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Father of Air - Daniel Quilp


Daniel Quilp


The Old Curiosity Shop

    s Little Nell is an adult woman trapped in a young girl's body, so Daniel Quilp is a man in boyish form. What's more, he is a fiendish man – the longest sustained dastardly man in all of Dickens' fiction. He takes great pleasure in tormenting his poor wife, Mrs. Betsy Quilp, both mentally and physically. He also hounds Little Nell to her death. So visceral is Quilp's delight in being sinister, immoral, vindictive, and utterly irredeemable, that many have seen in his creation Dickens' own venting of spleen – veiled and sanctioned as it is through literary invention. Much of the growing resentment Dickens felt for his wife Catherine and her insufferable mother it is said the author elaborated on, revelled in, and ultimately exorcised himself of, by way of the quill, in Quilp.


 Certainly, one doesn't need to share Quilp's cruel vituperation to recognize the great bulk of Dickens' heroes and heroines are dull, sullen, infuriatingly good, and finally expendable from the literary map. His hypocrites, eccentrics, and villains on the other hand, are among the author's finest and most memorable creations. Two such similar caricatures of cruelty are Edward and Jane Murdstone, whom Dickens' double David Copperfield openly admits he imagines as the evil characters in the books he reads. One author who read David Copperfield (in prison) and cherished its creator was Fyodor Dostoevsky, a man who knew something about the struggle of good and evil in a man's soul. When the Russian visited London in 1862, he paid a visit to the English author he considered a “great Christian” and found him in an expansive mood. From a letter written 16 years after the fact to a friend, Dostoevsky relates their candid shop talk:


“All the good simple people in his novels - Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge - are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity toward those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.

‘Only two people?’ I asked.”


 Certainly Dickens, the great Christian, could be cruel himself sometimes, prone to attacks of causeless enmity towards those unable to respond and who otherwise looked up to him for comfort and support, or was liable to shrink basely from those he otherwise professed tenderness and ought to have shown love. And so the fact that this kind of self-polarizing would be intrinsic to creativity makes perfect sense. Which is probably why this meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky was repeated and commented on for decades by biographers and scholars when in fact it never happened at all.


 The meeting it turns out was little more than a hoax, perpetrated and promulgated by an obscure figure whose motivations go as unexplained to this day as Iago's. Why the hoax worked is less obscure, if harder to admit – namely, it put into words something Dickens readers had long thought to be true. Simply put, it was something they wanted to be true. That said, it also speaks volumes about the intellectual laziness and self-authorized assumptions rampant in the ivory towers of scholarship.


 In the end, none of this is to say Dickens didn't at least in part create his evil characters from the man inside him who felt the opposite of how he ought to feel - anymore at any rate than it is to say he did. Similarly, Quilp, pursued by the civil authorities at The Old Curiosity Shop's end, disappears into the foggy night. And, as the author tells us, somewhere out there in the blackness and white, the dwarf fell off the foulness of his own scaffolding – Quilp's Wharf - and drowned in the murky Thames. Some suggest the dark subliminal aspects of the Water suit, festering in the visceral enmity seething in the lower depths of his being, ingurgitated him. Others - the court of inquest - rule that Quilp committed suicide. In a case of art imitating literary hoax, Dickens uses this erroneous court ruling to drive a stake through Quilp's heart and bury him at a crossroads.



Shorthand : quite an original turn of mind - relishes authority - resourceful - astute - relentless in pursuit of his quarry - contrived - severe - inconsistent of plan - an inveterate game player - too big for his britches - a Napoleon Complex - fan of modernity - a serviceable villain - deliberately cruel - calculating - sadistic - impersonal - capable of the utmost evil  - libidinous.


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