The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

The grotesque and tragic novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens is his fourth full-length novel with outlandish characters and dark atmospheres. Dickens wrote this book after the death of his young sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who died in May 1837. The story of this novel takes place in London in an undefined period. The book is about the wandering of Nell Trent and her grandfather in England after they depart from London. The novel finds the balance between Nell with her grandfather and the devilish Mr Daniel Quilp, the reason for their flee from London. The reader follows the pilgrimage of the two main characters, who find themselves in different places and meet several weird characters on the road.


The Old Curiosity Shop is the tale of the lonely Nell meeting grotesque personalities. During her several day-to-day experiences, Nell always preserves her purity and innocence in contrast with the gloominess and wickedness of Quilp. The novel is characterised by differences, as expressed in the sentence: “Everything in our lives, whether of good or evil, affects us most by contrast”—the novel swings between grotesque and sadness, tragedy and comedy. Furthermore, even the places Dickens depicts in The Old Curiosity Shop book are contrasting. Indeed, towns differ from the countryside; similarly, the mechanised industry is distinct from agriculture. On one side, there is the old, and on the other, there is the new. In the same way, the novel is based on the dichotomy between betrayal and loyalty, greed and altruism, depravity and goodness, and death and life. Little Nell holds the story’s central theme and bears an ethical responsibility. Nell has to accept the death of young and innocent persons, and at the same time, she is obliged to accept mortality as an inevitable stage of life. The child often confronts death through symbolic places such as graveyards and ghostly locations. Moreover, she has to endure tragic events, such as the premature death of children, as a premonitory manifestation of her destiny.

The Old Curiosity Shop

Since the novel’s beginning, Nell is surrounded by ancient and grotesque entities and people. The old curiosity shop of this book is a gathering place of bizarre antique items, ambient where Nell gets used to living without any reluctance or fear. Her constant companion is an older man, her grandfather. In the end, Nell will similarly lie among ancient relics, but she will no longer be an earthly being. The novel is based on the contraposition of the purity and integrity of Nell and the grotesque villainy and corruption of Daniel Quilp. There is no detailed information regarding the places Nell and her grandfather journey, except the description of some London locations. The countryside and neighbourhoods where the trip of the two main protagonists takes place are very vague. Indeed, the towns and villages in the book are unnamed. Every event and tragedy is a lesson for Nell, who gets prepared for her final destination. The child learns precociously about life because of her short lifetime. Nell has to endure all the pains and sorrows, getting weaker daily, with no hope. Only at the book’s end will she cease to suffer eternally as a prize for her persistent agony. Charles Dickens wrote this novel after the premature death of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth in May 1837, who died in the arms of the author at only seventeen years old. Dickens employed the exact words that he placed on the gravestone of Mary to describe Nell at the end of the book: “So young, so beautiful, so good”. A poetic description of nature is all over the book, such as “she raised her eyes to the bright stars, looking down so mildly from the wide worlds of air, and gazing on them, found new stars burst upon her view, and more beyond, and more beyond again, until the whole great expanse sparkled with shining spheres, rising higher and higher in immeasurable space, eternal in their numbers as in their changeless and incorruptible existence.

Some peculiar and curious characters 

Most of the characters in this novel are eccentric and grotesque, creating an aura of strangeness with a dark hue. In Dickens’s imagination, oddities are considered not only marvels but also everyday life’s personalities. The nature of Quilp’s cheerfulness is brutal, and his amusement is pretty vicious. He constantly loves to terrorise others for his contentment. Quilp is not the typical tormented villain because he enjoys and relishes his mischievous actions to the detriment of his victims whilst he reveals his plans to the reader since he is an attention seeker. He is a vicious comedian until the end and loves to exert power on other characters. The end of Quilp is determined by fate through natural forces. The physicality of Quilp preannounces his personality traits because his corporeality emphasises his brutality. 

Mr Swiveller

Another central character of the novel is the one of Mr Swiveller. At the beginning of the book, his behaviour is passive and powerless, and he seeks only “vanity, interest, poverty, and very spendthrift consideration“. Moreover, he plans to marry Nell to take possession of the alleged wealth of Old Trent, the grandfather of Nell. Unlike Trent, Mr Swiveller is always optimistic and cheerful, declaring that “there are some people who can be merry and can’t be wise, and some who can be wise (or think they can) and they can’t be merry. I’m one of the first sort”. He is an expert in soliloquies employing linguistic allusions and transforming harsh reality into an unreal and idyllic world. This fantastic imaginary unreality of Mr Swiveller allows him to bear different tragic events but keeps him far from the actualities. The extravagance of Dick Swiveller will save himself and the Marchioness, a poor orphan child who lives a degraded life as a servant, and she will rescue Swiveller at the end, who will permanently change her life. The Marchioness and Swiveller use the sense of wonder and fantasy to face the adversities of their life. 

