Preferred Citation: Jaffe, Audrey. Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

Omniscience and Curiosity in The Old Curiosity Shop

2. Omniscience and Curiosity in The Old Curiosity Shop

When, in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Matthew Arnold chides the English for what he sees as a national preoccupation with the practical—the abrupt transposition of ideas “into the world of politics and practice”—he cites for support the moral taint they attach to the word “curiosity.”

The notion of a free play of the mind upon all subjects being a pleasure in itself, being an object of desire, being an essential provider of elements without which a nation’s spirit, whatever compensations it may have for them, must, in the long run, die of inanition, hardly enters into an Englishman’s thoughts. It is noticeable that the word curiosity, which in other languages is used in a good sense, to mean, as a high and fine quality of man’s nature, just this disinterested love of a free play of the mind on all subjects, for its own sake,—it is noticeable, I say, that this word has in our language no sense of the kind, no sense but a rather bad and disparaging one.[1]

The movement of Arnold’s thought itself suggests what might be “bad and disparaging” about curiosity. It is as if, waxing eloquent about “free play,” “pleasure,” and particularly the idea of the mind as its own “object of desire,” Arnold is momentarily (as he earlier says of Burke in a similar expression of rhetorical exuberance) “irresistibly carried…to the opposite side of the question,” thereby so forgetting the “function” of criticism that he must recall himself to the matter at hand: “It is noticeable…it is noticeable, I say.” As Arnold continues, curiosity—interest for its own sake—becomes “disinterestedness,” and, by employing this more coldly complex term, criticism can abandon its ties with the practical and, paradoxically, get down to business. “Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world.…Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty…its business is to do no more” (246).

“He is neither comic nor tragic,” writes Cesare Pavese of Balzac; “he is curious. He enters an entanglement of things, with the air of one who scents and promises a mystery.…Observe how he approaches his new characters: he scrutinizes them like rarities, defines, sculpts, and annotates them.” “The fictional object does not appear alone,” notes Pierre Macherey; “it is entangled, inscribed in the text which uses it, a token for something else, to herald its next impulse, constantly extending it into something else.”[2] As a mode curiosity subordinates content to form; what is discovered matters less than the act of discovery, the constant extension from one thing to the next. And it is neither comic nor tragic because its primary interest lies in its own processes rather than in any particular object or situation. Like sentimentality and melodrama, curiosity entails, in Peter Brooks’s words, “an excess of feeling in respect to situation,” an exaggeration “more and more in and of consciousness itself.”[3]

The Oxford English Dictionary also describes curiosity as excess. Curiosity is “undue niceness or fastidiousness”; “unduly minute or subtle treatment”; “the disposition to inquire too minutely into anything; undue or inquisitive desire to know or learn.” It is self-reflexive—a curiosity’s main characteristic is its curiosity—and nosy: “the habit of inquisitiveness as to trifles, and especially as to the private affairs of one’s neighbors.” These definitions suggest that our interest in others may be simply an overflow or displacement of our interest in ourselves, and, further, that “looking into other people’s affairs and overlooking our own,” as the OED puts it, we register not only interest, but also the nature of the details we prefer to keep from the curious eyes of others. The object of curiosity serves as a kind of projective surface, telling us more about the curious agent than it does about itself. It is with this in mind that I turn to the discussion of a novel that comes to us surrounded by what is in effect the autobiography of its narrator, yet which purports, in its opening pages, to turn its attention entirely to the affairs of others.

Critics have often found The Old Curiosity Shop resonant with greater energy than its plot or characters manage to absorb. Criticism of the novel often remains bound, therefore, by the biographical circumstances of its creation.[4] The reasons for this are perhaps obvious. The Dickensian configuration of old man and young girl appears here in perhaps its purest form, and Dickens himself unabashedly alluded to what the story was “about”: “Dear Mary died today, when I think of this sad story” (Forster, I:187). Without necessarily involving the explicit terms of Dickens’s attachment to Mary Hogarth, critics remain concerned with the eroticization of Nell, the imagery and significance surrounding her death, and, in general, the balance between the figures of Nell and Quilp—a pairing that frequently depends upon a notion of the darker or demonic side of the author himself. Such readings place Dickens on the Quilpian side of the equation, associating him with the devouring energy that pursues Nell and finally drives her, sadistically, to death. Without completely abandoning the biographical but rather changing the manner of its use, I would like to suggest another as yet unconsidered context for the novel, one which places it within the ongoing critical discussion of the Dickensian narrator’s relation to, and position within, his narration.

Dickens is generally, and accurately, described as insistently present in his works. The energy and enthusiasm he invested in his public readings attest to his desire to confront an audience in person. Perhaps the most widely accepted account of his narratorial presence, Robert Garis’s Dickens Theatre, ascribes such activity, as well as the flamboyant, performative quality of Dickens’s language, to pure egotism. Dickens calls attention away from his characters and toward his own language, argues Garis, not only refusing, but unable, to grant his characters a separate, “inner” life. Other, less morally charged accounts describe the narrator’s position in terms of increasing or decreasing involvement. J. Hillis Miller traces the narrator’s movement from an inward, isolated position to an outward, social stance, while Taylor Stoehr suggests that the narrator becomes present in his work through a metonymic identification with his subject. But, as we have seen, Dickens’s novels display a continual tension between inward and outward, impersonal and personal, present and absent stances. Dickens’s insistent narratorial presence, especially his assertions of omniscient knowledge and mobility, conflict with the invisibility omniscience requires.[5]

Identification itself is a complicated and multifarious thing. While “part” of Dickens surely inhabits the demonic Quilp, another part of him flees in the form of Nell. Idealization involves both distance and involvement, presence and absence; the fantasized image of a loved one involves self-projection. (Thus David Copperfield’s supposedly mature love for Agnes strongly involves an image of his best, what he calls his most “earnest,” self: “I only knew that I was fervently in earnest, when I felt the rest and peace of having Agnes near me.”) Pursuer and pursued are interdependent, and The Old Curiosity Shop is about this interdependence and inseparability. In both its story and its narrative structurre, the novel bears the traces of the narrator’s desire to free himself from what he is inextricably bound up with: to get out from inside. Beginning as a first-person narrative but quickly shifting to third-person omniscience, replacing autobiographical narration with curiosity about others, it invites us to explore the genesis and problematics of Dickensian omniscience. In particular, it allows us to examine the way in which omniscient narration, like curiosity, represents a displacement rather than a disappearance—the hiding, but not the removal, of the self.

