he wrote, by all means, read The Old Curiosity Shop. At times, the novel was actually quite enjoyable. The grandfather’s gambling addiction was described very realistically, and I thought that the Punch and Judy performers were a riot. But you will need a lot of patience and endurance to read this 670 page novel. In my opinion, it is unnecessarily long.There are lots of scenes in this story that do not help move along the plot. I think that Dickens included these scenes to introduce us to the people who live on the outskirts of industrial London. It is ironic though that these people are more realistically -portrayed than the main characters.
I can’t say that I hated the book. After all, I did finish it. There are even times that I think that Dickens’ use of caricature serves a purpose in the telling of the story. Maybe the character of Quilp represents all the institutions in industrial England that preyed on the poor, children, and women.
What do you think? If you have read Dickens’ earlier novels, do you think his use of caricature serves a purpose or is it just a weakness?
Citation: Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Classics, 1972.