Mr and Mrs Quilp

Mr and Mrs Quilp live on Tower Hill. Still, most of the time, Quilp is absent for business, which consists of collecting “the rents of whole colonies of filthy streets and alleys by the waterside, advanced money to the seamen and petty officers of merchant vessels, had a share in the ventures of divers mates of East Indiamen.” His real house is the Quilp’s Wharf, a small, gloomy lawn that rats infest. The subordination of Mrs Quilp to her husband is expressed by her constant reply, “Yes, Quilp”. Quilp amuses himself by frightening his family, his wife and her mother, even in daily acts such as eating. It is emblematic of the scene where “he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature.” Mr Quilp’s initial intention is to marry Nell, asking her to be his “little cherry-cheeked, red-lipped wife.” Daniel Quilp hates and despises everyone, but his cruelty will only ruin him.  

Nell Trent

Since the beginning, little Nell appears alone and lost in the streets of London’s night. Eventually, she will return home to the old curiosity shop, where she lives with her grandfather among antique curiosities and oddities. Dickens describes this strange place as featured by “old dark murky rooms“, and Nell is “alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay and ugly age, the beautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunny dreams.” The old Trent is described as a once-upon-a-time wealthy man who accumulated great fortunes but, after that reduced in poverty and obsessed by a constant sense of loss. He passes evenings and nights seeking to regain his lost luck relentlessly, gambling every single night and leaving Nell alone in that dreary shop. Throughout the Old Curiosity Shop by Dickens, Nell behaves like an adult. Indeed, she is not a typical child, especially because she has to take care of her grandfather and manage the long journey. Sometimes, the child feels too much responsibility for her age and precarious health conditions. Time creates a separation between Nell and the old Trent, especially after she discovers he robbed all her savings to gamble with his haggard looks. 

A long and exhausting journey

As soon as Nell and her grandfather start their painful journey into the unknown, the child loses her quiet and solitude because they have no roof to shelter them daily. The first days of the pilgrimage are agreeable, and the travellers enjoy “the freshness of the day, the singing of the birds, the beauty of the waving grass, the deep green leaves, the wild flowers, and the thousand exquisite scents and sounds that floated in the air.” During the long journey, Nell and the old Trent meet several grotesque and odd characters, such as the Punch and Judy puppets, giants and dwarves, people walking on stilts and dogs walking on their hind legs. The ugly face and stunted figure of Quilp represent Nell’s dreary and constant nightmare. Both Trent and Quilp never paid attention to Nell’s happiness or misery. Nell’s grandfather occasionally represents her enemy, “a monstrous distortion of his image“, such as when he robs her niece with a spasm of greediness whilst counting the money he would spend on gambling. Nell feels exhausted from the interminable walks, the cold weather and the food shortage until she finally finds eternal rest and peace after a life of misery and suffering. Moreover, only at the end of the novel Nell’s grandfather will understand that throughout her life, he never really cared about her showing himself as selfish. Furthermore, in the end, the old curiosity shop disappears in the crowded labyrinth of London as well as all the pains and sorrows fade from everyone’s life. 

Some contemplations of Dickens

Charles Dickens dispenses some philosophical reflections amid his narration. The author expresses his thoughts regarding the human conscience “in the majority of cases, conscience is an elastic and very flexible article, which will bear a deal of stretching and adapt itself to a great variety of circumstances. Some people by prudent management and leaving it off piece by piece like a flannel waistcoat in warm weather, even contrive, in time, to dispense with it altogether; but there be others who can assume the garment and throw it off at pleasure; and this, being the greatest and most convenient method, is the one most in vogue.” The human attitude employs the conscience as a garment to wear or take it off as an unnecessary accessory that is arbitrarily accustomed without any honest intention and mostly used just to follow the trend when it is convenient.

Another very interesting introspection of Dickens is expressed by the sentence, “Everything in our lives, whether of good or evil, affects us most by contrast.” Contrasts that the author expresses by means of dichotomies such as beauty and deformity, young and old, innocence and wickedness, freedom and constraint, and comedy and tragedy. The charm and calm of the English countryside contrast with the noisy, overcrowded and industrialised city of London.

Everything is transient in life, and this concept is quite often present in the Old Curiosity Shop novel. The caducity of life, beauty and youth is one of the main themes of the book. Charles Dickens ends the novel by describing the changes that occurred in the place where the old curiosity shop was located. He writes, “The old house had been long ago pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place. At first he would draw with his stick a square upon the ground to show them where it used to stand. But he soon became uncertain of the spot, and could only say it was thereabouts, he thought, and that these alterations were confusing. Such are the changes which a few years bring about, and so do things pass away, like a tale that is told!” Indeed, the time has the power to create and destroy everything. This story is shaped by time, and mortality and impermanence are the central themes of the novel. Decay is unavoidable, and subsequently, death is part of life. Nell is soon aware of the life-death dualism, and she embodies this doubleness, learning to accept death, whilst everything around her succumbs to changes.

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