At the end of The Old Curiosity Shop’s third chapter, the personified narrator (the dwarflike Humphrey of Master Humphrey’s Clock, the serial out of which the novel grew) takes leave of his readers in order to let the novel’s main characters “speak and act for themselves” (72). One hears nothing more of such a narrator until the novel’s end when, in the continuation of the Clock, Humphrey announces that he has in fact been present all along in the person of the mysterious “single gentleman” who pursues Nell throughout the latter half of the book. Though editors tend to discount this “confession,” as Humphrey calls it, it suggests what I want to claim for the book as a whole: that the status of the narrator—whether he is “in” or “out”—is not fully settled by his departure. The abandonment of personified in favor of omniscient narration suggests the need to gain the kind of distance, for the purposes of narration, that a character in the text can never attain. Omniscience, with its implications of superior knowledge and freedom, presumably signifies the narrator’s achieved distance from the novel’s characters, the ability to move invisibly among and outside them. Yet, in this novel, omniscience is a presence that neither readers nor characters are allowed to forget, and curiosity, I will argue, has a particular significance as Dickens’s name for the narrator’s relation to his characters: not the unproblematic achievement of distance and detachment, but rather a blurring of the boundaries that define and separate narrator and narration, subject and object.

In both Master Humphrey’s Clock and The Old Curiosity Shop, the story of the narrator competes with, and threatens to displace, the stories he tells. Dickens intended the Clock only as a “machinery” or frame that would give continuity to a series of short pieces. Humphrey and his friends, meeting regularly to read their compositions to one another, were to serve as models for the reader rather than as “active agents in the stories they are supposed to relate.”[6] (Imagining them “in their old chamber of meeting, eager listeners to all he had to tell, the Author hoped—as authors will—to succeed in awakening some of his own interest in the bosoms of his readers” [Preface, 339].) Yet the storytellers themselves embody stories, or “personal histories,” as Dickens calls them, which need to be “wound up” before any other story can be told, and throughout the serial, the frame and its contents exist in a precarious balance, the personal histories of the storytellers often taking up as much room as, and appearing even more intriguing to their creator than, the tales to which they are ostensibly subordinated. Through oblique references to what he cannot or will not explain, Dickens piques the reader’s curiosity about these partially given lives: “The reader must not expect to know where I live,” begins Humphrey (MHC, 5). Even more oddly, after a tale has been read anonymously, its author reveals himself, “confessing” that the narrative actually describes some portion of his own experience, just as Humphrey confesses to a role in the Curiosity Shop. The third-person narrative is thus acknowledgedly, though secretly, autobiographical; the story of the other is in fact the story of the self.

What does this combination of story and “personal history” mean? What is the difference between telling one’s story openly, in the first person, and telling it in the third person, followed by a “confession”? As he returns his own narrative to the clock case, Humphrey suggests a possible answer.

I replaced in the clock case the record of so many trials,—sorrowfully, it is true, but with a softened sorrow that was almost pleasure; and felt that in living through the past again, and communicating to others the lesson it had helped to teach me, I had been a happier man. (MHC, 106)

“I can look back on my part in it,” he claims, “with a calm, half-smiling pity for myself as for some other man” (MHC, 105, emphasis mine). Telling his story as if it belongs to another is, for Humphrey, a way of distancing painful feeling, of disowning a part of his experience so that he can, as narrator, indulge in that “softened sorrow that was almost pleasure.” But the “as” peculiarly refuses either to merge or to separate the narrating from the participating self. It suggests the narrator’s desire to disown his personal history, yet at the same time to remain its central actor.

The very existence of such narratorial figures as Boz and Humphrey bespeaks a desire to tell the narrator’s story as well as that of what he observes. As the Curiosity Shop began to develop alongside Master Humphrey’s Clock, Dickens briefly attempted to make room for both, writing Forster: “What do you think of the following double title for the beginning of that little tale? ‘Personal Adventures of Master Humphrey: The Old Curiosity Shop’ ” (Forster, I:178). And, when the “little tale” started to crowd out its frame, he expressed his disappointment, letting readers know what they were missing.

When the story was finished, that it might be freed from the incumbrances of associations and interruptions with which it had no kind of concern, I caused the few sheets of Master Humphrey’s Clock, which had been printed in connection with it, to be cancelled.…Though I now affect to make the confession philosophically, as referring to a bye-gone emotion, I am conscious that my pen winces a little even as I write these words. But it was done, and wisely done, and Master Humphrey’s Clock, as originally constructed, became one of the lost books of the earth—which, we all know, are far more precious than any that can be read for love or money.

In its movement from “bye-gone emotion” to “philosophical confession,” related to what sounds like a cutting away of part of the self, this passage contains, in miniature, the substance of my argument about The Old Curiosity Shop. The self is painfully excised to produce a more “philosophical” narration: someone else’s story. But this excision merely gives rise to a series of further displacements in which the story of the self is told, over and over, as another’s. And this series of displacements accounts for the novel’s narrative structure, and for the phenomenon of the narrator motivated solely by curiosity.

