If this book has a message, it's stay away from gambling. Nell is a main motivator in this novel, but not a main character as suggested in some reviews of the book. There is no real hero. If there is, it's a little keyhole spy who manages to unravel a twisted plot to ruin Kit. But she is barely mentioned aside from the pasty ending which relieved me of the burden of feeling compelled to finish this book.
There is an exception to this general feeling I have of this novel. There is the scene of Nell's grandfather stealing from her which is so brilliantly narrated. If there is some real evil character in this book, the one that brings the flawless 'Nell' to a very early grave, it is in fact her grandfather.
The grandfather, having already openly stolen Nell's purse for gambling, goes another step by robbing her in secrecy while he imagines her asleep.
"The dark form was a mere blot upon the lighter darkness of the room... it busied its hands in something, and she heard the chink of money.
Then, on it came again, silent, stealthy as before, and replacing the garments it had taken from the bedside, dropped upon its hands and knees, and crawled away. How slowly it seemed to move, now that she could hear but not see it, creeping along the floor...In the end, it was not the men of that public house who would rob her, but rather her own grandfather.
It crept along the passage until it came to the very door she long so ardently to reach...
The door was partly open. Not knowing what she meant to do, but meaning to preserve him or be killed herself she staggered forward and looked in... ...at the table sat the old man himself... his white face pinched and sharpened by the greediness which made his eyes unnaturally bright...
Another interesting scene is when Nell is sent to collect some money from a mistress at a school.
The chief mistress, Miss Monflathers, of the school for whom Nell's caravan had entertained, chooses to torment her rather than pay her bill:
"Don't you think you must be a wicked little child... to be a wax-work child at all?"
She then suggests that she ought to pursue high education and work...
Nell cries, drops her handkerchief. One pupil picks it up for her and returns it. This act elicits more verbal lashings (for the kind pupil, Miss Edwards).
Miss Monflathers says to Miss Edwards, "... you have an attachment to the lower classes which always draws you to their sides..."
Miss Edwardes is then threatened to be turned out: her reason for feeling empathy.
'This young lady, being motherless and poor, was apprenticed at the school--taught for nothing--teaching others what she learnt, for nothing--and set down and rated as something immeasurably less than nothing by all the dwellers in the house. The servant maids were better treated; they were free to come and go."
The opportunities for Nell to lead a happy life come and go. They come to her, but go whenever the old man gets trapped by his addiction to gambling. As she manages to find one place for them, he manages to find someone who will make him a willing victim of some gambling scheme. It drives them both through villages on foot and several times to the limits of her endurance until they come to rest at an old sleepy village, guests of school master who had come to love her (platonically, in a grandfatherly way). This village would end her, or offer her her final rest before her end. Either the village kills her or the trek to the village killed her.
Kit is the other main character. His character is also flawless as Nell's, but he has a strength which preserves him. Or perhaps his ordeal is not so great. The malignant character, the dwarf named Daniel Quilp, hates Kit as he represents the other end of the character spectrum as he. Quilp hates what is good and does everything he can to torture and destroy it: his wife, the Nell and her grandfather, and Kit. He succeeds in destroying everyone except for Kit and his wife who both come out on top after Quilp manages to get himself drowned.
Parts of the book are quite brilliantly written. But the dull parts are quite extensive. If not for Dickens' ability to make phrases this book would be a lost cause. In fact, somewhere near the end of the novel the author has a) gotten an understudy to continue the book or b) just gotten clumsy and bored with a listless plot, to the extent that even the masterful narrative isn't enough to carry the book along. Nell dies, Kit survives and is made better for his weathering the trial, Quilp's wife inherits Quilp's wealth and remarries to a good man.
I don't know why I have such a hard time with this toothless narrative. It is well written. It just says very little. What little is said has the taste of cheap corn syrup for the most part and I feel like my time was badly wasted on a thick wad of pointless leaves. There were maybe two or three excellent pages of prose while the rest, mostly well written, had no point at all.