Thursday, January 6, 2011

To anyone who doesn't know that Little Nell dies in the end: don't read this post. . .Whoops.

I once read a definition of tragedy and comedy.   I feel like it must've been G.K. Chesterton, but I'm also attaching Walter Scott to it, so I don't know.  The definition was simply this: in tragedy, the reader (or viewer) is constantly thinking, "They're going to make it; they're going to make it."  In the end, they do not make it.  Comedy is just the opposite.  I can cite certain examples of this, though it is far from a comprehensive definition.  A good example of this type of tragedy (let us call it a type, rather than a definition) is Romeo & Juliet.  It is one of the most famous love stories, so I'll not recap anything for the reader.  But imagine it was not so famous or imagine that you were one of the first viewers of the tragedy.  I believe the real power of the play comes from the feeling given throughout.  It is not so much that the viewer wants the young lovers to escape and be together forever, but that the story itself seems to indicate that they--if not ought to escape--will.  The fact that they don't should come as a shock.  Anyone who fancies themselves an expert on Shakespeare can disagree with me if you like.  I'm admittedly far from an expert.
Little Nell is the girl, not the old man.
An author I am--Well, perhaps not an "expert" per se, but I at least know more than the average reader.  I'll say again, slightly amended, one author I do know quite a bit about is Charles Dickens.  I also know quite a few people--literary types--who roll their eyes at the name, but the fact remains, despite their rolling eyes, that Dickens stands taller than any other figure in English literature, save the Bard himself.  And anyone who knows any substantial amount about Dickensian literature knows the controversy over Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop.
There is nothing exactly wrong with the character of Little Nell.  For those familier with Dickensian literature, she is fairly standard.  The innocently good--beyond-belief-good--character is seen throughout the works of Dickens and the works of many authors inspired by him.  Some other examples include, Oliver Twist, Paul Dombey, Tiny Tim, Agnes Wickfield, and even Little Dorrit.  Chesterton had a theory that Dickens based this character on someone he knew.  Perhaps it was his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, whom Dickens was quite attached to and was heartbroken when she died young.  Some theorize that he was in love with her.  We'll only ever have speculation on that end.  Little Nell is considered by most to be based on her, though I have see nothing from Dickens explicitly saying this.  Another theory is that it was some child he knew while working in the blacking factory who he became friends with.  Some child who died.  Dickens did not enjoy talking about those times and we know little more than he tells us.  All I know is, he wrote many characters in this style and most of them die young.  (An interesting exception is Agnes, who is of this ilk, but does not die; whereas, Dora Copperfield, née Spenlow, does die young, but is not of this type of character.  She represents young love and is based on a girl Dickens' admired as a young man.  I will perhaps post further about Dora, Agnes, and their parallel characters from Little Dorrit.)
Of course, with all this talk of people dying, it is probably made clear that Little Nell dies.  This is where the controversy arises.  At the time, people all over the world were devastated by the news.  We've all heard the story of people in New York City flooding the docks to ask sailors from England, who might have read the last installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, if Nell had lived.  At the time it was considered a truly moving tragedy.
That opinion has become part of a heavy debate among Dickensians as well as foes of Dickens.  I won't go so far as to agree with Oscar Wilde and say that her death should incite tears of laughter, but I will say that her death seems out of place with the story.  It seems forced.
Perhaps that is because Dickens didn't have her death planned until later in the book, after he'd heard that his fans expected it.  Now, if there's one thing Dickens liked to do, it was please his fans.  He loved his readers and they loved him for it.  Now, it's also possible that Dickens didn't ever plan on keeping her alive.  I've only just tonight heard that he had planned it, but haven't found the evidence for it yet.  Either way, there is a definitive shift in the novel where one begins to expects Nell to die.  Not because the story calls for it, but the attitude of the author seems to change.  He begins to treat her with something more than pity, which he holds for her throughout the novel.  It's not so much that this aura isn't there, as it is the question of whether it should be or not.  Little Nell dies, yes, but should she?  She seems a makeshift tragic heroine.
Now, I realize this was Dickens first real attempt at tragedy--the books before this were comedies expect for Oliver Twist--and Nell death is not going to be as masterfully done as, say, Sydney Carton.  His was a truly moving death.  Nell's death, however, seems pointless.  She dies at the end simply to die, as a sacrifice to the bloodthirsty author--Dickens killed people with the indifference of a pagan god.  He clearly improved as an author, and despite Little Nell, The Old Curiosity Shop is filled with a wide cast of wonderfully done characters--customers, I almost want to say.  It's hard to find a better villain in all of Dickens' novels than Daniel Quilp, and Dick Swiveller is one of the most lovable of Dickens' rascals.  Also, I know that regardless of my, and many people's, opinion that Little Nell should have lived, people will still read The Old Curiosity Shop and cry at the end.  That's fine.  For the sake of honesty, I'll admit it: I cried at the end too.


  1. I read an adaptation of "The Old Curiosity Shop" for teenagers when I was around 12. Same thing happened with "Oliver Twist" and "David Copperfield". But I never got around to reading "The Old..." for real - even though I have it. Now I probably won't be able to feel the full force of Nell's death when I do read it... damn. I love crying at the end of a book! (Is that crazy talk?)

