Fate is a beautiful concept the more one considers the effects of such a notion. Indeed, in America the general consensus or ideal is that Independence is King. Our ability to control our own fate is the never-ending task of the American. We work so as to create more disposable income and consequently control our small worlds. This independent spirit is rooted in the supposed universal truth that complete freedom is man’s chief end — to do anything you so desire on any whim is the pinnacle of modern man’s achievement. And yet one cannot help but notice that in our world it is, generally speaking, those who attempt to control everything who are in the worst of humors because, in the end, we live in a highly chaotic, capricious world inhabited by a motley group of fantastic creatures. Our seeming ability to control our lives is often met with what appears to be haphazard randomness, and it is not until we accept this chaos as preordained that we find peace. This is what I learned after reading Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and meeting Mr. Richard Swiveller.
The Old Curiosity Shop is the second of Dickens’ novels that I would have to categorize as his “loosely structured” story lines. It is fitting that as Dickens creates fate out of randomness he does so with one of the more random plot lines I’ve read. The narrator of the first three chapters has no business residing in the novel at all, and once the Old Man and Nell take off into the great unknown, the novel is split and heads off in two very different directions — one being quite comical and the other a dreary walk to the grave. I had, as a reader, such a hard time of it switching back and forth between the two extremes that I eventually found myself trudging through the parts with Nell and the Old Man and longing to see Dick Swiveller’s name commencing a chapter. All of it created for me little sympathy for Nell’s fate, for she was merely three dimensional; Swiveller was from a different world.
All great English Literature, be it Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Dickens, creates a commentary in its work as the lower-class is often portrayed as the logical characters who approach life with the correct perspective, while the upper-class is stuck in their own egotistical bubbles, unable to assess things for what they truly are as only a poor person can. The Old Curiosity Shop is no different, though there does appear to be far less commentary occurring than in other works. Dickens, in my humble opinion, expresses the reasonable sentiment of the poor through three major characters, each responding to their fate in a variety of ways. Through all this, Dickens has once again painted a romantic picture of the poor. They are the heroes of the novel. It is the poor who move the plot, who expose evil, who, most importantly, make us laugh. The poor can live in another world because theirs is nothing special, and even with what little they do have they cherish, and huts become castles.
Chesterton expresses fate in these terms.
Nothing is important except the fate of the soul; and literature is only redeemed from an utter triviality… by the fact that it describes not the world around us, or the things on the retina of the eye, or the enormous irrelevancy of encyclopedias, but some condition to which the human spirit can come.
The fate of the soul is merely a literary element regarding little Nell but becomes visible to us through the character of Dick Swiveller. Nell dies, and though Dickens struggled to “murder” her, I was able to conjure no sympathy for her in the end. Certainly she had to die for the novel to make any sense or have any sort of literary value. But Nell was merely a symbol in my opinion. The neglect she has at the beginning of the novel and throughout its pages function to me as commentary on poor treatment towards women. (Many of the female characters are poorly treated or disregarded entirely by men in this novel.) She consequently does not have that spiritual quality other characters that Dickens creates have. I might have wept had Sophronia Sphynx perished, for she was a sprite indeed. This is where the novel kept losing its steam. Nell as a symbol is preachy; Swiveller as an elf is something else entirely, requiring us to act. It is as if he was writing two novels in this book: one purely symbolic with cardboard people like Nell, the other full of fairies and gargoyles. I enjoyed the latter far better.
In the end, Nell’s character is frustrating because of her passivity to her fate. While Kit, the second of our three poor protagonists, does not accept his fate but like Macbeth seems to cry out “come fate into the list / And champion me to the utterance!” Kit does not merely accept what fate has thrown his way but functions as a mover and shaker in the story. He never loses the insatiable desire to make things right, to search for and find Nell. These two characters were extremes in this way. Nell accepts her poverty and eventual death like one accepts the fact that rain has canceled their picnic. There is nothing they can do about it but wait for another sunny day. And this is why we may not feel for Nell in the end. She left nothing behind but an Old Man who was bound to follow her soon anyways. Dickens even presents her fate in a positive light compared to what she went through in life.
Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.
Her hard life is thus contrasted with a peaceful rest, and it is difficult to feel much emotion in lieu of it.
While Nell accepts her fate as one might the weather, Kit does not. Kit, though not the hero, is the one character who moves the plot more than any other. He becomes the sole messenger between the single gentleman who is searching for Nell, and he is the one asked to go along with that single gentleman after they discover Nell’s whereabouts the first time. The agitation that arises within him is perceived through his own actions in the effort to get his mom out of a church service. But for all his moving and shaking, Kit in the end becomes another helpless character at the mercy of the true hero in the novel, Dick Swiveller.
Swiveller may be the lone character who actually questions the idea of fate and what he is to do with it. Swiveller, who I believe is the first Micawber (albeit, much more musical), is the young bachelor who never proceeded to grow up. Swiveller takes fate and, instead of completely embracing it at a stoic level or fruitlessly fighting against it, plays with it. Swiveller functions as the optimistic character that Dickens chooses to place in the worst situations. Tommy Traddles and Wilkins Micawber function as such in David Copperfield, and Herbert Pocket takes the role in Great Expectations. Swiveller is introduced as the potential suitor for little Nell, and liking this proposition, proceeds in its being carried out only to remember suddenly that he is already in love, and to one Sophy Wackles, who is nearly divine.
“She’s all my fancy painted her, sir, that’s what she is,” said Mr. Swiveller… “She is lovely, she’s divine”… “between Miss Sophia Wackles and the humble individual who now has the honor to address you, warm and tender sentiments have been engendered, sentiments of the most honourable and inspiring kind. The Goddess Diana, sir, that calls aloud for the chase, is not more particular in her behavior than Sophia Wackles; I can tell you that.”
