Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby is the story of the title character. This is a novel that in some ways is very much typical of Dickens but varies in other ways from many of his other works. I found it to be a funny, entertaining and brilliant novel.
Nicholas is a young man of about twenty-one years old. Early on, when his father dies, Nicholas, his sister Kate, and his mother are torn from their middle-class lifestyle and thrown to the mercies of Nicholas’s uncle, Ralph. This uncle is miserly, cold and vindictive. Disliking Nicholas, he sends him away from London to work as a teacher. Though Ralph finds nearby employment for Kate, he tries to set her up for romantic entanglements with his lecherous and immoral business associates.
Throughout the book, Nicholas alternates his time between various employments that he finds both inside and outside of London. Along the way, he works at a boarding school for boys that is horribly abusive and neglectful of its charges. There, he befriends Smike, a mentally handicapped and horribly abused boy who becomes Nicholas’s loyal ally throughout the story. Unfortunately, the pair are also pursued by the evil and cruel headmaster, Wackford Squeers, who is trying to regain custody of Smike. Later, Nicholas and Smike join a company of stage performers and meet all sorts of colorful and amusing characters. Later still, Nicholas settles in working for the kindly Cheeryble brothers. Throughout the narrative arc, Nicholas’s fortunes gradually rise. The protagonist eventually falls in love with a young woman named Madeline Bray. Madeline is ensnared in a moneymaking plot involving Ralph and the girl’s father, aimed at marrying her to the wretched and immoral Arthur Gride. Of course, Nicholas devotes his efforts to derail the scheme. Newman Noggs, a former gentleman with odd habits, who is now impoverished, attempts to aid Nicholas and his family throughout the book.
I have read a lot of Dickens over the years. This book was the most Dickensian of them all. What I mean by that is that this novel had the common features that characterize the author’s work in the greatest abundance. The malicious characters were the most over the top. They represent high levels of both villainy and hilarity. The good characters were almost ridiculously virtuous. The oversentimentality flowed in torrents. The implausible coincidences seemed more abundant than usual, even for Dickens. I do not consider these attributes to be flaws. Reading Dickens over the years, I have come to appreciate these apparent excesses as elements of a surrealistic and brilliant universe that Dickens paints in his novels. The author builds these strange worlds like no other writer has ever done. The book is also filled with Dickens’s marvelous, at times surrealistic descriptions. There are fabulous portraits of people, cityscapes, country scenes, etc.
Nicholas, and to some extent his sister Kate, are a little different from many other Dickens protagonists. In modern language, they would be called “effective.” The siblings are very assertive. Nicholas in particular uses both physical force and the power of language without hesitation to counter the malevolent acts of others. The physical force that he employs is often justified and is often used to stop violence that is directed at weaker people. It all starts when he saves Smike from a brutal beating being administered by Squeers. As he does this, he administers a thorough thrashing of Squeers himself. As a young man in his prime, he is able to effectively and decisively apply this force. Furthermore, Nicholas usually articulates his positions and his reasoning with great effectiveness. The assertiveness is not surprising. His ability to apply force is not surprising. His tendency to act virtuously and stand up for those weaker then himself is not surprising. However, I found that sometimes Nicholas is too good of an orator for a young man of his age. For instance, in the below passage Nicholas is trying to convince Madeline not to enter into what will clearly be a disastrous marriage with Gride.
‘I speak of this marriage,’ returned Nicholas, ‘of this marriage, fixed for tomorrow, by one who never faltered in a bad purpose, or lent his aid to any good design; of this marriage, the history of which is known to me, better, far better, than it is to you. I know what web is wound about you. I know what men they are from whom these schemes have come. You are betrayed and sold for money; for gold, whose every coin is rusted with tears, if not red with the blood of ruined men, who have fallen desperately by their own mad hands.’
As noted above, I find this level of speechmaking a little implausible for someone of Nicholas’s age. On the other hand, the loquaciousness is entertaining and adds drama to the story.
Despite Nicholas’s positive attributes, I think that Dickens was trying to show that Nicholas can be a bit too overbearing and aggressive at times. At one point in the book, he takes it upon himself to lecture his own mother on virtue. Later, he nearly provokes an unnecessary fight with a playwright whom he dislikes.
At one stage of the story, Nicholas and Smike are journeying through the countryside. Here, Dickens’s picturesque descriptions and Nicholas’s strong character both come into play,
The ground seemed elastic under their feet; the sheep-bells were music to their ears; and exhilarated by exercise, and stimulated by hope, they pushed onward with the strength of lions.
Onward they kept, with steady purpose, and entered at length upon a wide and spacious tract of downs, with every variety of little hill and plain to change their verdant surface. Here, there shot up, almost perpendicularly, into the sky, a height so steep, as to be hardly accessible to any but the sheep and goats that fed upon its sides, and there, stood a mound of green, sloping and tapering off so delicately, and merging so gently into the level ground, that you could scarce define its limits. Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side, bounded the view in each direction; while frequently, with unexpected noise, there uprose from the ground a flight of crows, who, cawing and wheeling round the nearest hills, as if uncertain of their course, suddenly poised themselves upon the wing and skimmed down the long vista of some opening valley, with the speed of light itself.
