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Dickens’s ‘Better Thoughts of Death’: Psychology, Sentimentalism, and the Garden-Cemetery Aesthetic of The Old Curiosity Shop

  • David McAllister
Chapter

Abstract

This chapter argues that Dickens sought to develop a new aesthetic of representing the dead in The Old Curiosity Shop: one that was based on associationist psychological theories, rooted in his admiration of Wordsworth, and intricately linked to the rise of new cemetery spaces in Britain’s cities. The death of Little Nell has routinely been condemned as an example of everything that’s bad about Victorian culture’s tendency towards sentimentalism. This chapter contributes to recent scholarly attempts to reconsider the novel’s aesthetic, and argues that Dickens’s representation of death in the novel was an attempt both to reflect the association of ideas at work within his narrative and to bring about a psychological transformation in his readers. Dickens claimed that he wanted to fill the minds of his young readers with ‘better thoughts of death’: an ambition that he shared with the designers of the new garden cemeteries that had emerged in Britain in the years before he began writing The Old Curiosity Shop. These spaces were carefully managed to eliminate anything that might cause feelings of shock or terror in the minds of visitors, in an attempt to transform the widespread cultural association of death with horror. This chapter reads Little Nell’s death as an attempt to translate this anti-realist, cemeterial aesthetic into the novel form, and argues that it represents a culmination of the project to reimagine the dead in ways described in this book.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • David McAllister
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of English and HumanitiesBirkbeck College - University of LondonLondonUK

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