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Sentimentality and Survival: The Double Narrative of the Old Curiosity Shop (Critical Essay)

Dickens Quarterly 2010, June, 27, 2

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The sentimental end of The Old Curiosity Shop looms large over readings of the novel. Whereas the ending of many other Dickens novels is normally not of great readerly interest (being the predictable tying of loose ends), here the end commands readers' attention to such an extent that it seems to dominate the entire novel. Such an investment in the end makes it difficult to read the narrative that precedes it on its own terms (that is, as something other than the means by which one arrives at this end). In what follows I would like to suggest that the sentimental ending of The Old Curiosity Shop is radically different from the narrative that precedes it. I will argue that this is because the main plot of The Old Curiosity Shop, figuring the journey of Nell and her grandfather, starts out as one kind of plot, which I would call a plot of survival, and switches towards the end of the novel into a more common Dickensian plot, one of sentimental homecoming. Centering the analysis on this one plot is possible because the narrative of the adventures of Nell and her grandfather, from the moment they leave the old curiosity shop until Nell's death, is quite independent of the novel's various subplots. Whereas the subplots dealing with Quilp, Kit, and Swiveller constantly intersect with each other and impinge on each other's development (so that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate them), Nell's plot runs parallel to these subplots without intersecting with them. (1) In calling the first part of Nell's plot a narrative of survival I mean that it belongs to a set of narratives in which "process" or movement in time is not goal oriented--where "reading for the plot" cannot be equated with "reading for the end." In such plots the goal is immanent to the process so that the notion of "deferral" or even of a "middle" ceases to be meaningful and the notion of closure is irrelevant, rather than subverted or unattainable. Such narratives can be characterized as linear or straightforward (rather than recursive or turning back upon themselves) since they are neither governed by a goal nor serve as the means to an end that exceeds and negates them. (2) Unlike the plots that came to dominate the nineteenth-century English novel, where survival is merely the taken-for-granted pre-condition for "higher" pursuits--a transparent means to other ends--or where survival is presented as the heroic, punctual overcoming of obstacles that, once accomplished, allows life to go on all by itself, narratives of survival foreground the continuous, in principle endless, process by which life, self, affect, social group, family bonds, or material home are maintained, constantly reproduced, in order to continue to exist. (3) But the sway the concept of "progress" exerts over images of forward movement, specifically the movement of stories that shape cultural notions of what makes a life worthwhile, is such that these narratives are seldom read on their own terms. This is the case with accounts of The Old Curiosity Shop that often describe Nell's narrative as "progress," indeed, as a "pilgrimage," thus both demonstrating the difficulty we have in thinking of forward movement as other than progress and imposing a goal-directed narrative on what, I will claim, is to begin with a narrative of process. (4) This is partly the result of Dickens's own attempt to transform the main plot of his novel from a plot of survival to a plot of homecoming. As I will show, the difference between these two plots is related to conflicting views of the figure of the child.

Sentimentality and Survival: The Double Narrative of the Old Curiosity Shop (Critical Essay)
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  • Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Published: 01 June 2010
  • Publisher: Dickens Society of America
  • Print Length: 32 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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