The Old Curiosity Shop is a menagerie of grotesque figures, replete with dwarves, giants, obsequious and unscrupulous lawyers, Punch and Judy shows, high-stakes gambling, and waxwork museums. These disparate and outlandish elements make this one of Dickens most imaginative novels, but for many the carnivalesque atmosphere and sentimental tone may prove too chaotic.
In the novel, the angelic Little Nell lives with her grandfather in an antique shop. Her grandfather disappears every night for mysterious reasons. It turns out he has been borrowing money from a rich and malevolent dwarf named Quilp so he can gamble it away in the hopes of amassing from the spoils an inheritance for Little Nell. Instead of gaining a fortune, he loses all of the borrowed money instead. Quilp discovers how the grandfather has been disposing of his loans and seizes their property (the old curiosity shop) to make back some of his losses. After Quilp seizes the property, Little Nell and her grandfather escape London and go on the run into the countryside, begging and working odd jobs to make a living. Meanwhile, Nell’s worthless and disowned brother, Frederick, conspires with his friend, Richard Swiveller to marry Little Nell, falsely believing his grandfather to possess a lot money and believing that his grandfather is planning to leave it all to his sister. Quilp knowing the truth about the grandfather’s poverty plans to assist them as a way of getting revenge on Richard and Frederick; he resents Richard for punching him during a fight they have in the early part of the novel and he just doesn’t particularly like Frederick. His plan is to help Richard marry Nell for her money, only for him to discover that she is penniless and now an additional burden on his own insufficient funds. Kit, a servant of Nell and the grandfather, finds himself out of work once his employers lose their property and go on the run. He soon improves his situation by getting new job attending the pony of Mr and Mrs. Garland whom he meets accidentally one day while wandering the streets. However, the vindictive Quilp who holds a grudge against Kit for rude comments regarding his stature, conspires with Mr. Brass, a lawyer, to frame Kit for a crime he didn’t commit.
The work’s biggest strength is that it is extremely imaginative. We get to see a playful fantastic side of England absent from some of Dickens’ other works, a countryside full of dwarves and giants, traveling showmen, and all other forms of bizarre entertainments. At first I found myself enjoying the story, but after thinking about it more, I started to realize there really wasn’t much of a story at all. It is really the tale of an old man and his granddaughter losing their antique shop because of his gambling habit and the consequences this loss has on all the other characters’ fates. However, that is description would give most reader’s a false impression of the novel as tightly plot when the story is more a loose and jumbled set of narratives tied together by Quilp’s villainy against various characters; there are really more like two or three different plot rather than a single coherent one forming a sturdy backbone. We have the story of Little Nell and her grandfather’s journey through the countryside after losing everything, we have the story of Kit falsely being framed for a crime after getting on Quilp’s bad side, we have Richard Swiveller’s story of a man of profligate tendencies who has a moral redemption by helping a poor servant suffering under the cruel yoke and mistreatment of her employers. Many critics of this novel dislike it for its extreme sentimentality, but I personally think lack of a cohesive and well-structured plot is its bigger flaw.
Dickens writes a wide variety of interesting characters, but none of whom are particularly deep or insightful ones. While I thought Quilp was an interesting character overall (a repugnant devil who plays counterpoint to Little Nell’s perfect goodness), his motivations for his misdeeds against other characters are vague (usually stemming from some perceived insult to him and his dwarfism). Some characters seem completely unnecessary; characters such as Frederick are a complete waste of space, appearing in only a few chapter in the beginning, and then only brought up again briefly by characters via dialogue or exposition, while having no real effect on the outcome of the story. He could easily be cut-out of the novel and nothing would be lost. Even the title of the novel is problematic. Why name an entire novel after an antique shop that only appears for the first couple of chapters? The old curiosity shop really doesn’t play much of a role in the story.
For all its problems I still enjoyed the novel. I think if you draw any conclusions from my ramblings it should be this: it’s an entertaining novel, but an extremely flawed one. Often you’ll hear someone remark that they should have enjoyed a work more than they did based on their usual tastes; well, with this book I feel like I should have liked it less than I did.