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Five Questions for… William Moeck, curator of NYPL's Charles Dickens: The Key to Character Exhibition

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Charles Dickens: The Key to Character, on view through January 27, 2013, at the Schwarzman Building, explores the men, women, and children who populate the fictional universe of English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870). William Moeck, the exhibition's curator, teaches British literature at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. We spoke with him about what he learned while selecting items from NYPL's Berg Collection of English and American Literature and the collections of the Library for the Performing Arts.

Why did you focus on Dickens's characters?

I wanted to explore how Dickens's characters are emblems or types. My academic background in Renaissance allegory and the poetry of Edmund Spenser and John Milton might seem a far cry from the prosaic world of the Victorian novel. But Dickensian figures like Scrooge and Miss Havisham display to me an affinity with an emblematic way of representing character that stretches back to Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, or to Mammon and Orgoglio in The Faerie Queene.

Who is your favorite character?

Little Nell, from The Old Curiosity Shop, wanders the countryside and cares for her gambling-addicted grandfather.Little Nell, from The Old Curiosity Shop, wanders the countryside and cares for her gambling-addicted grandfather.I like John Jarndyce in Bleak House, who takes three young adults under his wing. In Dickens's world, biological fathers are very seldom beneficent providers or exemplary role models for their children. But the bachelor Jarndyce — like Mr. Brownlow from Oliver Twist and Daniel Peggotty from David Copperfield — belongs to a long line of fatherlike figures who are responsible, loving, and humble. Jarndyce's essential goodness is at odds with a world gone awry, and his vexed helplessness can be sensed in his complaint about unpleasant drafts and wind.

Which character do you find the least likable?

It's hard to disagree with Oscar Wilde about laughter being the natural response to the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. Little Nell is a tearful orphan who is pursued across the countryside by an evil dwarf, and Dickens lays on the sentimental pathos so thickly that the story reads nowadays as a sidesplitting farce. You need an especially perverse sense of humor to get through it.

What's your favorite item in the exhibition?

Mrs. Gamp, from Martin Chuzzlewit, is often associated with her umbrella.Mrs. Gamp, from Martin Chuzzlewit, is often associated with her umbrella.An antique wooden leg. Inspired by Victorian cabinets of curiosity, the exhibition designers created nooks and cubbyholes in the gallery and filled them with oddities-seashells, machine parts, a real stuffed alligator-that connect to themes from the novels. In Dickens's imagination, people can turn into things and things into people; the physical props evoke those magical transformations. For example, an umbrella always signals Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, while the wooden leg on display relates to Silas Wegg from Our Mutual Friend.

Did you find anything unexpected in NYPL's collections?

I was moved by illustrations of African-American slaves in Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes. Dickens's experience of slavery during a trip to the U.S. in 1842 confirmed his strong support of the abolitionist movement at the same time that his disillusionment with America sharpened the satirical bite of his fiction. But racist remarks he made later prevent us from projecting our own beliefs about equality onto him, just as the introduction of a "gentle Jew" in his late work still smacks of the unpleasant, if unthinking, anti-Semitism found in his representation of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

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