After becoming increasingly mired in debt, Little Nell and her grandfather are left with no choice but to flee London. Pursued relentlessly by a cruel and ruthless dwarf named Quilp, Nell and her grandfather journey on through scenes ranging from the pastoral simplicity of village life to the hellish industrial wastelands of Victorian England. The characters they meet along the way each have their own unusual story to tell, and each takes an inexplicable interest in the two ill-matched travelers. Dickens follows his odd assortment of characters through time and space, thick and thin, carving a fascinating and ultimately surprising path across the English countryside.
The Old Curiosity Shop is a bizarre amalgamation of people and events that ultimately come together at the climax of the plot. Only Charles Dickens could weave such a vast and intricate web from such seemingly disparate pieces. The crazy, quirky cast of characters are vivid caricatures whose oddities will at times horrify and at others delight the reader. Dickens' extreme use of irony makes for a clever and often laugh-out-loud funny narrative, with each successive episode becoming more extravagant than the last. Whether the characters are endearing or utterly abhorrent, each is engrossing and undeniably larger-than-life.
Oddly, the ostensible heroine, Nell, becomes rather exasperating as the novel progresses simply because she is so unrealistically virtuous. While Dickens is certainly using her as a kind of allegorical figure, it is hard to connect with her as the main character in the way modern audiences expect. Yet the excessive sentimentality her character brings into the plot serves as an interesting counterbalance to the almost slapstick vice of the seedier characters. The sheer quantity and diversity of the other characters more than makes up for Nell's irritating perfection.
However, it is the innovative use of imagery and description in the novel that truly sets it apart. Dickens has a markedly distinct style, rarely saying what he really means, and the ornate portraits he carefully constructs for his readers give more insight into the depths of the novel than even the most direct narrative. The Old Curiosity Shop's depiction of Victorian England is stark and vivid, though frequently bleak, and evokes a surprising mixture of despair and delight. Regardless of time or place, this curious saga will leave an indelible mark on readers' imaginations long after Nell's story ends.