There are two ways to interpret this one. I could choose a book that captures the essence of the tragic and succeeds as a tear-jerker. Alternately, I could choose a book that’s simply dreadful, that’s somehow offensive and makes one weep for the future of the human race. Not wanting to be excessively negative, I’ll go with the first interpretation.
You can learn a lot more about humanity from bad books than from good ones. If you read a great piece of literature, you might, for instance, learn a lot about Danish Princes struggling to avenge their father’s death at the hands of their uncle. The truth is, though, that such people are rather thin on the ground. If you read a bad book such as The Old Curiosity Shop you may not get much depth. It may be a load of pure emotional manipulation. But it certainly tells you a lot about how people are manipulated.
At its core, The Old Curiosity Shop is about a young girl and her elderly grandfather, who are driven out of house and home by a greedy dwarf named Quilp. Little Nell and her plight are crafted by Dickens with the sole intention of pumping tears. Quilp is a villain with no redeeming qualities, existing only to provoke outrage. None of the minor characters are in any way more honest or three-dimensional. So The Old Curiosity Shop is, by common measures, a bad book, yet it is one of the best bad books ever written.
The adventures of Nell and her grandfather while on the road could easily have been dull, yet they are not. Dickens exerts ever ounce of creative energy to fill the book with local color and life. The two main characters encounter a traveling troupe of midgets and another of giants, a wax museum, and many other unique things. While so many authors struggle to come up with even one memorable encounter during a travelogue, Dickens turns them out with seeming ease. He also mixes quiet episodes in with the colorful ones. A simple scene where Nell and her grandfather stop at a farmhouse and the farmer’s wife tends Nell’s blistered foot is overpowering with its depiction of simple kindness.
The book is weepy and sentimental from start to finish, but it teaches us what we should weep at and feel sentimental about. Like everything Dickens wrote, it is an affirmation of the values common to all good people: charity, kindness, honesty, friendship, family, and love. The scene with the farmer’s wife captures the essence of of what it means to love one another. Nell’s plight overall informs us that all children deserve a good and stable place to grow up. Quilp’s vileness, though in some ways unfortunate, also conveys the true fact that capitalism and business can twists a man into a disgusting shape. There is, in short, much to learn from The Old Curiosity Shop before reaching the answer to the question that mobs of New Yorkers at the docks asked when the final installment of the novel arrived from England: “Is Little Nell dead?”