I find the above passage particularly interesting. It seems to embody much that is typically Dickens, but also the uniqueness of Nicholas’s character. It is bursting with Dickens’s usual powerful descriptions as the Hills swelling above each other; and undulations shapely and uncouth, smooth and rugged, graceful and grotesque, thrown negligently side by side. I find that prose here to be sublime.
But Nicholas and Smike are also compared to lions with a steady purpose. One gets a sense of Nicholas’s young strength in this passage. As noted above, Nicholas does embody many aspects of a lion with a steady purpose in his character. This does not seem like typical Dickens to me. His protagonists usually do the right thing, but few, if any, embody the strength and decisiveness of the lion like Nicholas does. One can make an argument that Samuel Pickwick in the Pickwick Paperswas equally strong and assertive in his own way. However, Pickwick was a much older man who had previously lived a life filled with both financial and social successes.
Like most Dickens books, this work was published in installments. This fact seemed more apparent here than in other Dickens novels that I have read. The work feels episodic. At several points, long before the end, it feels like the story has wrapped up and is heading for its conclusion. I think that a tighter structure would have made this a stronger novel.
In the end, this is another brilliant portrait by Dickens. As I have written before, I do not read this author for a realistic portrait of the world. Instead, I look at his works as an exaggerated but brilliant reflection of reality. Along the way, there is much for a reader to absorb and to enjoy. Though perhaps not up to the level of Bleak Houseor David Copperfield, this book is very much worth the read for Dickens fans.
totally agree that this could be the ultimate in Dickensian fantasy. i've read it a couple of times and may do so again: i've loved the way D uses his colored plotting to illustrate social evils...
Hi Muddpuddle- Dickens really uses his worlds to good effect. I can see rereading this book many times.
Hi Brian, this is an outstanding review and its not easy to review a great book particularly a novelist like Dickens because there are so many different characters, adventures etc in his novels but you have done a masterful job with Nicholas Nickleby.
I guess this is what you would call a picaresque novel. Coincidently I have just finished reading The Adventures of Augie Marsh, a 20th century novel which has a bit of a Dickens' feel to it and also a great novel.
Thanks Kathy. Nicholas is a bit aggressive, but not too roguish. I have heard good things about The Adventures of Augie March. It sounds very good.
How grateful I am for your review--splendid fun to read! I see I must read this Dickens novel that I haven't read. ( I think my husband will love it, too.) So many classics I haven't read! But I am enticed by this ultra-Dickensian novel.
I haven’t read this book, but many years ago I went to see the play, which was performed over several hours. It was amazing! During intermission, the actors mingled with the audience and I got to speak with an actress I particularly admired, whom I had seen in Much Ado About Nothing. Anyway, it makes a very impressive play, though I don’t think anyone has ever made a film of it.
I haven't read this classic novel by Dickens, but it does sound brilliant. I enjoyed reading your intriguing commentary. It's interesting that Dickens' characters are so markedly malicious or virtuous. Excellent commentary, once again, Brian Joseph!
Thanks Suko - Though he had some gray characters, Dickens through in lots of very good and very bad folks.
Thanks Judith. There really are so many classics and so many great books. There is never enough time. If you read this. I would love to know what you thought about it.
Hi Sue - I can imagine that this would make a great play. I have not seen it but there was a 2002 film:
Some years ago I read and discussed with a friend a wonderful biography of Dickens. Since then I have meant to read the rest of his novels. As usual Brian, you are encouraging and enticing me to stick to my intended reading plans! And your reviewing just gets better and better.
Thanks so much Judy. I have been slowly working my way through the Dickens novels. I have only a handful to go.
Excellent review. I especially enjoyed your comments on 'Dickensian' writing style. The most recent Dickens novel I read was Dombey and Son, and it has a villain who is always smiling in an unsettling fashion, and a female heroine (Florence) who is very virtuous and I don't think ever feels anger.
For me, the best of Dickens are some of his descriptions of places and people (especially the observations of a strange-looking hat or the contours of a face). Also, even though his characters are often exaggerations, he has moments of subtle psychological insight. (At least, in Dombey and Son he did.)
Thanks Hila. Dombey and Son is one of the Dickens books that I still need to read.
Dickens characters were amazing. As you say. Incredibly described bizarre looking and acting people. Yet there is also some strange complexity or depth to them.
Nicholas Nickleby was a huge stage production in the mid 80's, when I was a High School student, and I read the novel a few years after seeing it. Being so long ago, the details were sketchy, but return to me as I read your review. Especially Nicholas and Kate, their annoying mother, mean Uncle Ralph and poor Smike. The theatre within a theatre was pretty cool too. I agree that if we want to recommend the quintessential Dickens novel, this one ticks the boxes in so many ways. And I do like your point about Nicholas' decisive streak for his tender age. Thanks for reminding me of this great book.
