This essay revisits Theodor Adorno's discussion of allegory in Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) in order to retrieve a sense of the radicality of a form that is usually dismissed by contemporary critics as anachronistic and somehow inadequate to the modernity of the nineteenth century. It argues that Dickens's use of allegory organizes a critique of capitalism that is concentrated most emphatically in the novel's images of ruins, which are emblematic of lifeworlds destroyed by industrial progress. In the juxtaposition of industrial spaces defined by alienation and the symbolically charged cultural landscapes of Romanticism, The Old Curiosity Shop attempts to recuperate, or at least make legible, forms of life and identity lost to the movement of history. But if this framework facilitates a certain sort of historical consciousness, then it is also a consciousness defined by blind spots and absences that surface in images of refuse, waste, and formlessness associated with an emerging proletariat. In the movement between ruins and refuse, two different forms of historical obsolescence, the limitations of Dickens's allegorical vision and of the politics its fosters become apparent.
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