The Old Curiosity Shop Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Little Nell Trent lives alone with her aged grandfather, who runs an old curiosity shop. The grandfather, Little Nell’s mother’s father, has two obsessions. One is keeping Little Nell away from her brother, Fred, a drunken profligate. The other is a burning desire to gamble. Hoping to provide a fortune for the little girl, the old man gambles away every penny he can get. Not content with using the income of the curiosity shop, the old man borrows money recklessly.

One of the old man’s creditors is an ugly, misshapen, cruel dwarf named Quilp. The husband of a pretty but browbeaten young woman, Quilp plots to ruin the old man and someday marry Little Nell, who is only fourteen years old. Having discovered the old man’s passion for gambling by forcing his wife to spy on Little Nell, Quilp is soon able to take over the old curiosity shop by due process of law. Little Nell and her grandfather leave during the night and start an aimless journey from London to western England.

Almost penniless, the old man and the little girl find many friends on their way. For a time, they travel with a Punch-and-Judy troupe, until the girl becomes alarmed at the habits of the men connected with the show and persuades her grandfather to leave them. She and the old man are next befriended by Mrs. Jarley, owner of a waxworks, but the grandfather’s passion for gambling causes them to leave their benefactor. At last a schoolmaster, on his way to fill a new post, takes them under his wing.

Under the schoolmaster’s guidance, the girl and her grandfather are established in a little town as caretakers of a church. Their duties are very light because the church has a regular sexton as well. Meanwhile, the only friend Little Nell and her grandfather had left behind in London is a poor boy named Kit Nubbles. He is attempting to find them but is hampered by the enmity of Quilp and by the fact that he has to help support his widowed mother and two other children. In addition, Quilp, who has an unreasonable hatred for anyone honest, is trying to find Little Nell to wed her to one of her brother’s worthless companions. This worthless companion, Dick Swiveller, is a clerk in the office of Quilp’s unscrupulous lawyer, Sampson Brass.

After Little Nell and her grandfather had disappeared, a strange, Single Gentleman appeared to rent an apartment from Sampson Brass. It turns out that he also is hunting for Little Nell and her grandfather. Since he is obviously a man of wealth, no one can be certain of the stranger’s motives. The Single Gentleman soon proves to Kit and Kit’s honest employer that he wants to aid the two runaways, and Kit tries to help the stranger locate Little Nell and her grandfather. When they try to follow the elusive...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)

The Old Curiosity Shop Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1-3 Summary

The unnamed narrator (Master Humphrey) is walking the streets of London late at night, as is his usual habit. A young girl by the name of Nell Trent stops him and asks him to help her find her way home. She sees that Master Humphrey is old, so she knows he is trustworthy. Touched by the child’s innocence, Master Humphrey walks her to a distant section of the city to the door of The Old Curiosity Shop. Nell knocks on the door, which is opened by her grandfather. He invites Master Humphrey to enter. Master Humphrey questions whether the old man should be allowing his granddaughter to be out on the streets at night. Grandfather takes offense at this and claims that Nell is the sole object of his consideration. He invites Master Humphrey to stay for tea, and Nell brings it in.

Nell had told Master Humphrey that she could not tell what her errand had been, and Grandfather refuses to divulge any more information. Master Humphrey can tell that Grandfather does indeed love his granddaughter. Kit Nubbles arrives after having performed an errand for Grandfather. He is an odd boy with a comical appearance. He tells Master Humphrey that he would have found Nell if she had not come to him when she was lost. As Master Humphrey prepares to leave, Nell brings her grandfather’s hat and coat. Master Humphrey questions his leaving Nell alone all night. He watches as Grandfather walks away into the night.

After a few days, Master Humphrey decides to return to The Old Curiosity Shop, though he knows he might not be welcome. He enters to find Grandfather in an argument with his grandson (Nell’s brother), Fred. Each accuses the other of using Nell as a pawn to get back at the other. With Fred is his friend Dick Swiveller, who talks about outrageous topics but leads back to the unpleasantness when family members have a falling out.

