Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Quilp, Commerce and Domesticity: Crossing Boundaries in the Old Curiosity Shop

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Quilp, Commerce and Domesticity: Crossing Boundaries in the Old Curiosity Shop

Article excerpt

In the Introduction to a recent collection of essays on The Old Curiosity Shop we read that Little Nell, Quilp "and the novel as a whole, are often interpreted as allegorical, mythic, or fairy-tale like, rather than realistic" (Darrow 2). As far back as 1911 G. K. Chesterton wrote that "Quilp might be a gargoyle. He might be some sort of devilish doorknocker," characterizing the Brasses in similar fashion and concluding: "About all this group of bad figures in The Old Curiosity Shop there is a sort of diablerie" (63). It is rare to find Quilp's name not preceded by "demonic," "devilish," "diabolic," or some similar epithet. According to Lewis Horne, who invokes Northrop Frye's theory of the archetype, Quilp's is "a universe of supreme wickedness," his London waterfront habitat (which I will argue is deliberately and clearly located on the south bank of the Thames) a "realm of demonic monstrosities," a primordial and hellish chaos of river mud and ooze (Horne 65-66). Others have taken a more broadly psychological approach, seeing Quilp as a sadist who "embodies a continual seething rage against human kind" (Steig 110), a figure who, for Robert Polhemus, is "like a walking, speaking, metaphorical and allegorical compendium of Freud's theories and examples of infantile sexuality" (Polhemus 75).

Whether the approach is archetypal or psychological Quilp's cultural and historical significance is ignored. In the history of the criticism of The Old Curiosity Shop, apart from the obligatory nod to the Chartist riots in chapter 45, there seems to be a refusal to see Quilp in the context of the 1830s when much of the action of the novel takes place: W. H. Auden (1962) comments that Quilp and Nell are mythic figures whose "existence ... [is] ... not defined by their social and historical context" (qtd. by Horne 67); Steven Marcus (1965) that "society does not exist in any significant sense: the concentrated duality of Nell and Quilp has almost obliterated that middle ground" (164); Dennis Walder (1981) that it would be "a mistake to read The Old Curiosity Shop as if it were a realistic social novel" (66). (1)

If Dickens's purpose in Bleak House, as he stated in the 1853 Preface, was to dwell upon "the romantic side of familiar things," perhaps it is time for critics to dwell upon the familiar side of romantic things in The Old Curiosity Shop. A refreshing exception to the trend to abstract the novel from its time is an essay by Paul Schlicke. In "Embracing the New Spirit of the Age: Dickens and the Evolution of The Old Curiosity Shop," Schlicke reads the novel as expressing certain anxieties characteristic of that crucial decade of change and instability, the 1830s. Little Nell is young and inexperienced and so was the new Queen (15); the grandfather is a gambler and gambling "was a national disgrace" (18); travelling show people like Mrs. Jarley and Codlin and Short are under threat since popular entertainment was in a state of decline (23); and "the popular unrest and threat of revolution which gripped the country" (22), namely Chartism, is to be found in chapter 45. Yet despite this topicality Quilp still remains "an archetypal image, at once a brilliantly realized grotesque character and a fantastic projection of all Nell's fears. In the character of Quilp, Dickens gives contemporary anxiety mythic dimension" (17).

Let us reverse this formulation by examining how Dickens gives the mythic Quilp a contemporary dimension. While recognizing his undoubted archetypal status I wish to demythologize Quilp by relocating him in the commercial and domestic contexts of the 1830s. I will argue in the first part of this essay that this notably unstable decade provided Quilp with opportunities to challenge traditional economic boundaries, and in the second part that, along with Sally Brass, he threatens the increasingly rigid lines that demarcated the gendered fields within which males and females functioned. Quilp's transgressiveness, then, is more than simply moral, but grounded in the material realities and doctrines of his time, a crossing of geographical and ideological boundaries within and between the spheres of commerce and domesticity. …

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