The desire to experience and discuss painful emotion “philosophically,” and even with pleasure, reappears in descriptions of Dickens’s measured response to Mary Hogarth’s death. Steven Marcus writes: “After the first shock of Mary Hogarth’s death had worn off, Dickens wrote her mother that he intended never to behave as if her memory were to be avoided; he would never shrink from speaking of her; he was determined to ‘take a melancholy pleasure in recalling the times when we were all so happy.’ ” He made that remembering into what Marcus calls a “ritual,” dreaming of Mary every night for the nine months following her death with “a kind of quiet happiness, which became so pleasant to me that I never lay down at night without a hope of the vision coming back in one shape or other.”[7] As “ritual,” this obsessive recalling resembles Humphey’s habitual curiosity, which has him indulging nightly and with apparent enjoyment in melancholy reflections, as well as his circle of companions in the Clock, whose stories, regularly recounted, console them for the disappointments of actual life. The determined or deliberate calling up of emotion here involves a practice or rehearsal of feeling, as if to indulge and control it at the same time, and to demonstrate to oneself that it is controlled.[8] More important, this kind of rehearsal attempts to come to terms with the object of concern by substituting obsessive form (“ritual”) for obsessive content, “philosophical confession” or narration for strong emotion. The narrator or dreamer, making the dream come and go as he pleases, imagines that he has gained control over his obsessive object and freed himself from the pain connected with it, but the very repetitiveness of his activity attests to his inability to do so. Instead, he has taken as his object the image of his own desire—a frozen, unattainable object—which he pursues relentlessly and, as with any self-projection, hopelessly. And throughout The Old Curiosity Shop, curiosity—while apparently directed toward others—is in fact self-projective, self-perpetuating, and potentially endless. Referring to an external object, it nonetheless proceeds with self-generated, directionless energy, just as, repeatedly declaring its pursuit of Nell, the narrative of The Old Curiosity Shop seems wandering, aimless, and potentially unending.[9]

What, then, am I claiming about the relationship between biography and fictional representation? Not that there is no actual event—such as Mary Hogarth’s death—behind The Old Curiosity Shop, but that we can understand that event as a kind of vessel or clock-case out of which narratives are drawn, providing an opportunity for fictional displacement rather than standing as the essence or source of any particular story.

The first few chapters of the novel struggle, and fail, to maintain a balance between the narrator and his ostensible object; Humphrey then “disappears,” and the Curiosity Shop alone becomes our concern. Yet the distance the narrator hopes to gain by choosing omniscient over personified narration is repeatedly undermined by the narrative’s persistent focus on an analogous movement within the novel: figures who strive for, but cannot attain, positions outside scenes in which they are involved. The Old Curiosity Shop repeatedly focuses on observational activity, shifting from an unframed, central action to an observer on the periphery of that action. The best example is the dilemma presented by Humphrey himself, who, after alluding to his deformity and habit of walking at night, attempts to take his place as an observer of others, with the idea that he must not, much as he would like to, tell his own story. Yet he cannot so easily abandon his participatory role; his departure becomes a competition of curiosities between himself and Nell. Having made her the object of his curiosity, that is, he nevertheless begins, and with increasing anxiety, to notice her noticing of him. “I observed that every now and then she stole a curious look at my face as if to make sure that I was not deceiving her . . .”; “my curiosity and interest were at least equal to the child’s . . .”; “her quick eye seemed to read my thoughts . . .” (45). The same thing occurs when Humphrey meets Nell’s grandfather, and then Quilp: each character he observes manifests—according to Humphrey—a significant degree of interest in him. This reciprocal curiosity reflects the awkwardness of Humphrey’s narratorial position, but it also defines his departure as a retreat from the curiosity of others, as if the narrator cannot be present in the text without threatening to displace its proper object. Like the novel’s recurrent notice of spying, it suggests the observer’s desire to be the focus of curiosity, the possibility that his excessive interest in others represents the displacement of an interest he desires for himself.

Humphrey’s encounter with Nell is only the first in a series of instances in which a curious observer finds himself becoming an object of curiosity—in which the narrative suddenly points toward a figure who, often unbeknownst to readers and other characters, has been lingering at its edges. Soon after Humphrey’s departure, for example, as Nell encourages her grandfather to leave town with her, we learn that “these were not words for other ears, nor was it a scene for other eyes. And yet other ears and eyes were there and greedily taking in all that passed, and moreover they were the ears and eyes of no less a person than Mr. Daniel Quilp” (124). Quilp has planted himself inside the shop, of which he is soon to take complete possession, displacing its original owners. This narrative shift from the inner scene to its periphery disrupts the reader’s unmediated involvement, effectively displacing him or her by framing the inner scene, making it the object of another character’s attention. At the same time Quilp becomes both subject and object of the reader’s gaze; seeing what he sees, we suddenly see him as well. And that movement repeats itself almost immediately: “Daniel Quilp,” we are told, “neither entered nor left the old man’s house, unobserved” (129); Kit now watches from the corner. Humphrey’s departure therefore plays out only the initial version of a tension between subject and object that continues to inform much of the narrative, calling the stability of each term into question and keeping the reader always slightly off balance. For as it sets each scene within a larger scene, or series of scenes, the novel underscores the limitations of any representable point of view. Trapped within this infinite regress, no character can achieve an authoritative perspective. And the concern with limitation extends, by means of its very insistence, to the narrator himself; the spy who uncovers another’s spying implicitly acknowledges his own vulnerability. An omniscience that makes itself felt is thus on the defensive, protesting its outside stance because it is caught inside.

Within such a framework, there can be no successful overview. Instead, the narrative mimes Nell’s journey. Taking note of what immediately surrounds the travelers, it can posit only vagueness ahead and increasing vagueness behind.

At length these streets, becoming more straggling yet, dwindled and dwindled away, until there were only small garden patches bordering the road.…To these succeeded pert cottages.…Then came the public house, freshly painted…then fields…then came a turnpike; then fields again…then a hill; and on top of that the traveller might stop, and—looking back at old Saint Paul’s looming through the smoke, its cross peeping above the cloud…casting his eyes upon the Babel out of which it grew until he traced it down to the furthest outposts of the invading army of bricks and mortar whose station lay for the present nearly at his feet—might feel at last that he was clear of London. (173)

As the two leave London, the city is something “a traveller might see,” a blurred “Babel” recognizable chiefly by its sign: the top of Saint Paul’s. From within the novel it is almost impossible to see more than what immediately surrounds one. Hence narratorial surrogates like Quilp must keep popping up directly alongside their intended victims.