Nell walks into the shop, followed by a “dwarf” by the name of Daniel Quilp. Nell had been coming from his home the night she got lost; now Quilp has escorted her home. Quilp is interested to hear the argument between Grandfather and Fred; he sarcastically comments on the nature of family relations. Fred vows to take Nell from his grandfather, who swears that he will not allow it. Fred and Dick leave, and Quilp gives Grandfather the money that was the point of Nell’s errand. Afterward, Quilp says he must return to Mrs. Quilp, who will worry over his absence.

Chapter 4-5 Summary

Daniel Quilp lives on Tower Hill, but his business is at Quilp’s Wharf on the opposite side of the Thames. He does not have a specific occupation, but he owns a great deal of property from which he earns rent, and he lends large sums to people in need of ready cash. His wife is young and pretty; she married Quilp in a strange fit of infatuation that soon passed after the wedding. Living with Quilp and his wife is his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jiniwin. Both women live in great fear of displeasing Quilp. Mrs. Jiniwin had urged her daughter to marry him but has since come to regret it.

As Quilp is returning from The Old Curiosity Shop, Mrs. Quilp and Mrs. Jiniwin are entertaining half a dozen women whom they invited to tea. The conversation is centered on Quilp and his abusive treatment of his wife. The women proclaim what they would do to Quilp if he tried such tactics with them. Mrs. Jiniwin is in the process of relating her plan of attack when Quilp himself walks in. Mrs. Quilp and Mrs. Jiniwin change tactics to subtle revelations of Quilp’s cruelty. Quilp responds with complements that are understood to be veiled threats. He suggests that his mother-in-law has tired herself out from constant talking and orders her to bed. The women slip away in fear of the little man, who seats himself before the fire after they leave.

Quilp warns his wife that, should she ever communicate with those women again, he will bite her—and Mrs. Quilp readily believes him. He compels her to sit up all night while he sleeps in his chair. He awakens the next morning when Mrs. Jiniwin comes into the room. She calls him a brute when she sees that her daughter has been prevented from going to bed. Quilp willfully misunderstands, acting as if she is referring to her daughter. He releases Mrs. Quilp to fix him breakfast, after which he rows across the river to his counting house.

The only employee present is a small boy who stands on his head while waiting for errands to run. Quilp enters his counting house, climbs up on the desk, and covers his head with a handkerchief. The boy enters to tell him he has a guest. Quilp acts pleased when the guest is revealed to be Nell Trent, who has brought him a letter. Quilp lies on his side on the top of the desk while he reads the letter.

Chapter 6-8 Summary

Nell waits anxiously while Quilp reads the letter from her grandfather. She acts fearful that his response will be unpleasant. He mutters his amazement that the old man has lost all the money he had borrowed from Quilp the previous day. Quilp asks Nell fiercely if she had read the letter, and Nell denies doing so. He asks Nell how she would like to be the second Mrs. Quilp, supposing the first one were to die in four or five years, at which time Nell would be old enough to marry. Quilp invites her back to his house on Tower Hill across the river, but Nell says she is to return as soon as possible with the answer. Quilp replies that he cannot give her the answer unless he goes back to Tower Hill. As they leave the counting house, they see two boys fighting; one of them is Quilp’s errand boy and the other is Kit. Quilp breaks up the fight and takes Kit and Nell into his boat to cross the Thames.

As Kit waits outside, Quilp takes Nell in to Mrs. Quilp. He tells his wife to take Nell into a separate room and pump her for information about her grandfather’s dealings with all the money he borrows from Quilp. Mrs. Quilp is reluctant to do so because she if fond of Nell, but Quilp threatens her. He insists that she do his bidding, telling her that he will be listening and will squeak the door if she does not get information out of Nell. Mrs. Quilp follows his order but only learns that Nell’s grandfather has changed and that he is often absent all day and all night. Nell has heard him say that, if it were not for Nell, he would wish he were dead. Quilp allows Nell to return home with Kit and wonders what the old man’s secret dealings might be.

