Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Terminal Progress -- Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop

I just finished reading Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop on Sunday night.

The plot is pretty interesting. The book starts with a character from Dickens, Master Humphrey, meeting with Little Nell, who turns out to be the main character of the book. Master Humphrey is surprised to hear that Little Nell has been out running an errand late at night. So he takes her home to her caretaker, an old man, who is Little Nell's grandfather.

Master Humphrey leaves the story at this point. Another character comes in: Dick Swiveller, who is Little Nell's cousin. Little Nell isn't terribly little: she's maybe thirteen years old. Dick is about eighteen. Dick resents the old man and plans to spend more time around Nell, despite the old man's wishes. Dick is seen by the old man to be a bit of a waster, since he seems to be more interested in singing and drama, rather than in business.

But, through a few other scenes, it's revealed that the old man himself is a bit of a waster. He's wasted all of his money on gambling. He's even run up huge debts in gambling. He owes a lot of money to the main villain of the story, Daniel Quilp. Quilp is a "dwarf" who has had to deal all his life with people making fun of him. Now he revels in filth and villainy, all the while using his money and resources to get into and mess up the lives of people who had made fun of him.

One of these people is Dick. Quilp plays a little love game on Dick, making Dick feign a love interest for his little cousin Nell. Quilp claims this will make Dick's real love interest jealous. But it only makes her go off and marry some other man. But throughout the story, Quilp keeps Dick on the hook by making Dick believe that his real love interest will evetnually love him.

Another character Quilp has it in for is a man named Kit. He's a bit older than Nell, a bit younger than Dick, I believe. He acts as a kind of servant for Nell and the old man. But he gets into a fight with Quilp and does end up beating him a bit, also throwing some insults at him. So Quilp plans for Kit's ruin as well.

Quilp, in the meantime, plans to run Little Nell's already meagre fortune into the ground. One reason he plans to do this is because he wants Dick to think Nell is really rich, so that he might be interested in marrying her (he never really seems to be, as far as I can tell), but then to reveal to Dick that she's really poor.

Quilp gets into Nell's good graces by using his beautiful, kind wife, who is both terribly afraid of and, for some reason, actually in love with, Quilp. Nell has been upset of late. Mrs. Quilp, while Quilp is within range of hearing, asks why. Nell says why. Dickens reveals the reason to the audience in a scene between Quilp and the old man. It turns out Nell has discovered that the old man has been using all their money, including money lent by Quilp, for gambling.

Quilp now calls on the old man for all his debt. He also, to get at Kit, allows the old man to think that Kit was the one who gave away all the information about the old man gambling. The old man is so shocked by these circumstances that he falls into an illness and seems about to die.

While the old man is lying, apparently on his death bed, Quilp takes over the old man's house, leaving only the old man's room for the old man and Nell. Nell cares for the old man, nursing him back to health. Quilp then informs Nell and the old man that he has taken possession of all their belongings, and that he will be selling it all within a few days.

Nell has a suspicion that Quilp will try to keep her and the old man in his clutches once they have no money or possessions. So, the night before the possessions are all to be sold, Nell has herself and the old man escape London. The two wander on foot, out of the city and far away, before Quilp has even woken.

In the meantime Kit, who was never suspected by Nell, was still requested never to be around the old man again, as any mention of Kit sent the now somewhat feeble-minded old man into hysterics and sickness. But Kit was able to keep some contact with Nell, and he knows her situation. He keeps believing that Nell and the old man will come to live with his family.

Kit had been paid a little, here and there, by the services he'd rendered to the old man and Nell. But he'd mostly done what he'd done, not out of romantic love for Nell, but because he'd thought of Nell as something special, as a sort of angel. But Kit also earns money for his family by working as a horse-holder. He'd wander through all of London, asking people if he could hold their horses while they went inside to take care of business. Then, when they came back, he'd get a few pence from them.

But one day Kit meets up with a couple of men who go by the name of Garland. They have a wild, little pony named Whisker. Whisker doesn't listen to anybody. But he seems to love Kit. Kit holds the horse for the two Mister Garlands. But when they come back, they only have a large coin (I can't remember what) to give to Kit. Kit promises to bring them change the next time they come here.