The difficulty of separating subject from object appears not only in the novel’s narrative structure, but also in the meaning of curiosity itself, which throughout the novel displaces observed with observer. The habitual nature of Humphrey’s night-walking reveals a great deal, notably that curiosity—an ostensibly spontaneous, unpredictable response—takes place regularly, at the observer’s instigation. Its self-generated, habitual quality becomes clearly evident as Humphrey wonders about Nell’s grandfather’s nighttime activities:

What could have taken him from home by night, and every night! I called up all the strange tales I had ever heard of dark and secret deeds committed in great towns and escaping detection. (55)

Humphrey’s curiosity has an obsessive quality about it:

[A]ll that night…the same thoughts recurred and the same images retained possession of my brain. (56)

But independence from the object of curiosity means eternal failure to capture it. Curiosity turns in on itself, its object—Nell or her grandfather—merely the catalyst for a fantasy which ultimately cannot distinguish between projection and external reality. It makes sense, then, that the narrative itself fails to distinguish self from other, that it confuses Humphrey’s habitual speculations with what might be the representations of others’ thoughts.

Think of a sick man…listening to the footsteps, and in the midst of pain and weariness obliged, despite himself (as though it were a task he must perform) to detect the child’s step from the man’s.…[T]hink of the hum and noise being always present to his senses, and of the stream of life that will not stop, pouring on, on, on, through all his restless dreams. (43)[10]

[M]any stop on fine evenings looking listlessly down upon the water with some vague idea that by-and-by it runs between green banks which grow wider and wider until at last it joins the broad vast sea—where some halt to rest from heavy loads and think as they look over the parapet that to smoke and lounge away one’s life, and lie sleeping in the sun…must be happiness unalloyed—and where some, of a very different class, pause with heavier loads than they, remembering to have heard or read in some old time that drowning was not a hard death, but of all means of suicide the easiest and best. (43–44)

Critics typically attribute the thoughts of these restless and depressed passersby to Humphrey, but the narrative deliberately invites the possibility that they belong to others. Curiosity remains unable to separate subject from object, and that failure underlies the movement of this narrative. The mystery, Humphrey asserts, “only became the more impenetrable, in proportion as I sought to solve it” (55). “Every effort I made to penetrate it,” insists the single gentleman, “has only served to render it darker and more obscure” (367).[11] The narrative’s economy depends upon the unattainability of its object, which moves ahead in equal measure with the desire for it. The mind thus produces fantasy rather than seeking an end to it, as one of Dickens’s manuscript emendations reveals. Originally, when Humphrey queries Nell as to what she has been doing wandering the streets at night, she replies,“Selling diamonds.” In the revision, her answer reads, “That, I must not tell”—announcing the existence of a secret and the need for further questions (682, note 3).

What does it mean, in this context, for a narrator to detach himself from his tale—to get outside it? Master Humphrey’s Clock suggests an answer in what apppears to be an originary scene for The Old Curiosity Shop, one which reverses the novel’s initiating image of Nell in the shop surrounded by curiosities. Humphrey recounts his discovery of his deformity in this scene, which has him—the ugly dwarf—surrounded by “angels.”

A little knot of playmates—they must have been beautiful, for I see them now—were clustered around my mother’s knee in eager admiration of some picture representing a group of infant angels, which she held in her hand.…I have some dim thought it was my birthday.…There were many lovely angels in this picture, and I remember the fancy coming upon me to point out which of them represented each child there, and that when I had gone through my companions, I stopped and hesitated, wondering which was most like me. I remember the children looking at each other, and my turning red and hot, and their crowding around to kiss me, saying they loved me all the same; and then, when the old sorrow came into my dear mother’s mild and tender look, the truth broke upon me for the first time, and I knew, while watching my awkward and ungainly sports, how keenly she had felt for her poor crippled boy. (MHC, 8)

Buried within this passage are two sorrows: the death of Humphrey’s mother and that of his earliest image of himself. Yet he introduces the passage as another “philosophical confession,” a recollection of happy moments with his mother, who died when he was young. “I smile sorrowfully to think,” he writes, “that the time has been when the confession would have given me pain” (MHC, 7). Lacan’s account of early childhood development describes the child’s inability to differentiate his own image from his mother’s, as well as the simultaneity of self-recognition and self-alienation in the mirror stage.[12] Here, self-recognition entails self-displacement, as Humphrey’s ambiguous sentence structure implies: “I knew, while watching [my sports]…how keenly she had felt.…” Suddenly seeing himself as if from the outside—already a displacement—the child just as suddenly disowns his painful feeling, becoming the story’s invisible narrator rather than its shamed object, as the passage focuses exclusively on his mother’s expression. And, as he continues his narrative, Humphrey distances himself even further from his own image: “I used frequently to dream of it afterwards,” he writes, “and now my heart aches for that child as if I had never been he, when I think how often he awoke from some fairy change to his own form, and sobbed himself to sleep again” (MHC, 9, my emphasis).[13] Each awakening involves both a death and a birth, the death of “that child” and the birth of the detached narrator—a detachment which, one might say, reflects the child’s initial lack of reflection: his inability to find a self-representation in his mother’s book.

The structure and resolution of this passage—its movement from pride in being the center of attention (“I have some dim thought it was my birthday”) to sudden shame and displacement of feeling—recall a passage in Dickens’s “Autobiographical Fragment.” When Warren’s Blacking moves into larger quarters, Dickens and his fellow workers find themselves tying pots of Bootblack near a window, in public view. “Bob Fagin and I had attained to great dexterity in tying up the pots,” Dickens writes.

