Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Old Curiosity Shop's villain - like a dismounted nightmare

The Old Curiosity Shop has a villain, a dwarf named Quilp. There have been more effective villains in the history of literature. His villainy consists of cruelly but legally foreclosing on a debt, and framing a teenage boy for robbery. Minor stuff, hardly enough to fill the day.

Mostly, Quilp engages in his favorite pasttime, terrorizing people: his wife, his attorney, random strangers, a dog. How does he terrorize them? With taunting and face-making. For example, here he is with a chained dog:

“As it was, the dwarf remained upon his back in perfect safety, taunting the dog with hideous faces, and triumphing over him in his inability to advance another inch, though there were not a couple of feet between them.

'Why don't you come and bite me, why don't you come and tear me to pieces, you coward?' said Quilp, hissing and worrying the animal till he was nearly mad. 'You're afraid, you bully, you're afraid, you know you are.'” Ch. 21

I am generally shy of criticizing the pleasures of others, but this seems like thin entertainment for a real villain.

Sometimes Quilp has a real sense of menace about him. His wife and mother-in-law act terrified, suggesting something terrible in the past. Or look at this description of Quilp as seen by Nell – Quilp, in foreclosing on Nell’s grandfather, has taken possession of her bed:

“Here she stood, for a few moments, quite transfixed with terror at the sight of Mr Quilp, who was hanging so far out of bed that he almost seemed to be standing on his head, and who, either from the uneasiness of this posture, or in one of his agreeable habits, was gasping and growling with his mouth wide open, and the whites (or rather the dirty yellows) of his eyes distinctly visible.” Ch. 12

That’s a clue. Quilp is not actually human. He’s an imp, some sort of malicious, gleeful, infernal spirit. He’s always popping in and out of places and surprising people. He swallows down the most revolting liquors, often at near-boiling temperatures, and then insists others do the same. He has no perceptible human motivation for his behavior. At first, greed is a motivator, but as Dickens develops Quilp, it recedes in favor of pure pranksterism. Here’s the end of a scene in which Quilp’s wife has fainted. Does this look familiar?:

“The speedy clearance effected, Quilp locked the doors; and still embracing the case-bottle with shrugged-up shoulders and folded arms, stood looking at his insensible wife like a dismounted nightmare.” Ch 49

That the villain is not human is a problem for the novel. It introduces a distancing effect, and I think diminishes the meaning or impact of the book. But since he’s not really a threat, the reader can just enjoy whatever nonsense comes up in his next appearance. A problem, and a source of delight. The culmination is in his next to final scene, in which Quilp’s attorney finds that Quilp, now stark mad, has purchased a ship’s figurehead, in order to beat it with a poker and hammer nails in it. The engraving seems sufficient:

What does it mean? Maybe nothing. Who cares, I've never seen anything else like it.


  1. a dismounted nightmare.
    I'm going to have to paraphrase Nabokov on this one (he was talking about Bleak House but I think it works). No one else but Dickens could have put these words together for the same effect. Absolutely terrifying.

  2. Sometimes Dickens may go as long as 10 pages without something this good.

  3. For me, Quilp reads as some kind of pantomime/fsiry tale villain which, for me, fits in with the whole feel and atmosphere of the story. I have just read 'Nicholas Nickleby' before this...just as good but in a different way. There are echoes of legend/fairy tale/ fantasy running right through this. Bakhtin would have loved it!!

  4. Dombey and Son has fairy tale elements, too - a boy becomes a sea spirit, for example, and the villain is half cat. I could well be missing many other examples.