    (At least the adaptation was faithful to the original version. Some adaptations change the story, in order not to shock the children: in the one I read of "Little Women", Beth DIDN'T die, and in "Jane Eyre", Mr. Rochester didn't lose his hand nor his eyesight!)

    I think Lucie Manette also fits the girl-good-beyond-belief-who-dies-young exception. I wouldn't have minded though - she's just so annoying...

  2. Well, I knew she died when I read it. I was at a cross between crying and rolling my eyes. The Old Curiosity Shop is enjoyable for the most part, but it's that one thing that depending on the person, makes or breaks the book.
    I don't really see the point of making children's versions of books. A hundred years ago, most people read Dickens when they were little kids. Granted, I'm sure David Copperfield wasn't their first book, but we don't have enough faith in our children, I think. That being said, why would they change things like Jane Eyre? When the child grows up it's just going to be so much worse when they read the actual version. Also, we need to stop censoring books for children. Like how they're censoring Mark Twain now. Either don't let them read it till they're older or stop complaining.
    As for Lucie Manette, I didn't find her annoying. She didn't really incite any feelings from me. I felt for her in so much as I felt for Carton and was somewhat forced to care about things he cares about. Other than that, I kind of forget about her.

  3. You know, I kinda like those versions for children. The language in many of the classics can be somewhat complicated for a child. I read versions of the Odissey and the Iliad when I was around 10, and that made me wanna read the whole book later. Same thing with Dickens and even Shakespeare. I know many grown-ups who give up on reading certain books cause they find the writing style difficult to read.
    This censoring Mark Twain is ridiculous... they're doing the very same with a Brazilian author - whom, by the way, everyone here read as as a child, without being scarred or growing up to be racists. I just don't know what's gotten into people lately...
    And yes, Lucie Manette can be quite forgetable, specially with Carson and Madame Defarge around!

  4. I can see the point to making child versions of certain books, but then I read something like Mill's autobiography and he talks about reading Aesop's Fables, Anabasis, and all of Herodotus by the time he was eight, in Greek. And people like C.S. Lewis who was learning Latin when he was five. Seems like we're not asking much from kids these days. Of course, those two might not be the best example of the average mind, despite their own humble opinions of themselves.
    As for Mark Twain, it's only one publisher that censoring Huck Finn, as far as I know. But from the outraged people I've talked to you'd think they were going around and burned uncensored copies. I'm sure whatever publishing company that's doing it will see the error of their ways soon.
    What Brazilian author are they censoring?

  5. Well, they're censoring Monteiro Lobato, the first guy to have ever written children's books here in Brazil. Many people have been complaining of his portrayal of black people - much the same way, apparently, some complain of Twain's Jim in Huck Finn.
    LOL, I agree we underestimate children nowadays, but... I don't know, you should see the kids I have to teach. They're all so lazy! They don't wanna think at all! Teaching Literature to teenagers is haaaaaard...

  6. I've never heard of him. But that doesn't surprise me. I've not branched off into South American authors yet. My reading isn't as cosmopolitan as I'd like it to be.
    Teenagers are probably one of things I hate the most. When I was a teenager I thought I'd like to teach literature in high school, but now the thought of dealing with them all day--I just couldn't do it. And, of course, you've got to start early with kids. By the time they're teenagers, it's very hard to change them.

  7. Exactly like me. When I was 16, 17, I decided I was gonna be a high school Literature teacher.
    I taught Literature, Portuguese and Writing for junior high and high school - and the tohought of doing that again scares the hell out of me. If they haven't started as kids, it's too late.
    Once, I had the following dialog with a 16-year-old:
    Teenager: "Instead of reading it, can't I just watch the movie?"
    Me: "...there's no movie."
    Teenager: "What do you mean, 'no movie'?"
    Me: "................I mean nobody's ever made a movie based on this book."
    Teenager: "Wow. Then it's not worth watching. So it's probably not worth reading either."
    Yeah, I'm done with Literature for teenagers...

  8. When I hear stories like that I'm reminded of why I hate teenagers so much. Granted, I was a teenager seven years ago, but I've turned into a crotchety old man within that time. I have no patience for them now.

  9. Ha, same here. I was a teenager some 7 years ago; but my 82-year-old grandmother has always called me "an old lady" - since I was 14, 15! She thought that staying home reading on the porch was not "young enough". She felt I needed to go to nighclubs more often!
    Some people are born old, I guess.

  10. I don't see anything wrong with that kind of lifestyle. I spend most of my days at home reading and watching movies. But now that I'm married, I'm allowed to be boring, right?

  11. LOL, totally right! Lucky you - people tell me that I should party more, just cause I'm single. Sighs...

  12. I've never had people telling me I should party. I was never friends with party-goers. I rarely even went to bars as a young lad, and now, of course, I never do.

  13. Lucky you. And btw: "as a young lad"? LOL, you're my age, don't make me feel old!

  14. I feel older than I am, I suppose.