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.