ONE OF THEOED'S DEFINITIONS of the word “freak” is that of a freak of nature, “a monstrosity, an abnormally developed individual of any species; a living curiosity exhibited in a show.” The freak of nature I wish to focus on in this essay is marriage, and specifically, marriage as it is “exhibited” in Dickens's novel The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41). To refer to marriage in a Victorian novel as a freak of nature is perhaps surprising. To refer to the sacred institution as freakish in a Dickens novel may seem to border on heresy. After all, Dickens is the self-appointed novelist of hearth and home, the creator of conservative domestic plots that celebrate marriage as the institution that establishes closure for the novel and for the society it represents. Despite this apparent conservatism and despite our vague sense that most marriages in Dickens are as happy as David and Agnes's, Esther and Allen Woodcourt's, Biddy and Joe's, it is in fact the case that in all his novels, from The Pickwick Papers to Our Mutual Friend, Dickens is fascinated–in a multiplicity of ways both large and small, in a manner that is alternately comic, tragic, melodramatic, ironic–with marriage's discontents. In fact, the disintegration of the institution is one of the things that Dickens makes fictions from, giving the failure of marriage a surprisingly high degree of visibility and presenting the breaking of the matrimonial bond with remarkable clarity and persistence. Dickens novels are full of wives who leave their husbands (Edith Dombey, Lady Dedlock, Louisa Gradgrind), breach of promise suits (in Pickwick and Our Mutual Friend most famously) and characters who try to find legal ways of escaping their marriages (Stephen Blackpool, Betsey Trotwood, Nickleby's Madame Mantalini). This essay, then, is an analysis of how Dickens undermines the institution early in his career, and of how the comic and grotesque display of the body, the sprawling, teeming physical surfaces of The Old Curiosity Shop, both conceal and reveal a story of marital skepticism.