Little Nell’s Death Scene – Homage vs Plagarism


noun: plagiarism; plural noun: plagiarisms

  1. the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

Dickens and The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

Little Nell's Death Scene
Little Nell’s Death Scene

She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death. Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. “When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.” Those were her words.

She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever. Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.1 (Chapter LXXI, p.524)

Homage vs Plagarism

At what point does a work you’re tipping your hat to become plagiarism in your writing? Little Nell’s death scene (above) from The Old Curiosity Shop is one of the most famous passages in English literature and evokes a sensitive, wilting sensibility that a female character of mine needs.

As this piece is old-school, as I explained before, I’ve been re-reading a load of 19th and 18th century novels for exact descriptions of clothes, linguistic patterns and sickness (there will be more about that. Oh yes. Consumption, here we come).

What do you think? If a writer wants to siphon the flavour from another but not copy, how far do you go? When do you stop? I have my own ideas, and hope that my work wouldn’t be seen as derivative, but I’d like your thoughts.

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