I forget how many we could do, in five minutes. We worked, for the light’s sake, near the second window as you come from Bedford street; and we were so brisk at it, that the people used to stop and look in. Sometimes there would be quite a little crowd there. I saw my father coming in at the door one day when we were very busy, and I wondered how he could bear it.

Again, pride—a desire to be looked at—becomes shame, anxiety about being looked at. The moment of discovery is a moment of refusal, of experience transformed into what Dickens so often calls “personal history.” In the first passage, the “red and hot” child becomes the cool observer of his mother’s “old sorrow.” Here, he “wonders” why his father doesn’t feel the shame that, the “Fragment” fully attests, actually belongs to the son. As in The Old Curiosity Shop, the narrator turns against others the gaze that had been focused on him, displacing or even excising its accompanying feeling. The subject of the text is no longer the object of gazes.[14]

These moments demonstrate the production and characteristic form of the Dickens narrator, moving between omniscience and character, existing shadowlike within his text. So, at various points in Master Humphrey’s Clock, Humphrey imagines his death as a transition beyond the bounds of self and speaks of “hovering, the ghost of his former self, about the places and people that warmed his heart of old.” Death means not absence, but attendant presence: “If my spirit should ever glide back to this chamber when my body is mingled with the dust, it will but follow the course it took in the old man’s lifetime, and add but one more change to the subjects of his contemplation” (MHC, 33, emphasis mine). This “contemplation” has consequences, moreover, for his onetime associates. Humphrey’s will enjoins that his companions preserve his apartments, belongings, and portrait as they were during his lifetime, and, further, that they make him a frequent subject of conversation, never speaking of him “with an air of gloom or restraint, but frankly, as one whom we still loved and hoped to meet again” (MHC, 117). Though a number of characters in The Old Curiosity Shop exercise control over others through absence—one need only think of the compelling power of Nell’s image, or the schoolmaster’s obsession with his dead student—Humphrey’s fantasy of invisible presence most disturbingly resembles Quilp’s means of keeping his wife, mother-in-law, and in fact almost every character in the novel perpetually on guard simply by posing the threat of his presence. When, after he has been absent for several days, his family and cohorts imagine him drowned, Quilp returns in the midst of a conversation about himself, delighting in “the prospect of playing the spy under such delicious circumstances, and of disappointing them all by walking in alive” (457). From that point on, he determines fully to inhabit the role he has only hinted at until then, keeping his wife and mother-in-law in “a constant state of agitation and suspense” by keeping them unadvised of his whereabouts: “I’ll be a spy upon you, and come and go like a mole or a weazel” (464).

Humphrey’s interest in Nell, we have seen, is ambivalent from the start. His concern for her is an afterthought to his excitement about her as “riddle,” an excitement oddly unaligned with sympathy. As Nell chats with him, Humphrey “revolved in my mind a hundred different explanations of the riddle and rejected them every one. I really felt ashamed to take advantage of the ingenuousness or grateful feeling of the child for the purpose of gratifying my curiosity” (46). He even attributes to her a desire to deceive him, which he then counters by deceiving her, leading her in a circuitous route she will not recognize. But while Humphrey’s narrative role requires an awkward invasion of privacy (he must return to the shop, gain entrance for no particular reason, and, once inside, sit passively by recording what takes place), omniscient narration can infiltrate the text without acknowledgment, since it is ostensibly a neutral, invisible activity—the novelist’s business. As if to offset this neutrality, however, an image of evil omniscience appears. Humphrey’s ambivalent curiosity and correspondingly awkward visitations to the shop are replaced by Quilp’s deliberate, aggressive spying: he steals into it, unobserved, to overhear Nell’s conversation. Narratorial intrusiveness is objectified, domesticated, absorbed into the necessities of plot; omniscient narration detaches itself from, and vilifies, a curiosity it no longer calls its own. Quilp embodies the sinister potential of a curiosity that only lingers at the edges of Humphrey’s speculations.

Nell is “constantly haunted by a vision of his ugly face and stunted figure” (288), and other characters experience similar “hauntings.” During his illness, Dick Swiveller “senses some fearful obstacle to be surmounted…recognizable for the same phantom in every shape it took” (579). Kit, in prison, dreams

always of being at liberty, and roving about, now with one person and now with another; but ever with a vague dread of being recalled to prison; not that prison, but one which was itself a dim idea, not of a place, but of a care and sorrow; of something oppressive and always present, and yet impossible to define. (557)

The phantom that is always present but impossible to define; that resembles a prison but is not a place; that keeps characters semiconscious of the need to find someplace secure and hidden and at the same time aware of the impossibility of doing so: this sounds like omniscient observation provided characters could be aware of it.

Quilp is finally displaced, as other observers have been. The novel defeats him, replacing one observer with another: the Marchioness, spying on him and the Brasses, discovers their plot against Kit. His death, which Dickens represents as a failure of vision, resembles as well a failure of omniscient powers. After Sally warns him that the game is up, Quilp sees the dense mist as a welcome cover: “a good night for travelling anonymously” (617). But the capacity for anonymous travel that has served him in the past hinders him now, for the mist hides him from his potential rescuers. “[T]hey were all but looking on while he drowned…they were close at hand, but could not make an effort to save him.…he himself had shut and barred them out” (620).

The focus of almost every character’s observation and interest is, of course, Nell. Nell seems “to exist in a kind of allegory” (56), throughout the novel frequently signifying something other than herself. From the book’s opening moments, when Humphrey questions her in the street, her significance lies in where she will lead, and her own journey is structured in relation to what lies “beyond.” Each place in which she and her grandfather stop is on the way to some vague elsewhere: “Places lie beyond these,” she says characteristically, urging him ahead. As Humphrey’s initial, dreamlike fantasy about her suggests, Nell is a product of curiosity, inseparable from the idea of pursuit or of desire for her. “It would be a curious speculation,” Humphrey muses, “to imagine her in her future life, holding her solitary way among a crowd of wild grotesque companions.…[I]t would be curious to find—” (56).

