Dickens has all sorts of villains in his books, from some merely bad influences like Mr. Vholes from Bleak House, to dishonest clerks/employees like Uriah Heep of David Copperfield and John Carker of Dombey and Son, to criminals like Bill Sikes of Oliver Twist. Sometimes Dickens tries too hard, as with Blandois of Little Dorritt. Usually, he gives his villains very poetic ends, usually death by various means.
Today I'm going to write about what I consider Dickens' most entertaining villain, both in life and death: Mr. Quilp of The Old Curiosity Shop.
All that most people remember about TOCS today is the death of Little Nell, and specifically Oscar Wilde's remark about it: "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter." She dies "offstage", actually, but that's true of many Dickensian deaths.
Mr. Quilp is, essentially, an evil dwarf with a gusto for being an evil dwarf. He's not unlike Shakespeare's Richard III in many ways. I've not actually seen any movies or plays of this novel, but I came across this:
It looks like Anthony Newley played Quilp as a Richard III-like hunchback. Looking at the IMDB page, the shortest man to play Quilp in a movie thus far was 5'5" (my own height...I am not a dwarf.) Not only are most of the actors not short enough, they're generally not ugly enough. This guy comes close, though:
Peter Dinklage would make an awesome Quilp. He's too good-looking, but makeup can work wonders.
But back to the novelistic Quilp. Let's look at a description:
"I'm a little hunchy villain and a monster," says Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop. He's dirty, stubble-chinned, mis-shapen, grinning, cruel, full of energy and lust. He is habitually referred to by Dickens as "the dwarf" as though he were of a different species from men.
Quilp's favourite term for those he speaks to is "dog" and his favourite object of cruelty is his wife.
More than Bill Sikes he embodies violence: "I'll beat you with an iron rod, I'll scratch you with a rusty nail, I'll pinch your eyes, if you talk to me – I will." There's no livelier character in the whole of Dickens than Quilp.
I have Dickens characters I enjoy more than Quilp, but as villains go, he's the most enjoyable.
Yes, he is violent, but it's hard to take violence from him seriously -- he's so small and isn't really all that strong (a point on which later). But he is extremely intimidating to those around him. His cruelty is more of the psychological sort.
Early on in the novel, Quilp catches his wife having a hen party (orchestrated by his mother-in-law) to bitch about Quilp himself. Mrs. Quilp is not joining in on the criticism, though. She does, for some reason, actually love Quilp. Just the normal perversity of human nature, I guess. Quilp comes in unexpectedly and is found to have overheard the bitch session:
Now, the ladies being together under these circumstances, it was extremely natural that the discourse should turn upon the propensity of mankind to tyrannize over the weaker sex, and the duty that developed upon the weaker sex to resist that tyranny and assert their rights and dignity. It was natural for four reasons: firstly, because Mrs Quilp being a young woman and notoriously under the dominion of her husband ought to be excited to rebel; secondly, because Mrs Quilp's parent was known to be laudably shrewish in her disposition and inclined to resist male authority; thirdly, because each visitor wished to show for herself how superior she was in this respect to the generality of her sex; and fourthly, because the company being accustomed to scandalise each other in pairs, were deprived of their usual subject of conversation now that they were all assembled in close friendship, and had consequently no better employment than to attack the common enemy.
Moved by these considerations, a stout lady opened the proceedings by inquiring, with an air of great concern and sympathy, how Mr Quilp was; whereunto Mr Quilp's wife's mother replied sharply, 'Oh! He was well enough—nothing much was every the matter with him—and ill weeds were sure to thrive.' All the ladies then sighed in concert, shook their heads gravely, and looked at Mrs Quilp as a martyr.
'Ah!' said the spokeswoman, 'I wish you'd give her a little of your advice, Mrs Jiniwin'—Mrs Quilp had been a Miss Jiniwin it should be observed—'nobody knows better than you, ma'am, what us women owe to ourselves.'
'Owe indeed, ma'am!' replied Mrs Jiniwin. 'When my poor husband, her dear father, was alive, if he had ever ventured a cross word to me, I'd have—' The good old lady did not finish the sentence, but she twisted off the head of a shrimp with a vindictiveness which seemed to imply that the action was in some degree a substitute for words. In this light it was clearly understood by the other party, who immediately replied with great approbation, 'You quite enter into my feelings, ma'am, and it's jist what I'd do myself.'
'But you have no call to do it,' said Mrs Jiniwin. 'Luckily for you, you have no more occasion to do it than I had.'
'No woman need have, if she was true to herself,' rejoined the stout lady.
'Do you hear that, Betsy?' said Mrs Jiniwin, in a warning voice. 'How often have I said the same words to you, and almost gone down my knees when I spoke 'em!'
