Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Obsessed with Quilp: Degrees of Villainy and the Dangers of Caricature

I remain pondering characterizations and the difficulty inherent in transcribing life and breath to the mathematical precision of binary code (keeping dark and dusty company with outdated software and superfluous files). Fingers poised over keys, I reflect on what essentially constitutes vigor and vitality within the physiological whole...having long been fascinated by evolutionary theories that detail the emergence of life in the primeval soup; the gradual aggregation of single-celled organisms to become something infinitely more complex than their individual parts might suggest. To my mind the writing endeavor draws upon similar rationale - we are, after all, concerned with essential attributes that constitute life. For, as writers, do we not need to strive for some intuitive understanding if we are to depict it in words? A few words will do. There are many eminent writers who, with minimal ink, paint a personality with the deftest of hand. Where is the magic that imbues a fictional character with that particular quality, the essence of which enables them to transcend the restraints of page and time? How does one seize that elusive quality for ones own?

I have ruminated on villainy before, and have concluded that shades of gray were a requisite insofar as rendering believable antagonists were concerned; that each (hero and villain) were made up of complicated parts that defied simplistic classification. Dwelling upon the thought, however, I am reminded of Quilp - in point of fact I am, quite unashamedly, obsessed with him; he seems the physical manifestation of the gloomy alleyways of mid-century that hold me enthralled.

Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop is the epitome of Dickensian nastiness in it's most repugnant form. He is a villain without virtue of any kind. The best introduction is that offered by the paternal pen: "..an elderly man of remarkably hard features and forbidding aspect, and so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for the body of a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly, and cunning; his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome. But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face, was a ghastly smile, which, appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connexion with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog." One can scarcely imagine a more repulsive creature - however, the quintessential horror of this character, of course, is not his physical appearance but his unmitigated commitment to the infliction of fear and torture on those infinitely more vulnerable than himself.

The half-grown beard, the grime, the 'ghastly smile' that belies inner malice, the disproportionate hat and shoes, the gigantic head and dwarfish body; his diminutive stature, reminiscent of the l'enfant terrible, startles us, and at every opportunity Dickens emphasizes the almost aggressive lack of decency and proportion that encapsulates our idea of the grotesque. Oft compared to one of the canine breed, he has a similar propensity to sprawl inappropriately on furniture, exhibiting the easy satisfaction of a 'doglike' smile prior, perhaps, to the bite; reminiscent of Hamlet: "That one may smile, and smile and be a villain." And Quilp's 'ghastly grin' is in perpetual evidence throughout the course of the narrative.

But Quilp is not simply an ugly gargoyle within the novel's architecture: his demonic energy not only embodies the novel's primum mobile,  but serves to extricate him from the literary clutches of caricature. Coleridge's description of Iago 'motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity' coincides with uncanny precision to Dickens' villain. The incentives that propel Quilp's actions throughout the narrative are of a varied multitude: lechery and avarice ostensibly prompt his pursuit of Nell and her grandfather; a resentful envy of Fred Trent's suspected relationship with Mrs Quilp accounts for his deception in regard to Fred and Dick; an increasingly intense and complicated jealousy of Kit drives the labyrinthine plot with the Brasses. But the sum total of these catalysts cannot fully account for the admixture of pure unmitigated glee with which Quilp savors his nefarious role. It is in this appetite for destruction that echoes of Shakespeare's master villains, Iago and the deformed Richard III, resound most strongly. The renowned actor Edmund Kean (two decades before The Curiosity Shop was written) enthralled audiences with his powerful portrayal of these characters: establishing the convention of playing these villains as monstrous intruders from the infernal regions, cackling with delight and rubbing their hands at the torments they inflict; an interpretation that remained the prevalent interpretation in theater for more than a century; no less apparent in Laurence Olivier's characterization in Richard III.