Kit holds to his promise. The Garlands, so impressed by Kit's honesty, decide to put him in their service. So Kit now makes a decent amount of money (again -- I can't remember how much. It may be six pounds a year). Kit is astonished by this amount of money, and he is excited by how he'll be able to take care of his family, and even take them to the theatre and out for an oyster dinner.

Little Nell and the old man, in the meantime, have wandered far beyond London. On the road, they meet up with a troupe of actors who put on a Punch and Judy show. The leaders of the troupe, Codlin and Trotters, take Nell and the old man up with them. They all head to an inn together. By this time the old man and Nell are quite worn down, starving, and desolate. They are happy to be in an inn with kind people, eating a good meal. At one point, the conviviality is supplemented by another entertaining troupe -- this one of singing and dancing dogs, all led by a stern, human master.

Codlin and Trotters ask Nell and the old man to come with the Punch and Judy troupe the next day. They're heading to Derby Day. Apparently entertainers like the troupe of puppeteers can make good money at the festival of horse races. But Codlin and Trotters, as far as I can tell, each have their own motives for asking Nell and the old man along. Trotters, I believe, feels sorry for Nell and wants to help her out. Codlin, on the other hand, recognizes that Nell and the old man seem to be running for something. Codlin thinks he can get a reward by keeping Nell and the old man until he can hand them over to the person chasing them.

Nell catches onto this idea and decides to escape, yet again, with the old man. Nell and the old man sneak away from the Punch and Judy troupe at night. They go out on the road and make a quick stop at an old, kind of abandoned, run-down town. At the town they meet a schoolmaster whose favorite pupil is dying from a sickness. Nell helps the schoolmaster cope with what eventually turns out to be the death of the pupil.

Nell and the old man strike out on the road again. While out on the road, they meet with a woman named Mrs. Jarley. Mrs. Jarley owns a wax museum. Mrs. Jarley takes a liking to Nell and has Nell work for her as a tour guide in the wax museum. The wax museum is full of wax replicas of notorious brigands and criminals. But on schooldays, Mrs. Jarley re-dresses all the brigands as illustrious historical figures. Nell learns and performs her job so well that she draws crowds every day.

Back in London, Kit gets his chance to take his mother out to the theatre and an oyster restaurant. While serving the Garlands, Kit has met another servant, named Barbara, about Kit's age. Kit is attracted to Barbara, although he doesn't quite admit it. But when Kit takes his family out on the town, he also takes Barbara and her mom. They all have a great time, and it's obvious that Barbara loves Kit, too.

Dick, however, frustrated in love, is still under the spell of the evil Mr. Quilp. Quilp, in order to keep a tight rein on Dick, puts Dick under the charge of a Mr. Brass, a lawyer who answers to the evil financier's beck and call. Dick doesn't enjoy his job too much. And he's not too happy with his love life. But, being a devout disciple of popular music, he looks at his dire straits as the subject of his favorite top tunes. In this way, seeing himself as a hero of song, he is satisfied.

Mr. Brass and his sister Sally, who also acts as a lawyer, also have a room for rent that is vacant. One day a mysterious stranger comes to fill the room. As the mysterious stranger arrives, while Dick is alone in the office, Dick meets, for the first time, the Brass' maid. The maid is a tiny girl, her growth kept stunted by the cruel treatment she receives from the Brasses, although she also seems to be kind of pretty.

The mysterious stranger, or "the single gentleman," as he becomes known, is rather large, gruff, though not bullying, and reticent. He takes the room on the inflated terms Dick offers him, and goes upstairs immediately. He ends up causing quite a worry among the Brasses, as he seldom leaves his room and seems to have made quite a startling impression on Dick from the beginning. But the single gentleman takes Dick into his confidence and, through Dick, makes the Brasses a bit easier.

By this time, Nell has begun earning a pretty steady income at Mrs. Jarley's wax museum. Her earnings should be able to support her and the old man, especially since the two are living with Mrs. Jarley. But Nell finds out that the old man is actually back into his old habit of gambling. The old man is actually so desperate and addicted that he ends up stealing even threw paltry money that Nell does not give directly to the old man.

