Sunday, October 23, 2016

A minor literary mystery

I'm reading The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. I actually started it a couple years ago, got bogged down (or lost patience with the cloying sentimentality) and set it aside. After I returned the most recent batch of library books, I decided to try it again. I needed something to read but didn't want to check out anything from the library when the departure for Arizona is drawing near.

I have a hunch I'm going to set it aside unfinished again, which isn't much of a surprise. The same things that bothered me before are still there. I did pick up on one thing I hadn't thought about, although it's not actually in the book. It was in the accompanying information about Dickens and how wildly popular The Old Curiosity Shop was when it was first published. It came out as a serial, one sickly sentimental or bizarrely grotesque chapter at a time. Readers in both the United Kingdom and the United States were hooked. They were as addicted to the trials and travails of Nell Trent (aka "Little Nell") and her incompetent grandfather* as any modern day Game of Thrones or Walking Dead fan is to his or her favorite show. They waited impatiently for each chapter and then, as the story neared its end, hoped wildly and unrealistically for a happy ending. They hoped in vain. George R. R. Martin wasn't the first author to kill off the characters readers liked the most. Dickens did it back in 1841. After spending the entire book persuading readers to love Little Nell, Dickens has her die. Readers were devastated.

And that's what strikes me as a minor mystery. Why on earth would anyone think Dickens was going to let her live? He spends quite a few pages engaged in foreshadowing -- Nell is described in ethereal terms, she enjoys hanging out in the graveyard next to the church, at one point another character assumes she's already dead, . .. it goes on and on, one clue after another that for all practical purposes Nell is already in a shroud. So why is it a shock when she does finally take the dirt nap? Who knows. Hope springs eternal. . .

The other mystery concerning The Old Curiosity Shop is, of course, whether or not I'll ever actually finish it. I am up to Chapter 55 (out of 71) so it's possible. If I pick it up every time there's a gap in reading material, eventually I'll be able to claim I read the whole thing.

*For those unfamiliar with the plot line, Nell and her grandfather end up wandering the English countryside as beggars thanks to the old dude's gambling addiction. He loses his business (the curiosity shop) and then slips into senile dementia from the stress. Nell exhausts herself taking care of her grandfather; they eventually end up as caretakers at a church where she cleans and helps the sexton with various chores. To add a villainous interest, they're pursued by an evil moneylender who has decided, apparently for the sheer fun of it, to make their lives hell and Nell's no-good uncle, who thinks the grandfather has a hidden fortune. He doesn't, the moneylender knows it, but doesn't bother telling the sleazy uncle that. The moneylender comes to a bad end, of course, because he's so thoroughly repulsive he has to get written into a grave, too, instead of just quietly disappearing from the narrative.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. We have an old collection of all of Dickens works on a bookcase in the living room. Their existence causes me on a semi regular basis to pull a volume down and try to get through it. I have yet to finish any I have started for many years now. Maybe I am due for another effort.


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