How much of Dickens' own dark side was incorporated into Quilp is an intriguing, if ultimately fruitless, source of speculation; that he was similarly beguiled by this particular creation is evident throughout the novel: as he nears the character's death, he writes "Quilp's last appearance on any stage...is casting its shadow upon my mind." Quilp takes his place, along with Iago and Richard III, as literature's most reprehensible of reprobates, without any appearance, however slight, of mitigating circumstances or features to soften his propensity to vice. The reader of The Curiosity Shop (and indeed it's author) remains transfixed by the dwarfish miscreant and the resultant tableau (largely provoked by his own manipulations) at the end of the novel. The tremendous success of this character forces me to re-examine degrees of villainy and acknowledge the presence and validity of the darkest kind.

The danger of shallow lampoonery is one strenuously to be avoided, and I ruminate on the manner in which Dickens and Shakespeare created these most malignant of malefactors without risk or recourse of caricature-reduction. These antiheroes avoid this literary fate precisely because of the expressive intensity with which they are described; there is a terrible motion about them, a demonic energy that stirs adjacent words on the page, a violent almost jerky charisma that is predominately absent in other characters within the narrative. Perhaps their resonance lies also in the malignant power with which they manipulate others in a tidal force of scheming unconstrained by moral or judicial law. As characters, as the vilest of villains, they are broadly open to all dramatic possibilities whereby the protagonist tends to be ethically compelled. Perhaps it is this frisson of uncertainty that excites us; perhaps it is when the hero is daubed with that darkness that they are also most engaging, as we, the reader, perceive that lines are being crossed (the extent to which remains ambiguous), distinctions are blurred, and tidy classifications eschewed. There is a dramatic power in the unpredictable, an anticipatory tension which enthralls and engages breathlessly onwards to the final resolution; a literary niche for the most grim of literary blackguards.


  1. PJ, your words will always surprised and mesmerize me. Though I'm not a huge fan of villains, your description of Quilp leaves me curious and wanting more. Amazing, like usual.

    1. Thank you Kathleen for your most appreciated visit, and so pleased that my humble offerings were of interest!

  2. Dear PJ,

    I am fascinated with villainy, because it represents everything I simply fear and secretly admire. I remember being told by one of my greatest role models, "hold your friends close, and your enemies closer." My favorite story of villainy is that of *Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.* There are no sidekicks to worry about here, we have everyone accounted for in one schizophrenic body (talk about 50 shades of gray!)

    According to the Literary Analysis of *The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde* in Wikipedia:

    "...This story represents a concept in Victorian culture, that of the inner conflict of humanity's sense of good and evil. In particular the novella has been interpreted as an examination of the duality of human nature (that good and evil exists in all), and that the failure to accept this tension (to accept the evil or shadow side) results in the evil being projected onto others...."

    It occurs to me that Shakespeare's Iago and Richard III, as well as Dickens' Quilp are formidable ogres in their own right, and they stand on their own in the realm of evil. However, Stevenson' Jekyll/Hyde follows in their footsteps with a folly foxtrot.

    1. Gorgeously put Shari! Yes the villains are engaging in an entirely different way - just the manner in which they are at liberty ethically and otherwise which lends a frisson of uncertainty to their actions...I am adding Dr. Jekyll to my must-read sooner than later list! Thank you so much for dropping in and for your insightful commentary.

  3. Very interesting!! I am studying the novel at university, mainly in relation to Quilp and disability - or deformity, and how it affects his position in society. I am mainly focusing upon the relationship between a corrupt body leading to a corrupt mind, but do you believe Quilp to be all bad?

    1. Thank you Laura for dropping in, and for your most interesting contribution - what a fascinating topic you have at hand! In regards to the degree of Quilp's villainy - I saw little redeeming features in him (perhaps the only slight softening- and even then did not prohibit recourse to physical violence- was his relationship with the young Tom Scott) - and at every event he simply delighted in the infliction of psychological torture. You are, however, studying the novel with all focused attention and I should be most interested to hear your conclusions when you are done! Thank you again for your visit to my humble musings.