But Swiveller decides to go through with the intention on marrying Nell and decides “to pick a quarrel with Miss Wackles without delay, and casting about for a pretext determine[s] in favour of groundless jealousy.” Swiveller proceeds to a dinner that very night to carry out the action. Unknown to poor Swiveller, Miss Wackle’s mother’s dislike for him is due to his showing no intentions whatsoever in regards to wedding Sophia; thus, they plot a ruse to make Swiveller jealous by inviting another gentleman, Mr. Cheggs, to the ball. This being what Swiveller was looking for, he, of course, did not expect to actually find it.
Hereupon Miss Sophy blushed, and Mr Cheggs (who was bashful before ladies) blushed too, and Miss Sophy’s mother and sisters, to prevent Mr Cheggs from blushing more, lavished civilities and attentions upon him, and left Richard Swiveller to take care of himself. Here was the very thing he wanted, here was good cause, reason and foundation for pretending to be angry; but having this cause, reason and foundation which he had come expressly to seek, not expecting to find, Richard Swiveller was angry in sound earnest, and wondered what the devil Cheggs meant by his impudence.
As in most cases when these events happen, Swiveller actually became jealous, conceding at once that he would follow through with the plan to marry Nell.
“There’s one good thing springs out of all this,” said Richard Swiveller to himself when he had reached home and was hanging over the candle with the extinguisher in his hand, “which is, that I now go heart and soul, neck and heels, with Fred in all his scheme about little Nelly, and right glad he’ll be to find me so strong upon it. He shall know all about that tomorrow, and in the mean time, as it’s rather late, I’ll try and get a wink or two of the balmy.”
Not even halfway through the novel, the alert reader can guess that this scheme will fall through as does Swiveller who begins at once to address fate after “falling into” employment with Brass and his sister, two antagonists in the novel.
As he was entirely alone, it may be presumed that, in these remarks Mr Swiveller addressed himself to his fate or destiny, whom, as we learn by the precedents, it is the custom of heroes to taunt in a very bitter and ironical manner when they find themselves in situations of an unpleasant nature. This is the more probable from the circumstance of Mr Swiveller directing his observations to the ceiling, which these bodily personages are usually supposed to inhabit — except in theatrical cases, when they live in the heart of the great chandelier.
“Quilp offers me this place, which he says he can insure me,” resumed Dick after a thoughtful silence, and telling off the circumstances of his position, one by one, upon his fingers; “Fred, who, I could have taken my affidavit, would not have heard of such a thing, backs Quilp to my astonishment, and urges me to take it also — staggerer, number one. My aunt in the country stops the supplies, and writes an affectionate note to say that she has made a new will, and left me out of it — staggerer number two. No money; no credit; no support from Fred, who seems to turn steady all at once; notice to quit the old lodgings — staggerers three, four, five, and six. Under an accumulation of staggerers, no man can be considered a free agent. No man knocks himself down; if his destiny knocks him down, his destiny must pick him up again. Then I’m very glad that mine has brought all this upon itself, and I shall be as careless as I can, and make myself at home to spite it. So go on, my buck,” said Mr Swiveller, taking his leave of the ceiling with a significant nod, “and let us see which of us will be tired first!”
Dismissing the subject of his downfall with these reflections, which were no doubt very profound, and are indeed not altogether unknown in certain systems of moral philosophy, Mr Swiveller shook off his despondency and assumed the cheerful ease of an irresponsible clerk.
This speech is Swiveller’s grand way of taking his fate and making the best of it. Truly, it plays as a great turning point for him in the novel. He begins to grow up, and his fate starts to turn. Even after the beautiful Miss Wackles becomes Mrs. Cheggs and Swiveller embraces a despondency in the playing of a flute, he meets with a new friend, the Marchioness. He never loses his innate goodness as a character and begins viewing his situation beyond the external reality. Swiveller is able in this time of his life to suspend his natural senses and view his situation at a spiritual level. He is caught up not in the novel Dickens has created but a story within a story that Dickens had no intention of inventing. It is fitting after he has reached an all-time low in the new knowledge of Mrs. Cheggs that he begins playing cribbage with his new friend the Marchioness. Life has once again dealt him a new hand, and he proceeds the only way he knows creating a new story and giving the poorest and most helpless character in the novel a grand title: the wife of a marquis. Poverty and singleness have no power over Swiveller but are mere boundaries to an unlimited plot. Due to this, no character does more good in the second half of the novel than Swiveller, and perhaps his climatic deed comes in the form of a gift of beer and a short letter to the imprisoned Kit.
“Drink this cup. You’ll find there’s a spell in its every drop ‘gainst the ills of mortality. Talk of the cordial that sparkled for Helen! Her cup was a fiction, but this is reality (Barclay & Co.’s). If they ever send it in a flat state, complain to the Governor. Yours, R.S.”
Swiveller is a great lesson in character for all of us. Everything bad happens to him, and he has the dilemma to challenge his fate head on or despair, yet the novel shows him play with it, making the best of ill situations. Indeed, it is impossible in the end to overcome our fate, but this does not rule out our own responsibility. A paradox understood by Swiveller who does the most good with the little resources he has. Swiveller does not just “make lemonade” out of his lemons, but transforms them into something else entirely. His character has taught me, in my usual restlessness, that it matters not whether you are in a time of great poverty or trying tribulations. It does not matter so much whether you find yourself in a state of melancholy or even some poor, lame Midwestern state. It does not matter so much what you do or where you do it, but how you can make a fantasy out of the chaotic world in which you have been placed.