Fred Trent comes up with a scheme in which Dick Swiveller will marry Nell when her grandfather dies. Dick wants to make sure the old man is as rich as Fred says, and Fred assures him he is. Dick tells his friend that he has been courting Sophy Wackles, but he is going to a party that night and will break off with her there.

Sophy Wackles runs a Ladies’ Seminary with her mother and sisters. She and her friend, Miss Cheggs, plan on forcing Dick into making a commitment by making him jealous of Sophy’s attentions to Miss Cheggs’ brother. At the party, Sophy spends most of her time with Mr. Cheggs. Dick tells her that he is leaving the party and regrets spending time on her. He informs her that there is a young girl who is at that moment growing up into a woman expressly for his account. He leaves, pleased with how neatly Sophy fell into his plans.

Chapter 9-12 Summary

Nell becomes very worried about her grandfather’s deteriorating health. He is becoming feeble, burdened by some secret grief. She fears that he will die, either from natural causes or by his own hand. She pleads with him to leave The Old Curiosity Shop with her and become beggars. She begins to sob, as does Grandfather. Quilp has unexpectedly crept into the shop, listening in on this tender scene. He comments on Nell’s beauty, which disturb Grandfather, who asks Quilp if he has come to bring him the money he has requested. Quilp says very politely that he is unable to lend any more funds to the old man, and he reveals that he knows the money is spent on gambling. Grandfather tells Quilp that his only intention was to get money...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Chapter 13-16 Summary

Quilp awakens on Friday morning, having slept all night in The Old Curiosity Shop. Mr. Brass is also present, and the two discuss who has the front door key, since someone is knocking on the door. Quilp finds the front door suspiciously unlocked. He opens the door, thinking it is Mrs. Quilp and throws himself at her, intending to knock her about. He lands instead on Dick Swiveller, who beats Quilp in return. Dick had stopped by to check on Grandfather (and Nell) and had found Mrs. Quilp lightly knocking on the door. Quilp and Dick discover that Nell and the old man have gone. Kit also arrives and fights Quilp’s errand boy for Nell’s bird, which he takes home to his mother.

Kip goes out to earn some money for food by...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Chapter 17-20 Summary

Nell awakens early the next morning, at first confused by her surroundings. She goes out to visit the graveyard, reading the various epitaphs on the gravestones. She comes across one of a man who died fifty-five years ago at the age of twenty-three. An old woman comes and asks Nell to read the engraving to her. She tells Nell that she is the dead man’s wife, which strikes Nell as interesting, imagining her as an old woman married to such a young man. The widow explains how she used to want to die when her husband passed away, but now she comes often to his grave to pick daisies.

Nell and Grandfather join Codlin and Short, who are going to the races to perform their Punch and Judy show. On the way, they encounter the...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapter 21-24 Summary

Kit is surprised, on returning home, to see the Garlands’ pony parked near his home. Mr. and Mrs. Garland have arrived to talk with Mrs. Nubbles, Kit’s mother, about the possibility of Kit’s coming to live with and work for them at a salary of six pounds a year. Kit and his mother agree to the arrangement. After the Garlands have departed, the two of them are talking of the great fortune that has come to Kit when Quilp and Dick Swiveller arrive. They inquire as to the whereabouts of Grandfather and Nell, but Mrs. Nubbles tells them that they have no idea where the old man and his granddaughter have gone. Quilp and Dick leave to go to a nearby tavern, where Dick relates his sorrows in the impending marriage of Sophy Wackles to...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Chapter 25-28 Summary

Nell awakens in the morning and, finding the schoolmaster already gone, makes his bed and straightens the house. She spends time with him in the schoolroom, listening to him conduct lessons with the boys. At noon, the schoolmaster declares that it will be a half-holiday but begs the students to be quiet as the go past the sick child’s house, lest they disturb his rest. Though promising that they would do so, they begin shouting as soon as they are outside. In the afternoon, several mothers and other villagers arrive to express their displeasure at this lessening of the school day, hinting that the schoolmaster is lazy and should not expect to be paid for the half day. That evening, the schoolmaster is sent for, and he goes...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Chapter 29-32 Summary