Thus while the novel is committed to Nell’s inviolability and purity, it is also continually involved in the attempt to uncover her, to violate her privacy. And while such language suggests that the novel is grounded in a desire for sexual violation, even that idea involves the paradox that the novel be dedicated to uncovering what it also wants to preserve. In fact, the novel finally protects Nell by keeping whatever she is separate from what others perceive her to be. Generations of critics have agreed that Nell represents essential values of youth, goodness, and truth, but they have not remarked that she also provides a vehicle for the fantasies of each character who desires or is curious about her. Her grandfather, for example, uses her to justify his gambling. Even though he seems to believe that he will eventually make her rich, his obsession obviously does not depend upon her presence. The idea of his miserliness emerges from Quilp’s misinterpretation of Nell’s secret, which Fred Trent seizes upon, making Dick Swiveller part of his scheme to gain the old man’s wealth through marriage to Nell. For Dick, Nell is really only part of Fred’s plan, and incidentally a means of inspiring jealousy in the recalcitrant Sophy Wackles. The single gentleman sees in her a way of reclaiming the woman he loved two generations past but gave up to his brother, and for him her sameness does not signify purity or goodness, but simply reflects that past. She is “the same sweet girl [one traces] through a line of portraits, never growing old or changing…the same in helplessness, in age, in form, in feature” (637). For the schoolmaster, she embodies the dead little scholar, “as if my love for him who died, had been transferred to you who stood beside his bed” (435). For Mrs. Jarley, she constitutes the waxworks’ main “attraction,” while for Codlin and Short, she again represents wealth, namely, the possibility of a reward for her return to wherever she came from. Even for Kit, Nell embodies a fantasy of perfect service and devotion, connected with an image of his best self. Nell is to be always “just as she used to be,” and Kit “always…what I should like to seem to her if I was still her servant” (632). Nell and her grandfather are created anew by each character that observes them, precisely because they appear to have no content or direction themselves. Both as a couple and against the landscape, they present an odd juxtaposition, a cognitive gap, which requires explanation and generates fantasy. As Humphrey suggests early in the novel, the contrast between Nell and her surroundings serves as a “visible aid” to “reflection” (56).

The idea that interest, and narrative, arise around places of secrecy or absence has corollaries throughout the novel and in Master Humphrey’s Clock. The notion of being an invisible center of interest, as I suggested earlier, forms an essential part of Humphrey’s fantasy about himself.

When I first came to live here, which was many years ago, the neighbours were curious to know who I was, and whence I came, and why I lived so much alone. As time went on, and they still remained unsatisfied on these points, I became the center of a popular ferment, extending for half a mile round, and in one direction for a full mile. Various rumours were circulated to my prejudice. I was a spy, an infidel, a conjurer, a kidnapper of children, a refugee, a priest, a monster.…I was the object of suspicion and distrust—ay, of downright hatred too. (MHC, 6)

Interest in Nell takes a similarly geographical form. In the novel’s final chapters, when she settles down under the bachelor’s care, she becomes an object of curiosity for the entire village: “humble folks for seven miles around…had an interest in Nell” (509). Throughout the novel, places where Nell has stopped become the sites of stories. Thus the workman who shelters the pair in his factory attaches “fresh interest to the spot where his guests had slept, and read new histories in his furnace fire” (422). When the single gentleman seeks her at Mrs. Jarley’s, his interest sparks rumors

that the little girl who used to show the wax-work, was the child of great people who had been stolen from her parents in infancy, and had only just been traced. Opinion was divided whether she was the daughter of a prince, a duke, an earl, a viscount, or a baron. (446)

And, when the schoolmaster encounters her for the second time, it is as “story” that he thinks of her. “[T]he world is full of such heroism. Have I yet to learn that the hardest and best-born trials are those which are never chronicled in any earthly record, and are suffered every day! And I should be surprised to hear the story of this child!” (435). Nell herself is a fascinated reader of gravestones, and after her death the narrative focuses on spots where she has been, and on the place of her death, as generative of further narrative.

Within the novel, art is conceived of as valuable to the extent that it remains hidden. Codlin calculates how much he has lost by Nell’s coming upon Punch in disrepair: “Would you care a ha’penny for the Lord Chancellor if you know’d him in private and without his wig?—certainly not” (183). And Mrs. Jarley, especially concerned about the secrecy of her art, moves Nell indoors lest she become “too cheap” when the child becomes the waxworks’ chief attraction.

Nell’s seven miles of interest scarcely begin to describe the imaginative reach of the novel itself, of course. As is well known, the question of Nell’s fate generated enormous curiosity, both in England and in America.[15] The idea of Nell as a vehicle for fantasy thus has a place in the story of the novel’s publication. As I mentioned earlier, the novel itself was created because an audience asked for it. Within the novel, art is not only valuable because of its secrecy, but to some extent takes shape as the product of an audience’s desire and curiosity. Various forms of popular art described are “convertible”: “Have the acrostic,” says Mr. Slum. “Five shillings.…Cheaper than any prose.” “[T]he name at this moment is Warren, but the idea’s a convertible one, and a positive inspiration for Jarley” (282). Even the waxworks themselves are convertible. When presenting her exhibit at young ladies’ boarding schools “of a very superior description,” Mrs. Jarley transforms “the face and costume of Mr. Grimaldi as clown to represent Mr. Lindley Murray as he appeared when engaged in the composition of his English Grammar,” and turns “a murderess of great renown into Miss Hannah More.”

Mr. Pitt in a nightcap and bedgown, and without his boots, represented the poet Cowper with perfect exactness, and Mary Queen of Scots in a dark wig, white shirt-collar, and male attire, was such a complete image of Lord Byron that the young ladies quite screamed when they saw it. (288)

In short, these passages may be read as a cynical commentary on the necessity of suiting popular art to its audience. The material of personal history (“The name at this moment is Warren”), already part of an “acrostic,” can—with slight alterations—be attached to any name. Objects of popular admiration can be shaped this way or that in order to preserve their popularity. The novel thus comments on, and reflects, the quality of being shaped in part by an audience’s desire.

