Adolescent orphan Nell Trent escapes with her gambling-addicted, mentally infirm grandfather from the villainous "dwarf" Daniel Quilp, to whom the old man, obsessed with making Nell wealthy, has lost his money and his shop. Quilp and a host of other malevolent and benevolent characters track the pair's journey through urban, rural, and industrial England. When the good characters reach the peaceful hamlet where Nell and her grandfather have settled, Nell has just died, soon to be joined by her grief-stricken grandfather.


Dickens's fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop was first serialized in his weekly periodical Master Humphrey's Clock. The character Nell exemplifies its blend of social realism and fairy tale. An adolescent whose maturation is unnaturally accelerated by the challenge of managing her grandfather's unstable, manipulative and self-destructive behavior, Nell is nonetheless enshrined by both narrator and characters as "Little" Nell, a pure "child" whose death brings those around her closer to Christian spirituality. (Little Eva of American Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin has a markedly similar function.)

Dickens associated Nell with his beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, whose death two years earlier still haunted him. His readers shared his emotional involvement in Nell's trials, and, dreading her death, wrote "imploring letters recommending poor little Nell to mercy" in the interval between installments. Dickens wrote to a friend, "I am breaking my heart over this story," but felt compelled to proceed with Nell's death (Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952] I: 303).

Little Nell's death and its reception by readers epitomize Victorian sentimentality for many later critics. The emotion both Dickens and his public invested in Nell's death, however, may have been appropriate to a culture that regularly lost its children to illness, overwork, and industrial accidents. Twentieth-century discomfort with Victorian death scenes is a rich source of information about changing cultural constructions of appropriate mourning behavior and of death itself.

Along with its concern with the deaths of children, an interest in physical variation permeates the novel. Innocent Nell, whose frail, golden-haired beauty transfixes total strangers with interest and sympathy, is juxtaposed both morally and physically with Daniel Quilp. Dickens endows Quilp's physical presence with robust malignity and perverse sexuality. He lavishes descriptive detail on his mirthless grin (which gives him "the aspect of a panting dog"), his practical jokes on his mother-in-law, his consumption of boiling grog and eggs in their shells, and his orgies of pipe-smoking--as well as on his leering interest in Little Nell.

Other figures of physical variation include the three-foot-tall serving girl "The Marchioness" and a party of circus "giants" and "dwarves." In these characters, Dickens forges complex links between physical deformity, moral deformity, capitalism, and industry. Quilp's body mirrors his misshapen moral state, and Nell's physical wasting results from her society's moral disease.

In the Marchioness, however, the novel affirms the potential happiness of bodies shaped by social ills. The Marchioness's smallness belies her substantial valor, and while the lovely Nell sickens and dies, the physically atypical, socially marginal Marchioness becomes a lover, a wife, and a mother.

As well as strong metaphors, the novel's recurrent representations of illness, disability and death are material reminders of the consequences of industrialization, a social concern Dickens makes vivid in the "Black Country" chapters.


First published serially in 1840-41; published separately 1841.

Primary Source

The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens


Oxford Univ. Press

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