Poor Mrs Quilp, who had looked in a state of helplessness from one face of condolence to another, coloured, smiled, and shook her head doubtfully. This was the signal for a general clamour, which beginning in a low murmur gradually swelled into a great noise in which everybody spoke at once, and all said that she being a young woman had no right to set up her opinions against the experiences of those who knew so much better; that it was very wrong of her not to take the advice of people who had nothing at heart but her good; that it was next door to being downright ungrateful to conduct herself in that manner; that if she had no respect for herself she ought to have some for other women, all of whom she compromised by her meekness; and that if she had no respect for other women, the time would come when other women would have no respect for her; and she would be very sorry for that, they could tell her. Having dealt out these admonitions, the ladies fell to a more powerful assault than they had yet made upon the mixed tea, new bread, fresh butter, shrimps, and watercresses, and said that their vexation was so great to see her going on like that, that they could hardly bring themselves to eat a single morsel.
It's all very fine to talk,' said Mrs Quilp with much simplicity, 'but I know that if I was to die to-morrow, Quilp could marry anybody he pleased—now that he could, I know!'
The noise was at its height, and half the company had elevated their voices into a perfect shriek in order to drown the voices of the other half, when Mrs Jiniwin was seen to change colour and shake her forefinger stealthily, as if exhorting them to silence. Then, and not until then, Daniel Quilp himself, the cause and occasion of all this clamour, was observed to be in the room, looking on and listening with profound attention.
'Go on, ladies, go on,' said Daniel. 'Mrs Quilp, pray ask the ladies to stop to supper, and have a couple of lobsters and something light and palatable.'
'I—I—didn't ask them to tea, Quilp,' stammered his wife. It's quite an accident.'
'So much the better, Mrs Quilp; these accidental parties are always the pleasantest,' said the dwarf, rubbing his hands so hard that he seemed to be engaged in manufacturing, of the dirt with which they were encrusted, little charges for popguns. 'What! Not going, ladies, you are not going, surely!'
'Why an't you of your mother's way of thinking, my dear?' said the dwarf, turing round and addressing his wife, 'why don't you always imitate your mother, my dear? She's the ornament of her sex—your father said so every day of his life. I am sure he did.'
'Her father was a blessed creetur, Quilp, and worthy twenty thousand of some people,' said Mrs Jiniwin; 'twenty hundred million thousand.'
'I should like to have known him,' remarked the dwarf. 'I dare say he was a blessed creature then; but I'm sure he is now. It was a happy release. I believe he had suffered a long time?'
The old lady gave a gasp, but nothing came of it; Quilp resumed, with the same malice in his eye and the same sarcastic politeness on his tongue.
'You look ill, Mrs Jiniwin; I know you have been exciting yourself too much—talking perhaps, for it is your weakness. Go to bed. Do go to bed.'
'I shall go when I please, Quilp, and not before.'
'But please to do now. Do please to go now,' said the dwarf.
The old woman looked angrily at him, but retreated as he advanced, and falling back before him, suffered him to shut the door upon her and bolt her out among the guests, who were by this time crowding downstairs. Being left along with his wife, who sat trembling in a corner with her eyes fixed upon the ground, the little man planted himself before her, and folding his arms looked steadily at her for a long time without speaking.
'Mrs Quilp,' he said at last.
'Yes, Quilp,' she replied meekly.
Instead of pursing the theme he had in his mind, Quilp folded his arms again, and looked at her more sternly than before, while she averted her eyes and kept them on the ground.
'If ever you listen to these beldames again, I'll bite you.'
The chapter ends with Quilp punishing Mrs. Quilp by making her sit up with him all night in the room. She dare not fall asleep. Quilp has complete control over her.
For his own reasons, it's not important to go into them for now, at the end of the novel Quilp abandons his wife to live at his warehouse down by the wharf. Mrs. Quilp is agitated by this abandonment and tries to convince him to stay, but nothing doing. She also delivers a letter to him.
'I have brought a letter,' cried the meek little woman.
'Toss it in at the window here, and go your ways,' said Quilp, interrupting her, 'or I'll come out and scratch you.'
'No, but please, Quilp—do hear me speak,' urged his submissive wife, in tears. 'Please do!'
'Speak then,' growled the dwarf with a malicious grin. 'Be quick and short about it. Speak, will you?'
'It was left at our house this afternoon,' said Mrs Quilp, trembling, 'by a boy who said he didn't know from whom it came, but that it was given to him to leave, and that he was told to say it must be brought on to you directly, for it was of the very greatest consequence.—But please,' she added, as her husband stretched out his hand for it, 'please let me in. You don't know how wet and cold I am, or how many times I have lost my way in coming here through this thick fog. Let me dry myself at the fire for five minutes. I'll go away directly you tell me to, Quilp. Upon my word I will.'