But if art is depicted as malleable, narrative—and specifically storytelling—also play a role in keeping memories alive and in laying them to rest. A number of Dickens’s works warn of the dangers of forgetting. The Haunted Man suggests that one can be whole only by remembering the bad as well as the good; Little Dorrit’s motto, “Do Not Forget,” asserts the tortuous necessity of bad memories, both as a means of punishing the evil doer and of bringing about reparation for his deeds. The end of The Old Curiosity Shop, however, is about the dangers of obsessive remembering. The narrative continues beyond Nell’s death, circling around her image, in various attempts to come to terms with it. While Humphrey wants to survive in the minds of the living, for Nell’s survivors such presence is a kind of nightmare, leading to obsessive repetition that only death can end. The single gentleman accordingly begins an endless retreading of the path taken by Nell and her grandfather. As long as Nell’s image remains in the minds of those who knew her, the narrative can do nothing, it seems, but pursue it. Her grandfather returns repeatedly to the “places of last sorrow,” finally dying on Nell’s gravestone. The grave itself becomes a site for storytelling.

The service done, the mourners stood apart, and the villagers closed round to look into the grave before the pavement-stone should be replaced. One called to mind how he had seen her sitting on that very spot, and how her book had fallen on her lap, and she was gazing with a pensive face upon the sky. Another told, how he had wondered much that one so delicate as she, should be so bold; how she had never feared to enter the church alone at night.…A whisper went about among the oldest there, that she had seen and talked with angels. (658)

When Nell arrives at the churchyard which is to be her final destination, her appointed task is to guide tours, as she did for Mrs. Jarley—to recite the “personal histories” of the dead as instructed by the character known only as the “bachelor.” (Like the other unnamed bachelors in the book, he evokes the absent Humphrey, who has similarly renounced his own history for the histories of others.) The bachelor is the historian of the churchyard, the preserver and in fact creator of its biographies, for in this churchyard only certain kinds of stories are permitted. Here, as Nell’s grandfather says, “there are no dreams” (504); it is “another world, where sin and sorrow never came; a tranquil place of rest, where nothing evil entered” (498). And to maintain it as such, the bachelor “would have had every stone and plate of brass, the monument only of deeds whose memory should survive” (497). He

was not one of those rough spirits who would strip fair Truth of every little shadowy vestment in which time and teeming fancies loved to array her—and some of which became her pleasantly enough, serving, like the waters of her well, to add new graces to the charms they half conceal and half suggest.…[H]e trod with a light step and bore with a light hand upon the dust of centuries, unwilling to demolish any of the airy shrines that had been raised above it, if one good feeling or affection of the human heart were hiding thereabouts. (496–97)

Indeed, the bachelor’s storytelling principle resembles Humphrey’s. “We are alchemists who would extract the essence of perpetual youth from dust and ashes, tempt coy Truth in many light and airy forms from the bottom of her well, and discover one crumb of comfort or one grain of good in the commonest and least regarded matter that passes through our crucible” (MHC, 11). Thus the bachelor amends the stories of those whose graves he tends, so that, for example, “in the case of an ancient coffin of rough stone, supposed for many generations to contain the bones of a certain baron, who [ravaged] with cut, and thrust, and plunder, in foreign lands…the bachelor stoutly maintained that the old tale was the true one; that the baron, repenting him of the evil, had done great charities and meekly given up the ghost” (497). The bachelor valorizes narrative that softens and idealizes its object, surrounding it with fictions, and truth lies in the ameliorated story rather than the germ of fact at its core. Dickens dedicated The Old Curiosity Shop, it is worth recalling, to the poet Samuel Rogers, with particular reference to his poem “The Pleasures of Memory.” In more fundamental ways, as I suggested earlier, the novel undertakes to replace unhappy memories with pleasant ones. Yet the insistence on burial and repression in both the bachelor’s and Humphrey’s formulations makes that transformation a disturbing one, an evasion rather than a working through, replacing the novel’s principle of contrast—its alternation of good and evil, turmoil and tranquility—with an ideal of narrative, and death, as endless happy stories.[16]

Philip Rogers has argued that the novel forces Nell to acknowledge the grim reality of death through the character of the old sexton, who compels her to look down a dry well, which he calls a grave.[17] But truth’s well, as both Humphrey and the bachelor describe it, is hardly so dark and forbidding, and the sexton seems to limit his willingness to face “reality” to the realities of others. “[H]ow strange,” thinks Nell, “that this old man, drawing from his pursuits…one stern moral, never contemplated its application to himself” (493). Rogers claims that the novel rejects the bachelor’s approach, pointing out that the bachelor turns out to be Mr. Garland’s brother, and that the Garlands’ idyllic life represents another “fearful evasion” of “the decaying world Nell faces” (143). But it was Dickens’s stated intention to “substitute a garland of fresh flowers for the sculptured horrors that disgrace the tomb,”[18] and though Rogers is certainly correct about the Garlands’ evasiveness, Dickens himself, in his desire to remember the dead frequently and with pleasure, resembles Humphrey and the Garlands more than he does the hypocritical sexton.