Finally it even turns out that the old man seems to be making a plan to steal money directly from Mrs. Jarley's cash box. Nell, feeling such gratitude to Mrs. Jarley, decides it would be better to run away from Mrs. Jarley than to have the old man steal from her. So she and the old man escape, yet again, into the night.

In London, the single gentleman, Dick and the Brasses discover, has a thing for Punch and Judy troupes. Any time he hears the advertising sounds of the puppet show come by, he runs down to the street, finds the leader of the troupe, and takes them upstairs for a private party.

One day, the single gentleman comes upon the troupe run by Codlin and Trotters. Dickens lets us in on the party the single gentleman throws for these two. It's shown that the single gentleman has been looking for these two men all this time. They can give him more information on -- the whereabouts of Nell. It turns out that Nell is the heir to a previously unknown family fortune.

The single gentleman learns that Nell ran off from Codlin and Trotters in the night. However, Codlin and Trotters also relate that they heard that Nell ended up working at a wax museum in another town. The gentleman also learns how important Kit was to Nell. So the single gentleman, in hopes of more easily getting in touch with Nell, plans to bring Kit with him.

Nit Kit remembers that Nell's grandfather appears to be almost mortally afraid of Kit. But Kit's mother is still beloved of both Nell and the old man. So the single gentleman says he'll take Kit's mother with him. Kit runs off to get his mother. But his mother is in some new-age style church that she's kind of addicted to. For some reason, Quilp is there, too. When Kit grabs his mom out of church, Quilp wonders why, and he decides to follow Kit and his mother.

Kit's mother and the single gentleman go off on their journey. They get as far, I think, as Mrs. Jarley's wax museum. The word on Nell runs out from there. But, at the same time, Quilp reveals himself as having been following Kit's mom. He causes such a stir with things that he probably makes Kit's mother too afraid to continue on the journey any longer. So Kit's mother and the single gentleman go back to London.

But Quilp follows Kit's mother back to London, taunting her all the way. Kit confronts Quilp and threatens to beat Quilp up next time he does anything to Kit's mother. This throws Quilp off the trail of Kit's mother, but sets Quilp even more against Kit. Quilp plans to get back at Quilp.

But first Quilp goes home to find out the Mrs. Quilp and all her female friends and relatives, as well as Mr. Brass, have come to the conclusion that Quilp is dead. Quilp surprises everybody, blames his wife for what Quilp believed was her throwing a party to celebrate Quilp's death, and decides that he's going to live the bachelor life in his own counting-house. But he threatens Mrs. Quilp never to appear like she's having fun again, lest he come and terrorize her worse than he'd done already.

Quilp, living the life of a bachelor, now invites Mr. Brass and his sister Sally over for tea. This is a wretched affair, at which Quilp explains that he wishes to have Kit ruined. The three decide on a way to do this.

While the Brasses are out and about, Dick is again alone in the office. He has another chance to meet the pretty, but stunted and undernourished maid. He gives the maid a bit of food and some beer and teaches the maid how to play cribbage. The maid, a naturally cunning girl, though her mental faculties have never been attended to, manages to beat Dick at cribbage. But she also gains a fondness for Dick, as he has been the only person ever to have treated her as a real person.

Nell and the old man have, by this time, been wandering for some while, going and going without stopping, as if Nell were afraid to set roots down anywhere, lest the old man should start up with his gambling addiction again. But finally Nell catches a terrible illness and faints away.

Nell is sick for quite a while. She awakes from her sickness to find herself and the old man in the care of the people of a small town. A schoolmaster has taken a liking to Nell. The schoolmaster has recently obtained a new position in another town. Knowing how intent Nell is on keeping moving, the schoolmaster asks Nell to come along with him. So Nell and the old man go along.

