- Who Cares?Novel Reading, Narrative Attachment Disorder, and the Case of The Old Curiosity Shop
"to feel and know that, come what might, they were alone in the world with no one to help or advise or care about them"—Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (76)
"heaps of fantastic things . . . huddled together"
In an oft-cited passage from the first chapter of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop, the unnamed narrator speculates on why the story of Nell has aroused his interest. Unable to dismiss from his thoughts an image of "the child in her bed: alone, unwatched, uncared for (save by angels)," the narrator muses:
We are so much in the habit of allowing impressions to be made upon us by external objects, which should be produced by reflection alone, but which, without such visible aids, often escape us, that I am not sure I should have been so thoroughly possessed by this one subject, but for the heaps of fantastic things I had seen huddled together in the curiosity-dealer's warehouse. These, crowding on my mind, in connection with the child, and gathering round [End Page 296] her, as it were, brought her condition palpably before me . . . she seemed to exist in a kind of allegory.(19–20)1
This passage warrants our attention for a number of reasons. First, as a narrative report of a thought act, it offers a literary representation of the thinking mind—what Alan Palmer calls "Cognitive Mental Functioning" (CMF). Specifically, the narrator here posits a theoretical and functional approach to the notion of attention—that is, how we perceive or respond to someone or something within our field of awareness. Second, the narrator's imagining of a neglected child, "alone, unwatched, [and] uncared for," establishes an ethics of narrative care and concern, and implicitly demonstrates the interconnection between cognition and emotion. Third, and somewhat related, curiosity is introduced as both narrative strategy and subject of the novel. The narrator is struck not so much by Nell's isolation, her "strange and solitary state," but because she is surrounded by curiosities, "heaps of fantastic things." He says, "It would be a curious speculation to imagine her in her future life, holding her solitary way among a crowd of grotesque wild companions" (20). Though Nell is herself a curiosity (and has ranked highly among Dickens's most displaced and dispossessed characters), the reader is to attend to her, as the narrator does, as inextricably connected to rather than isolated from those "shapes about her." This is corroborated by Dickens himself, who in a preface to a later edition of the novel, wrote: ". . . in writing the book, I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible companions, and to gather about her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed" (The Old Curiosity Shop 6). Finally, while we might be inclined to view Nell allegorically—and certainly, we would not be alone: critics have long fixed on Nell as the embodiment of youthful innocence and innate goodness—the narrator confounds (and perhaps corrects) such a simplistic (and redundant) allegorical identity with the word "seemed."2
Drawing on cognitive science, narrative theory, moral philosophy, and evolutionary psychology, and in the spirit of the essai, I offer here my own "curious speculation" about how curiosity and concern for others is cognitively and emotionally mediated in fiction. Although Nicholas Dames has drawn our attention to the ways in which Victorian physiologists, psychologists, [End Page 297] and literary critics saw the novel as "a machine for the production of affect" (206–16), I think it is equally productive to think about how narrative fiction can impede both thinking and feeling. My discussion is based on two premises: one, that human experience generally is the subject of literature; and two, that there is a significant and productive correlation to be made in the cognitive mental functioning of both fictional and real minds.3 As Joseph Carroll points out in Literary Darwinism, "art provides...