Hi Paula - I have never seen a stage adaptation of this play but I understand why it was and is still popular. The source material is perfect for the stage.
I also find that books that I read long ago fade from memory. I wish that it was not so and that our memories were perfect when it comes to old books.
powerful review dear Brain like always !
each time i read your brilliant commentary and feel lucky enough to get glimpse of another good read :)
i only read dickens "tale of two cities" and i found Corton a fascinating character
i believes writer 's belief in goodness is strong and reflects through his works and characters uniquely and effectively
i would have found Nicholas ' speech more mature than his age if i did not know people closely who did it
and such things reveal that maturity did not come with age but attitude towards life and people
i am thankful for this exquisite passage from the novel which shows writer's mastery over the description of natural phenomena
once again thank you for wonderful blog and inspiring reviews !
An author I'm only know beginning to have pleasure reading. I will get around to reading this one one day.
Hi Tracy - Dickens is well worth it. Happy reading!
Thanks so much Baili. From my readings of Dickens, he definitely believed in good and evil.
Good analysis of the book, Brian. I agree with you that sometimes Dickens bad and good guys are almost cartoonish in their depictions. I've always felt his "pure and good" female types were a little too much.
I also don't like it when people of a certain age talk in a way I know I was not able to when I was that age.
Yet there is something satisfying about someone using a powerful vocabulary and effective use of expression to tell others off.
I cannot remember if I read this book or just saw the mini series back in the early eighties. Either way, I need to read it.
Have a great weekend!
Thanks Sharon - Yes, some of his women characters are a bit too much. I have heard so much about the stage production of this book. I would like to see it.
Have a great day!
"His protagonists usually do the right thing, but few, if any, embody the strength and decisiveness of the lion like Nicholas does."
That's a really good point and I think summarizes why this book was one of my favorite Dickens when I first read it. It's interesting that he counterbalances Nicholas and Kate's strengths with extreme depictions of violence and abuse, however. It's as if he's not comfortable with his protagonists being too powerful; if they are stronger, they must suffer more (?!).
It's been too long since I read this, however. I must put it on my re-read list!
Thanks for another great review. I believe you have captured the essential aspects of the novel. However, I am not sure that I agree that this is the most "Dickensian" of his novels, if that is possible.
Beginning with David Copperfield and continuing through his last seven novels (plus the brilliant, yet unfinished, Mystery of Edwin Drood), Dickens demonstrated a more mature style that was based on more careful planning, even though his novels continued to be released serially. I find that in Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, he reaches the peak of his style that continues to incorporate unique characters while overcoming some of the flaws that you note in your review of Nicholas Nickleby. I know you have previously written about Dickens and I look forward to future commentaries on his novels.
Hi Marian - The bad folks in this book are really violent and brutal. Indeed, the contrast between this and the protagonist’s strong personalities seen related.
Thanks James. My reference to this being the most Dickens like book includes what could reasonably called excesses and perhaps flaws. I agree that the later books were much better crafted.
I read this ages ago when I decided to read Dickens front to back--I didn't finish the project then, and still have a few Dickens novels left to read, but I remember NN very fondly. It was one of his earliest novels so he was still finding his way as an author, but I think you're right in that it feels almost stereotypically Dickensian. I like what you said about Nicholas and Kate being "effective"--I think that's what made them so appealing to me and made them stick in my mind. This is definitely on my reread list.
Hi Jane - It is a Book that is easy to be very fond of. The characters and plot, while obviously early, are a lot of fun. My comprehensive Dickens reading is a very slow, ongoing project.
HiBrian, I agree with Kathy above - reviewing Dickens?? Where do you start? Great job 🙂 I’ve always thought NN was a good entry into Dickens’ books as it’s a bit more straight forward (for Dickens!!) than some of his others. I’ve always wanted to see the movie but haven’t come across it yet.
Hi Carol - I agree, a comprehensive review of this book would virtually take an entire short book. I tend to just try to focus on aspects that I find particularly interesting.
I've been a committed fan of Dickens after reading 'A Tale of Two Cities'. I was lucky enough to pick up hos complete works a while back so intend to work my way through them post retirement (some of them are HUGE books!). The only one I intend to skip is his last unfinished work. I can imagine how frustrated I'd be - especially with a mystery! - when I'd NEVER know how it ends..... [lol]
Hi CyberKitten- I have also come to love Dickens. I am slowly working through his books. Many are long. I tend to track a lot of long books. I also will not read the last unfinished work for the same reason.
Glad you enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby. I like the descriptive passage you shared about the countryside. I tend to like characters that are just a little over the top, it makes them more memorable.
Great post as always.
Thanks Naida - If anything, Dickens’s characters are memorable. He is not known for countryside descriptions. Yet this example is so good.
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