Only Kit, in the novel’s last moments, suggests a way of ending its preoccupation with Nell’s image, of laying the past to rest. Returning to the spot that generated the novel—the site of the curiosity shop—he stages what can be read as a commentary on the process of the narrative itself. The shop is gone, and “at first he would draw with his stick a square upon the ground to show them where it used to stand. But he soon became uncertain of the spot, and could only say that it was thereabouts, and that these alterations were confusing. Such are the changes which a few years bring about, and so do things pass away, like a tale that is told!” (671–72). Curiosity again misses its mark; narrative, it seems, can only express desire, and then nostalgia, for its object. The “tale” does not pass away—we have it before us—but the image that gave rise to it can begin to dissolve, and be replaced, through storytelling. Employing Nell’s image as a lesson for the future, rather than as an unattainable reality, Kit tells a tale that manages to subordinate the past to the present and to separate Nell’s image from his own. He tells his children

how she had gone to Heaven, as all good people did; and how, if they were good like her, they might hope to be there too one day.…Then he would relate to them how needy he used to be, and how she had taught him what he was otherwise too poor to learn, and how the old man had been used to say ‘she always laughs at Kit;’ at which they would brush away their tears, and laugh to themselves to think that she had done so, and be again quite merry. (671)

Kit’s mode of storytelling might serve as a model for the reader, or for Dickens’s own “working through.” Treating Nell as his children must—as legend—he incorporates her story into and subordinates it to his own, so that their tears are replaced (rather than displaced) by laughter. Though narrative might be said always to involve self-displacement—the disappearance of the narrating self—this story tells significantly of Nell and Kit, no longer of the pursuit of a fantasy Nell. Only such a story, one might argue, can successfully end the novel. Perhaps most important, Kit’s story conveys a sense that present and continuing life outweighs past sorrows. Rather than sustaining Nell’s image, the children’s tears seem to disperse it, and the narrative itself finally seems subordinate to the life that goes on around it, learns from it, and will continue beyond it.


1. A. Dwight Culler, ed., The Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold (Boston: Riverside, 1961), p. 245. Subsequent references are included in the text.

2. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 57.

3. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), pp. 177–78.

4. See, for example, Gabriel Pearson, “The Old Curiosity Shop,” in John Gross and Gabriel Pearson, eds., Dickens and the Twentieth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962): “The reason why Nell offends more notoriously than Oliver is that so much significance is being read into her, and all so unsupported by anything she does or suffers. Ultimately, like Oliver, she remains a blank.…But, unlike Oliver, a great deal is being claimed for her, by lyrical commentary, by other characters, and by a structure that treats her death as a climax” (79). For reviews of Old Curiosity Shop criticism, see George Ford, Dickens and His Readers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), pp. 59–71; and Loralee MacPike, “The Old Cupiosity Shape,” Dickens Studies Newsletter 12 (1981): 33–38 and 70–76.

5. See Garis, The Dickens Theatre; J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957); Stoehr, Dickens: The Dreamer’s Stance; Garrett, The Victorian Multiplot Novel; and Maxwell, “Dickens’s Omniscience.”

6. Preface to the first volume of Master Humphrey’s Clock, in Edwin Drood and Master Humphrey’s Clock, vol. 33 of The Works of Charles Dickens, National Edition (London: Chapman and Hall, 1908), p. 338. All subsequent quotations from the preface are drawn from this edition and will be identified in the text by the word “preface” immediately preceding a page number. References to the text of Master Humphrey’s Clock are to the Oxford edition (see Note on Editions) and are identified in the text by the abbreviation MHC.

7. Steven Marcus, Dickens: From Pickwick to Dombey (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965), p. 160. Subsequent references are included in the text.

8. Richard O. Allen sees this process as characteristic of sentimentality: “If You Have Tears: Sentimentalism as Soft Romanticism,” Genre 8 (1975): 119–45.

9. For discussions of the relationship between self-projection and the desire that generates narrative, see René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965); and Angela S. Moger, “That Obscure Object of Narrative,” Yale French Studies 63 (1982): 139–48.

10. The need to “detect the child’s step from the man’s” is significant. In Master Humphrey’s Clock, Humphrey speaks of wandering about his house and hearing in his own footsteps “the light step of some lovely girl” (5).

11. The novel’s sexual undertones have received much attention. See, for example, Meredith Skura, The Literary Uses of the Psychoanalytic Process (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 113–24 and 190–99.

12. See “The Mirror Stage” and “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” both in Ecrits, as well as Anika Lemaire’s Jacques Lacan (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), ch. 7. “In the other, in the mirror image, in his mother, the child sees nothing but a fellow with whom he merges, with whom he identifies” (Lemaire, p. 78). “It is in this erotic relation [between the ego and its two objects], in which the human individual fixes upon himself an image that alienates him from himself . . .” (Lacan, p. 19).

13. In “Relationships of Person in the Verb” and “Subjectivity in Language” (both in Problems of General Linguistics), Benveniste discusses the use of the third person to express detachment and non-being: “the third person is not a ‘person’; it is really the verbal form whose function it is to express the ‘non-person’ ” (198). For Benveniste, self-consciousness exists only in relation to an “other,” and the subjective self comes into being only through alienation: “Consciousness of self is only possible if it is experienced by contrast” (224).

14. See the discussion of this scene by Robert Newsom in “The Hero’s Shame,” Dickens Studies Annual 11 (1983): 12–14.

15. See Ford, Dickens and His Readers, ch. 4.

16. “Contrast” is a frequent topic in the criticism, one which Dickens himself invites: “Everything in our lives, whether of good or evil, affects us most by contrast” (493). For an example, see A. E. Dyson, “The Old Curiosity Shop: Innocence and the Grotesque,” in A. E. Dyson, ed., Dickens: Modern Judgements (London: Macmillan, 1968): 59–81.

17. Philip Rogers, “The Dynamics of Time in The Old Curiosity Shop,” Nineteenth Century Fiction 28 (1973): 127–44.

18. The phrase comes from a speech given in Edinburgh (25 June 1841):

When I first conceived the idea of conducting that simple story to its termination, I determined rigidly to adhere to it, and never to forsake the end I had in view. Not untried in the school of affliction, in the death of those we love, I thought what a good thing it would be if in my little work of pleasant amusement I could substitute a garland of fresh flowers for the sculptured horrors that disgrace the tomb. If I have put into my book anything which can fill the young mind with better thoughts of death, or soften the grief of older hearts; if I have written one word which can afford pleasure or consolation to old or young in time of trial, I shall consider it as something achieved—something which I shall be glad to look back upon in after life.

Omniscience and Curiosity in The Old Curiosity Shop

Preferred Citation: Jaffe, Audrey. Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.