Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Old Curiosity Shop - screeching and turning round and round again

Dickens tried something new in The Old Curiosity Shop. He borrowed an structure from another novel to prop up part of his own story. The journey of Nell and her grandfather is linked with that of Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress – Nell herself mentions this at the beginning of their pilgrimage:

“'Dear grandfather,' she said, 'only that this place is prettier and a great deal better than the real one, if that in the book is like it, I feel as if we were both Christian, and laid down on this grass all the cares and troubles we brought with us; never to take them up again.'” Ch. 15

I don’t think there is meant to be a one-to-one parallel between the episodes in The Old Curiosity Shop and those of The Pilgrim’s Progress – there are maybe only two or three of those.* Dickens is trying to create a story with a meaning greater than the sum of the episodes, so he borrows from what for many people was a classic, recognizable example. Does it work? I’m not convinced. As I wrote earlier this week, I value the novel more for its parts than its whole, and I have a general distaste for allegory that probably does not serve me well here. So let’s look at a part.

In a direct parallel with the Slough of Despond in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Nell and her grandfather have to cross (for “two days and nights”) a sort of industrial wasteland (outside of Birmingham, I guess), inhabited by despair and misery (or, to mimic Bunyan, Despair and Misery):

“On every side, and far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air. On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten pent-house roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrieking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged in attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fire, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. Then came more of the wrathful monsters, whose like they almost seemed to be in their wildness and their untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again; and still, before, behind, and to the right and left, was the same interminable perspective of brick towers, never ceasing in their black vomit, blasting all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of day, and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.” Ch. 45

As night falls the description becomes more feverish. Bands of insurrectionists appear, carts filled with coffins wheel by, and Nell’s two attempts to ask for assistance are repelled by the even more degrading misery of the inhabitants of the place:

“'What would you have here?' said a gaunt man, opening it.

'Charity. A morsel of bread.'

'Do you see that?' returned the man hoarsely, pointing to a kind of bundle on the ground. 'That's a dead child. I and five hundred other men were thrown out of work, three months ago. That is my third dead child, and last. Do you think I have charity to bestow, or a morsel of bread to spare?'” Ch. 45

This is something new in Dickens, this industrial apocalypse. He’ll return to it in Hard Times, and elsewhere, although perhaps not in such a starkly symbolic fashion.

* There is also something going on with the recurring figure of Punch that I don’t fully understand. Punch-world seems to be an alternative to Pilgrim-world.


  1. Oh, that's a nice coincidence, as Pilgrim's Progress popped up into Villette too. I read the former when I was young and religious but remember very little about it so I'll have to read it again.

  2. The Pilgrim's Progress is among my least favorite books, for what that's worth. In this case, not much - a reader of English books should know what's in Bunyan.

    I read your Villette comments with interest - I hope to do some serious Brontë reading soon.

  3. I saw the title of your blog on someone else's blogroll and laughed myself silly. I also love the 'classics,' so I'll be coming back here often to see how you're making out.

  4. Thanks. "books i done read" ain't bad, either.