Her amiable husband hesitated for a few moments; but, bethinking himself that the letter might require some answer, of which she could be the bearer, closed the window, opened the door, and bade her enter. Mrs Quilp obeyed right willingly, and, kneeling down before the fire to warm her hands, delivered into his a little packet.
'I'm glad you're wet,' said Quilp, snatching it, and squinting at her. 'I'm glad you're cold. I'm glad you lost your way. I'm glad your eyes are red with crying. It does my heart good to see your little nose so pinched and frosty.'
'Oh Quilp!' sobbed his wife. 'How cruel it is of you!'
'Did she think I was dead?' said Quilp, wrinkling his face into a most extraordinary series of grimaces. 'Did she think she was going to have all the money, and to marry somebody she liked? Ha ha ha! Did she?'
Heh heh heh. Oh, Mr. Quilp, never change.
And he never does.
Because he doesn't have long to live after reading the letter, telling him of the legal danger he's in. He must get away before he is found and imprisoned.
Well, it's an exceedingly foggy day and somebody is banging on his gate. Obviously, Quilp will not let them in. He makes preparations while muttering threats against those who betrayed his nefarious plans. He makes to leave in the dark of night....but this is a dangerous thing, as well he should know. His wharf is set up specifically to thwart intruders.
It also leads to his death. (Note how his lack of strength plays into his death)
At that moment the knocking ceased. It was about eight o'clock; but the dead of the darkest night would have been as noon-day in comparison with the thick cloud which then rested upon the earth, and shrouded everything from view. He darted forward for a few paces, as if into the mouth of some dim, yawning cavern; then, thinking he had gone wrong, changed the direction of his steps; then stood still, not knowing where to turn.
'If they would knock again,' said Quilp, trying to peer into the gloom by which he was surrounded, 'the sound might guide me! Come! Batter the gate once more!'
He stood listening intently, but the noise was not renewed. Nothing was to be heard in that deserted place, but, at intervals, the distant barkings of dogs. The sound was far away—now in one quarter, now answered in another—nor was it any guide, for it often came from shipboard, as he knew.
'If I could find a wall or fence,' said the dwarf, stretching out his arms, and walking slowly on, 'I should know which way to turn. A good, black, devil's night this, to have my dear friend here! If I had but that wish, it might, for anything I cared, never be day again.'
As the word passed his lips, he staggered and fell—and next moment was fighting with the cold dark water!
For all its bubbling up and rushing in his ears, he could hear the knocking at the gate again—could hear a shout that followed it—could recognise the voice. For all his struggling and plashing, he could understand that they had lost their way, and had wandered back to the point from which they started; that they were all but looking on, while he was drowned; that they were close at hand, but could not make an effort to save him; that he himself had shut and barred them out. He answered the shout—with a yell, which seemed to make the hundred fires that danced before his eyes tremble and flicker, as if a gust of wind had stirred them. It was of no avail. The strong tide filled his throat, and bore him on, upon its rapid current.
Another mortal struggle, and he was up again, beating the water with his hands, and looking out, with wild and glaring eyes that showed him some black object he was drifting close upon. The hull of a ship! He could touch its smooth and slippery surface with his hand. One loud cry, now—but the resistless water bore him down before he could give it utterance, and, driving him under it, carried away a corpse.
It toyed and sported with its ghastly freight, now bruising it against the slimy piles, now hiding it in mud or long rank grass, now dragging it heavily over rough stones and gravel, now feigning to yield it to its own element, and in the same action luring it away, until, tired of the ugly plaything, it flung it on a swamp—a dismal place where pirates had swung in chains through many a wintry night—and left it there to bleach.
And there it lay alone. The sky was red with flame, and the water that bore it there had been tinged with the sullen light as it flowed along. The place the deserted carcass had left so recently, a living man, was now a blazing ruin. There was something of the glare upon its face. The hair, stirred by the damp breeze, played in a kind of mockery of death—such a mockery as the dead man himself would have delighted in when alive—about its head, and its dress fluttered idly in the night wind.
That is just so awesome.
Better than Anna Karenina being run over by a train. Better than Kate Chopin's tiresome protagonist (who is so tiresome I won't even look up her name) walking into the sea. Better even than Madame Lafarge being killed by Miss Pross (which was definitely a kickass moment for Pross, but still a bit of a mess).
The man is killed by his own security measures.
MWA HA HA HA
I love it.
Little Nell is not to the taste of modern audiences - as per Wilde's comment, the maudlin sentimentality around that specific character was old to many within living memory of Dickens himself - but the death of Quilp is satisfying for all time.
I don't find Little Nell's death all that laughable (though when she naps at her third graveyard one does yell OH COME ON DIE ALREADY), but I do let out a pleased snort at the well-deserved death of Quilp.
It's nice to see justice rendered, even if only poetically.