Nell enjoys her work conducting tours of Mrs. Jarley’s wax-work, as well as the company of Mrs. Jarley herself. She fears encountering Quilp again, but otherwise feels comfortable in Mrs. Jarley’s presence. One day, she and her grandfather go for a walk but run into a thunderstorm. They seek shelter in the Valiant Soldier Inn. As they dry themselves before the fire, Grandfather overhears the sounds of a card game in the next room. He demands that Nell give him whatever money she has, which she does reluctantly, begging him to come away before he is drawn back into his gambling habit. He ignores her and joins the game. As he wins and loses, Nell despairs of her grandfather’s being able to control this passion.

The...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Chapter 33-36 Summary

Mr. Sampson Brass, Quilp’s attorney friend, lives and works with his spinster sister, Sally. The two of them look almost identical, even to the evidence of facial hair. Sally has served as his law partner without appearing in a courtroom. Sally, in fact, is the driving force of the law firm, as she reminds her brother, whom she calls “Sammy.” Mr. Brass has received a note from Quilp, “recommending” a clerk to him, by which Brass understands that he has no choice. Quilp himself arrives with the new clerk in tow, who happens to be Dick Swiveller. Dick is to be instructed in the law by Sally and thus learn on the job. Reluctantly, Sally starts Dick in his duties, which Dick does not take that seriously.

Sally...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Chapter 37-39 Summary

The single gentleman has no visitors except men who run Punch and Judy shows. The Brasses and Dick wonder what is going on, trying to overhear their conversations without success. One day, Codlin and Short are shown into the single gentleman’s chambers. He is delighted to finally find the men he is looking for and asks them what has become of the old man and the young girl with whom they were seen at the races. Codlin proclaims that he is not surprised that they have been searched for, knowing that there was something mysterious about the pair, as was Short. However, they cannot tell the single gentleman anything about their whereabouts. The single gentleman is downcast, after finding the pair he was looking for at last but being...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Chapter 40-43 Summary

Kip and Barbara return to Abel Cottage the morning after their holiday. Mr. and Mrs. Garland inform Kip that the single gentleman wishes to take Kip as his servant and is willing to pay more than his wages at the Garlands’. Kip displays his loyalty to the Garlands by refusing the job. Mr. Garland then suggests that perhaps Kip may be “lent” to the single gentleman, since he wants Kip to help him find Nell and her grandfather. Kip has no choice and so consents, just as Mr. Chuckster arrives to take him back to London. Kip waits for a long time in the Notary’s office before the single gentleman arrives to tell him that Grandfather and Nell have been found at a place almost seventy miles away. If they drive all night, they may...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Chapter 43-47 Summary

Nell and her grandfather wander through the dirty factory town. Grandfather becomes petulant, asking Nell why she took him away from the last village and demanding to be returned to it. Nell begs him not to make her return, for fear of the dream that she had, which in reality was the threat that her grandfather would be caught as a thief should he steal Mrs. Jarley’s money. As it begins to rain, they seek some shelter but are approached by a factory worker, who tells them there is shelter in a nearby building. As they sit before the fire, the worker tells them that the fire is his friend, and in fact was the place where his father died. The next morning, Nell and Grandfather depart, with two pennies that the factory laborer gave...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Chapter 48-51 Summary

Mrs. Nubbles and the single gentleman are surprised when Quilp jumps out at them at the inn. The single gentleman confronts him for having driven Nell’s grandfather away, though Quilp assures him that the old man left of his own accord after losing his property to Quilp over his loans. Quilp had learned of this intended journey by seeing Dick Swiveller talking to Kit. He had then followed Kit to Little Bethel and then back to the coach station where Mrs. Nubbles and the single gentleman had left on their quest. Quilp followed them in another night coach. Mrs. Nubbles and the single gentleman, having failed to find Nell and her grandfather, head back to London, with Quilp riding on the top of the coach, leaning over and making...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 52-55 Summary

