Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128
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 trail of the old man and the girl, they reach a dead end. Their search carries them as far as the woman who runs the waxworks. Afterward, apparently, the two had vanished from the face of the earth.
Quilp is angered that anyone might be willing to help Little Nell and prevent his plans for her marriage; he then tries to circumvent the Single Gentleman’s efforts. To do so, he plots with Sampson Brass and his sister, Sally, to make it appear that Kit has stolen some money. During one of the boy’s visits to the stranger’s room, Brass places a five-pound note in the boy’s hat. When the money is discovered a few minutes later, Kit...
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is accused of stealing it. Despite his protestations of innocence and the belief of the Single Gentleman and Kit’s employer that the boy has been unjustly accused, he is found guilty and sentenced to be transported to the colonies.
Dick Swiveller, not a complete rogue, discovers through a little girl he befriends, a girl kept virtually as a slave by the Brasses, that Kit has been falsely accused. With his aid, the Single Gentleman and Kit’s employer are able to have the lad released before he is sent out of England. In addition, they discover evidence that causes Brass to be stripped of his professional status and sent to prison. Sally Brass had been just as guilty in her brother’s affairs, and she disappeared. Warned by Sally Brass of the turn his plot has taken, Quilp tries to flee prosecution. He leaves his riverside retreat late at night, falls into the Thames, and drowns.
Shortly afterward, the Single Gentleman learns the whereabouts of Little Nell and her grandfather. Kit’s employer’s brother lives with the vicar of the church, where the girl and her grandfather are caretakers, and the employer’s brother had written to tell of the new couple in the village. Accompanied by Kit and his employer, the Single Gentleman starts off at once to find Little Nell and her grandfather. During the journey, the Single Gentleman relates his reasons for being interested in the pair.
The Single Gentleman is the grandfather’s younger brother. Years before, the grandfather and he had both been in love with the same woman. Unsuccessful in his suit, the younger brother had left England. After many years, he returned to learn that Nell’s father and his profligate son, Nell’s brother, had wasted the family fortune, leaving Nell and the old man in straitened circumstances from which her grandfather had tried desperately to rescue them. Wealthy in his own right, the Single Gentleman wishes to rescue his brother and Little Nell from the plight into which they have fallen.
The rescuers arrive in the village too late. Little Nell has just died, and she is buried the day after their arrival in the churchyard where she had found happiness and employment. Her grandfather, who feels he now has nothing to live for, dies on her tomb a few days later and is buried beside her.
Kit had been in love with Little Nell as an ideal; he now returns with Nell’s granduncle to London. Through his patron’s influence and with help from the same men who had judged him guilty of stealing money, only to find him honest and innocent, he finds a proper place in society and soon is married to a worthy young woman. After Sampson Brass is released from prison, the Brasses become beggars in and about London. Mrs. Quilp is released by her dwarfish husband’s death, and she happily marries again. The old curiosity shop is soon destroyed to make way for a new building. Even Kit cannot tell exactly where it had stood.