The town in which the schoolmaster is set to work is small, indeed. But the schoolmaster gets a large, though old and worn-down, house. The schoolmaster also gets Nell a job. Nell now holds the keys to the doors of the old church. She opens the church for people. She is also taught the lore of the church, which she provides to people who visit the church. In return, Nell and the old man get to live in rooms inside the old church.

The church is full of old statues and relics, a kind of museum of people great and honored at the time of the church's building, centuries ago. The church, Nell's house, is large, but worn down, a bit unhealthy, all the wise, old people of the small, old town say, for a young, potentially cheerful girl, such as Nell is.

But Nell gets along well with all the people in the small town. And all the schoolmasters pupils love and adore Nell, thinking of the girl as an angel, like Kit did.

Back in London, Kit finds himself unexpectedly befriended by Mr. Brass, who pays Kit unheard of sums to run trifling errands. But the game soon makes itself apparent. Mr. Brass one day pretends to be missing a few items around the office. He then pretends to be missing a whole five pound note, which, through a ruse with Kit's hat, he manages to blame Kit for stealing. This is a rather huge crime to pin on Kit -- if you consider that his annual salary under the Garlands is six pounds!

Kit is hauled off to jail. But before he goes, he is given the chance to tell the Garlands what happened. The single gentleman also finds out. So does Quilp, who is quite happy with the news. Quilp is, in fact, so happy with the news that he goes and buys a giant sculpture from a ship's mast, which is shaped like some kind of captain. Quilp associates this strange figure with Quilp, and proceeds to unleash an orgy of beating upon the poor wooden figure.

The trial goes terribly for Kit. Even the Garlands, who have faith in Kit, don't know how to help him. The Brasses standing against Kit, the old gentleman, who loves Kit, moves out of the Brass house. Mr. Brass complains of this to Quilp. Quilp, who was the only reason Dick had a job in the first place, tells Brass to fire Dick.

Dick, being fired, finally succumbs to an illness. He is delirious and bed-ridden for weeks. But when he wakes, he finds that the Brass' maid has been caring for him all this time. The maid also lets on that she found out the conspiracy between Quilp and the Brasses to ruin Kit.

Dick gets the maid to tell her story to the Garlands. The Garlands confront Sally Brass on the matter. Sally would remain silent to defend herself and her brother. But Mr. Brass comes in, having been eavesdropping, and confesses to everything. Sally manages to escape while her brother is actually spending his time writing out his confession.

Quilp, unaware of anything going on against him, is partying in a favorite run-down, secluded building of his. But, receiving a warning letter from Sally, Quilp decides to leave town immediately. Then, seeing what a horribly foggy day it is, he decides to stay overnight and leave early in the morning.

Quilp locks the gates around the secluded area right before the police come to apprehend him. So they cannot get in. But Quilp accidentally knocks down a stove he was using for heat. Smoke from the stove spreads all over the place, causing Quilp to stumble around madly. In his stumbling, Quilp falls down into a nearby river, is actually carried underneath a passing boat, is drowned and washes up on shore.

Kit is freed from prison. The single gentleman takes Kit with him to retrieve Nell. On the way to find Nell, the single gentleman gives Kit the story of Nell. The story was hard for me to understand. Apparently Nell's father was brother to a rich man who loved Nell's mother. Since Nell's father got Nell's mother, Nell's uncle cut off communication with him. But when Nell's parents died, and Nell went to live with her grandfather, the uncle saw what a mistake he'd made, not to take care of Nell himself. So now he'd left his money for Nell, so Nell could care for herself.

But by the time Kit and the single gentleman find Nell, Nell has died. She died only a day or two previously. The old man, his wits totally gone, is too astonished even to comprehend Nell's death. Nell is buried the next day. The old man dies not long after. He is buried beside Nell, in the floor of the old church, Nell's last home.

Kit goes back home and marries Barbara, who truly has been his love interest. Later, the Garlands help Kit get a better living than he could earn under them. The single gentleman wanders along the path of Nell's journey, finding our more about her travels and what kind of a person she was. And Dick, who was also a relative of the deceased uncle, receives an annuity of 150 pounds in the will! He uses this money to send the poor maid to school. And after the maid gets out of school, she and Dick get married.