Dickens' "Old Curiosity Shop" question (spoiler alert)

Although I doubt an alert is strictly necessary, because everyone who has heard of the book has also heard the Oscar Wilde quote: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” So everyone knows Nell dies at the end. But, why does she die at the end? Of course Quilp has to die at the end – this is a Victorian novel, all villainous characters must ultimately be punished. But in Nell’s case, she’s a good character, she and her grandfather make their way across England by begging and odd jobs, and finally they wind up in a pleasant village where they have good lodgings and Nell has a respectable job . . . and then she dies. No reason is given – her experiences to date might have damaged her health, but she has not displayed any sickness remarked upon before her death, and, more importantly, I cannot fathom the dramatic/narrative necessity of it.

Because it’s a tragedy. Dickens is going for an emotional effect that he couldn’t get from “happily ever after”. That’s kind of the point of maudlin sentimentality.

Welcome back, incidentally.


I think it has something to do with the way Nell and Quilp are set up as opposites. As Norrie Epstein, author of The Friendly Dickens, put it, “Quilp dies because he is evil, Nell because she is good.” (I’ll post more another time. I don’t have the book on me right now.)

On a related note–I always thought that quote was a touch hypocritical of Wilde. I mean, YOU certainly never did any tear-jerking in your children’s stories like “The Happy Prince,” did you, Oscar?

“A touch” hypocritical? If Wilde were living now, he would have invented click-bait. All he wanted was to be quoted, he didn’t care if anyone approved or not. Notoriety for his mordant wit was lifeblood to him.

As to the OP, it’s been years since I read it, but I thought that Nell was generally supposed to have been weakened by all the hardships of her early life, so much so that the slightest illness would carry her away.

Dramatically, try to imagine how ho-hum the book would have been without her dying in this way. It would have been the epitome of Miss Prism’s remark (to hearken back to Wilde) about her own revoltingly sentimental book: “The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Even Dickens can do better than that.

It’s on Gutenberg.

Thanks, but I mean Norrie Epstein’s book. She wrote both The Friendly Shakespeare and The Friendly Dickens, where she discusses the major works of both artists, with historical context of their times, interviews with scholars and actors, and movie recommendations.

She has interesting comments about Old Curiosity Shop, but I’ll have to post them when I’m back in my own home and have the book to hand.

Just when I thought I couldn’t love Wilde more…

As for why Little Nell died, it was because I was thoroughly sick of her at that point and was willing to kill her myself. I read most of Dickens (everything except his unfinished novel and "Sketches by Boz) a couple of years ago and *OCS *was absolutely the worst one of the bunch. At least Oliver Twist had a spectacular villain death scene.

I dunno…Nell’s more proactive than your usual Dickens ingenue. When Quilp has the pair trapped in the shop, she’s the one taking charge of the situation and getting them out of there. She is the one (IIRC) finding employment (with Mrs. Jarley’s waxworks) and making money while her grandfather does little more than dream and gamble.

As a side note–in the uncompleted Doctor Who episode Shada (with Tom Baker and Lalla Ward), the Doctor is reading from TOCS near the end. The passage he’s reading is from the scene where Nell’s death is revealed, with her grandfather, refusing to accept the fact, going through her things. “Her little homely dress–her favorite!”

I always thought it very telling indeed that the Doctor is reading the words of a devoted grandfather who wandered abroad with his granddaughter.

I vote for damage from malnutrition and exhaustion plus an opportunistic infection.

I think it’s in keeping with Dickens’ sympathy for the plight of the poor to have Nell die and for the same reason Roderick Femm mentions: she was weakened by the travails of her life (translation: If society was kinder to the poor, a good girl like Nell would have lived a long and happy life).

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Oscar Wilde

OMG! Baader-Meinhof effect in force! I heard this exact line in a show within the hour.