The most gorgeously theatrical of all Dickens's novels, Nicholas Nickleby follows the delightful adventures of a hearty young hero in nineteenth-century England. Nicholas, a gentleman's son fallen upon hard times, must set out to make his way in the world. His journey is accompanied by some of the most swaggering scoundrels and unforgettable eccentrics in Dickens's pantheon. From the dungeon-like Yorkshire boys' boarding school run by the cruel Wackford Squeers to the high-spirited stage of Vincent Crummles's extraordinary acting troupe, Nicholas Nickleby is a triumph of the imagination, bursting with color, humor, and poignant social commentary.
The characters are brilliant. Dickens, you've gone and done it again — created characters I love and many I hate, with a few weak ones in between that I'm just glad I don't have to deal with in real life! The Cheerybles, the Crummles, Tim Linkinwater, and dear Miss La Creevy are great fun, and their warmhearted goodness more than balances the evil characters. Over the top they may be, but they live vibrantly in the novel, and I won't forget them. And the villains are wonderfully villainous: Ralph Nickleby, a great Dickensian misanthrope, Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, the epitome of selfish, blatant cruelty, silly and malicious Miss Squeers, greedy Wackford Jr., and the dissipated debauchee Sir Mulberry Hawk. Dickens' character names are delicious, as usual... Peg Sliderskrew, Arthur Gride, Mr. Lillyvick, and the rest.
Despite the heaviness of the subject matter — the nauseating abuse and neglect occurring in Yorkshire boarding schools of the time, the plight of women who are prey to rapacious men, the agony of poverty — Dickens still manages to infuse his story with some wonderful humor. Whether it's the wry narrative voice ("Mr. Squeers's appearance was not prepossessing. He had but one eye, and the general prejudice runs in favour of two"), the characters' own merriment (John Browdie, your laugh is infectious even from the page), or the ridiculous comic situations (like Mrs. Nickleby's senile admirer coming down the chimney to find her), there is much to laugh over in these pages. It's one of the things Dickens does so well: mixing the heavy and/or melodramatic moments with unabashed humor that is still funny today.
One of the darker themes of the story is how female beauty is a commodity to be bought and sold like anything else. Dickens represents this as a heinous evil, and if he over-glorifies the delicacy and virginity of his two young heroines, I can forgive him because of his anger toward their oppressors and concern for their happiness. Early in the story he indignantly notes that the birth dates of girls were never recorded, just those of boys. Modern feminism may find Dickens a bit of a soft chauvinist, but he shouldn't be judged by standards he never knew. It's more fair (and enjoyable) to look at the gender issues of his work in the context of his own historical period, not ours. Dickens is rather like Victor Hugo in this way.
Sometimes Dickens' social and moral causes get away from him and take over the narrative. In one scene Nicholas gives a lengthy diatribe against playwrights who steal the plots of struggling novelists (clearly Dickens had NO personal experience with such abuses!). The diatribe is intelligent and eloquent, but rather odd in the mouth of Nicholas, who had no previous experience in the story with that particular evil and who could hardly have been expected to possess such an articulate opinion on it. It's a technical flaw to make Nicholas a mouthpiece in such a clumsy way, though I can understand the indignation that prompted Dickens to do so.
There have been several film adaptations of the story, but the only one I have seen is the 2002 version written and directed by Douglas McGrath and starring Charlie Hunnam, Anne Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Romola Garai, Jim Broadbent, and Jamie Bell. The film itself is gorgeous, and I loved the opening credits rolling in front of the painted miniature stage props; such a nice allusion to the theatrical nature of the story. The casting and acting are excellent, for the most part (with some slight qualms about Hunnam's Nicholas, but nothing major). As in the book, John Browdie is a wonderfully congenial and funny character, and Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson as the Squeers are truly sadistic in a very dark (rather than maudlin) way. It was nice to see Timothy Spall (who plays Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films) play a good guy in Charles Cheeryble. Romola Garai was lovely as Kate, and Ralph Nickleby's character is handled deftly by Christopher Plummer.
As expected, parts of the story were condensed or completely dropped from the film: no Kenwigs, no Mantalinis, no Arthur Gride (Hawk takes his part), no Tim Linkinwater (he is conflated with Frank Cheeryble), barely any Miss La Creevy, no inheritance for Madeline, and no duel between Lord Frederick Verisopht and Sir Mulberry Hawk (though Verisopht does keep his brave speech!), to name a few. But though I am generally a purist, I do understand that some things will have to be cut in the process of adapting an almost eight-hundred-page novel to a two-hour film. Compressing events, changing a letter to a face-to-face confrontation, and making other similar changes don't bother me overmuch as long as there is a good reason. It's when the screenwriters start changing characters and plotlines dramatically that I have a problem. That didn't happen in this film, thankfully. Nicholas Nickleby is considerably more serious than McGrath's Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, but it has hints of the same light humorous touch in places. Overall, I enjoyed it very much.