Nell and her grandfather wait for the schoolmaster (whose name is now revealed to be Mr. Marton), who soon returns. He points out an old house to Nell and tells her that the house is hers. Showing the ancient building to her, he explains that the church caretaker who lived there had died. Since the position was still open, Mr. Marton has recommended to the clergyman that Nell be given the job. He takes her to meet the pastor, who sees that she is very young. Mr. Marton assures her that she is old in life and trouble. She is given the job, though her grandfather says he would rather see her being young, dancing in the moonlight. A college friend of the clergyman, known as the Bachelor, introduces several of the schoolchildren and...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Chapter 56-59 Summary

Dick Swiveller is at his desk in Brass’s office when Mr. Chuckster arrives from the Notary’s office. They speak of Kit, whom Mr. Chuckster is sure will eventually turn out to be a thief. He is just finished with this assessment when Kit himself arrives with a letter for the single gentleman. He explains that he must deliver the letter himself, though Dick tries to get him to hand over the letter to him. The single gentleman comes down to see if the person at the door was for him. He discovers that it is Kit and receives the letter that he was evidently expecting. Dick outwardly changes his attitude toward Kit, giving him some money before he returns to the Notary’s.

Kit comes to Brass’s office frequently with...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Chapter 60-63 Summary

Kit is dumbfounded that he should be accused of theft. He pleads with the Brasses and Dick to remember how honest they have found him to be in the past. The constable arrives, but Kit asks that he first be taken to Mr. Witherden, the notary, so he can appeal to them. Before they can leave, Quilp shows up and mocks Kit’s predicament. At the Notary’s office, Kit begs Mr. Witherden and Mr. Garland to testify to his honesty. They do so, but the evidence is to clear. Kit is taken away to the police station, where he is scheduled for trial and then taken to a jail cell.

Kit spends the night weeping, thinking that all his best friends must think him guilty. He thinks of Nell and wonders what she would think if she should...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Chapter 64-66 Summary

After three weeks, Dick Swiveller awakens from his fever. He is confused to find himself wasted away to a skeleton. He hears sounds and thinks he has awakened into an Arabian Nights tale. He discovers that it is the Marchioness who is in his room, playing cribbage by herself. She explains that she has run away from the Brasses and is now living here with Dick, having explained to his landlord that she was his sister. She tells Dick that she overheard Brass and Sally how to plant the five pound note in Kit’s hat and so frame him to get him out of the way. The Marchioness, who was nightly locked in the cellar by Sally, had found an old key and often sneaked out of the cellar in search of food. Using the key, she escaped from the...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Chapter 67-70 Summary

Quilp stays in his bachelor lodgings, attended only by Tom Scott, his errand boy. On a cold and foggy day, Mrs. Quilp arrives with a letter. Quilp refuses to let her in, telling her to throw the letter through the window. She begs to be let in to warm by the fire. Quilp relents and opens the door. He reads the letter, which is from Sally Brass, telling him about Sampson’s confession and the plot to capture Quilp. Quilp is furious, frightening his wife. He tells Tom Scott to escort Mrs. Quilp home and then stay away until he hears from him. He warns his wife that he will disappear, but he will not be dead. After they leave, Quilp checks for escape routes. Soon he hears knocking on his door. He sneaks out to make his escape but...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 71-73 Summary

Kit enters to find the room dark, lit only by the fire in the fire place. He sees an old man rocking back and forth before the fire. He recognizes him as his former master and Nell’s grandfather. He tells Kit that Nell is in the other room, asleep. He thinks he hears her call, but Kit hears nothing.

Grandfather goes into her room and brings out her dress, pressing it to his lips. Mr. Garland, the single gentleman, the schoolmaster and the bachelor enter the house. Grandfather begins to cry, grasping his hair with both hands. The schoolmaster reaches out to him. They speak of Nell, and Grandfather goes once again into her room, returning to say he thought her hand moved. The single gentleman reveals himself to his...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Michael Foster, Ed. Scott Locklear