The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens: Summary & Overview

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we'll explore plot details and relevant characters in Charles Dickens's ''The Old Curiosity Shop.'' We'll also study some of the novel's interesting structural elements.

The Novel in Context

Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop was published in serial form from 1840 to 1841 in a periodical titled Master Humphrey's Clock. Serial form means that the text initially appeared in weekly parts, which was the case for many of Dickens's novels.

As a relatively early entry of Dickens's, The Old Curiosity Shop bridges his early work, such as The Pickwick Papers, with his more familiar novels that he is remembered for today, including A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. In other words, we can look at The Old Curiosity Shop as a crucial step in Dickens's development as a writer.

Among its many significant achievements, including one of the most detestable villains in all of literature, the novel might best be remembered for its interesting experiments with narrative structure. This is the form that the story takes and the perspective from which it is told.

Experiments with Form

The Old Curiosity Shop begins with the first-person narration of a man, whom readers might initially mistake as the protagonist (hero or central character of the story), who delights in walking around London under the cover of night. One night, his walk is interrupted by a young, diminutive girl named Nell Trent, the story's actual protagonist. Nell has lost her way and needs help to return home. Our narrator happily obliges and the pair eventually wind up at the titular Old Curiosity Shop, which is owned and operated by little Nell's grandfather. Soon thereafter, we meet the antagonist, or villain of the novel, the dwarf Daniel Quilp, who schemes to take over the shop and to procure all of its wares.

In perhaps the most curious moment of The Old Curiosity Shop, the narrator quickly departs the story he has introduced and leaves it in the hands of a third-person narrator, who stays with us until the novel's end. This means that, in one novel, we have both first- and third-person narration, which is a technique Dickens would return to in his marvelous novel Bleak House. Today we are used to having multiple narrators tell a story, which is especially evident in film and television. But Dickens was one of the first artists to experiment with narrative form to make his stories more interesting and complex, and he did it all the way back in the mid-nineteenth century.

But this is not the only interesting narrative strategy that Dickens employs in The Old Curiosity Shop. We learn that Quilp is violent and abusive, especially to his poor wife and his odd assistant. Nell and her grandfather seem to be constantly under threat by Quilp because, as we learn little by little, Nell's grandfather is terrible with money and this has caused him to be in debt to Quilp. So Nell and her grandfather eventually decide to flee the city in order to escape Quilp's grasp.

From this point, the narrative is split between the adventures of Nell and her grandfather in the English countryside (which recalls, in many respects, the plots of Dickens's earlier novels) and the goings-on of the other characters in dark, dingy, and always extraordinary Victorian London (which looks forward to his later novels, including Dombey and Son and Our Mutual Friend).

Nell's Escape and Her Perilous Adventures

Nell experiences many adventures with her grandfather, from the squalor of industrial towns to the peculiarity of traveling waxwork shows. In fact, at one point little Nell becomes an attraction at the show, which disturbingly foreshadows her sad fate. In the meantime, Nell's grandfather cannot break his addiction to gambling, which he mistakenly thinks will save them. He even steals from his granddaughter at the height of his trouble.

During many of the pair's adventures, Quilp is following closely behind, and he comes terrifyingly close to catching them, at more than one occasion. All of the pressure of flight and loneliness ultimately take their toll on little Nell. Although she and her grandfather eventually find safe haven at a remote church, she dies before the team of good characters, who set out together from London, can save her.

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