This story is complete with all the unlikely coincidences requisite for a good Dickens. Sometimes the characters are a bit too dramatically Victorian to seem realistic, but you've just got to go with it. Yes, characters will die in each other's arms; yes, it's going to take Kate three days to compose herself after her first assault by Sir Mulberry Hawk; yes, Newman Noggs will devote his life to the enemies of his employer Ralph Nickleby out of sheer revenge. And somehow it all works. I don't think that Nicholas Nickleby is considered one of Dickens' stronger works, but I loved it and would probably rate it third among my favorites (right behind Pickwick Papers and Bleak House). Nicholas is an engaging, imperfect, humorous character who really grows into his strength throughout the course of the novel, and I greatly enjoyed cheering him on. Bravo, Dickens!
As for Ralph Nickleby, the evil uncle, can I just say he makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like an absolute saint! At least Scrooge didn't make a point to ruin people's lives, especially not his own family (as I recall, Scrooge had kind feelings for his nephew, but swept it under the rug for most of that story.) Of course, Ralph's ending looked to be a moral to the reader - a very Victorian choice of eventuality,
The other characters are all well painted if perhaps caricatures - the pathetic and saintly Smike, the burly and heavily accented Browdie, a weak gentleman named Verisopht...so much fun to keep track of. Favorite first name: Wackford.
All in all, enjoyed this, and will continue with Dickens a little longer.
Some of Dickens' main themes the theater. It is a passion of Dickens and that passion is quite evident in this novel. Once Nicholas has left the "boys' school" run by the Squeers he soon takes up with a theater troupe. He is successful translating plays from French into English and doing some acting. This leads me to the theme of illusion and reality. There are examples of this in almost every chapter. In the first scenes of the novel we see Nicholas' family lose their modest wealth when his father's investments are more illusory than real. Nicholas' mother turns to her brother-in-law for help upon the death of her husband only to find any notion of family bonds is also an illusion. Of course the "school" where Nicholas is posted by his uncle Ralph is an utter illusion, much to the detriment of the boys confined therein. As we read further in the novel we find that characters are more likely to not be what they first seem to be; finally, it is somewhat ironic that Nicholas would find himself in a theater troupe learning the profession of creating illusions for a paying audience.
The number of characters seems to grow geometrically as is typical in most of Dicken's novels, but most of the characters introduced so far are interesting enough to keep the reader's attention. Nicholas' growth and education (this novel is a bildungsroman of sorts) is the most interesting aspect of the novel for this reader. But I wonder what it would be like to have the story told from the point of view of his sister Kate? The city of London is very much a character in the novel with Dickens sharing his love for this city more than once probably drawing on the experiences he had on the long walks that he often took (cf. pp. 390 & 446, and 2) the narrator includes brief comments on the state of novel-writing itself (p. 345).
Nicholas Nickleby ends well for Nicholas and his sister Kate. Along with their mother they can look forward to a much brighter future than the one that they faced as the novel began. In creating this 'happy' ending Dickens left many of the most eccentric comic characters by the wayside, gone are the Crummles and Miss Knagg along with other minor characters left by the wayside. Whether this is a flaw in the novel (perhaps) or not the last section of the story does move rapidly to tie up loose ends and provide answers to the more intricate mysteries of relations among the characters. For the details of these answers I suggest you read the novel.
In spite of its seeming lack of structure, a claim which is belied by the strong arcs of both Nicholas' education in life and Ralph Nickleby's search for rewards for his greed and miserliness, the novel is Dickens' first success in the genre (his previous three books being journalistic and picaresque treats, but not novels). One theme that is embodied in this novel is expressed by Newman Noggs as Nicholas despairs that the schemes of Ralph and Arthur Gride will defeat him, his family and Madeline Bray (his one true love). Newman responds with what may be considered the main theme of the novel:
'Hope to the last,' said Newman, clapping him on the back. 'Always hope, that's a dear boy. Never leave off hoping, it don't answer. Don't leave a stone unturned. It's always something to know know you've done the most you could. But don't leave off hoping, or it's of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last!'
- p. 641, Nicholas Nickleby
As I reader you have hope for the good in Nicholas and Newman and John Browdie with the support of the Cherryble brothers; and, you have hope that the evil of Ralph Nickleby, Gride and Squeers will receive justice. You hope to the last.
Nicholas, our hero, is a pleasant and agreeable young man in pursuit of means after the death of his father leaves his family practically destitute. Relying at first upon the kindness of his uncle, and then discovering the man has none, he is first employed as a teacher at a school for young boys under the management of the brutal Mr. Squeers, where he takes under his wing – and takes off with - the loyal, if childlike, Smike. Nicholas sets about taking his fortunes into his own hands, and releasing his family, and especially his sister, Kate, from the clutches of the avaricious and vengeful Ralph Nickleby (characters whom I’d like to slap, list, head of).
Some of the most hilarious, satisfying scenes in literature fall between the covers of Nicholas Nickleby, those wherein Nicholas makes delightful use of his fists (always where others commit outrages on those under his charge) being particularly enjoyable; the fantastic Newman Noggs finally getting to tell off his employer, and the remarkable prison break of the re-captured Smike, masterminded by the Yorkshireman, John Browdie, whose stifling of his own hilarity caused me to half-choke on mine.
Better yet, barely a scene passes that isn’t pasted up and down with Dickens’ satirical social commentary, the perfect tone for this story which deals with the inconsistencies and injustices of a rampantly money-conscious society.
Any work can be described as flawed if examined closely enough; caught up in the story, I didn’t care to poke too critically at anything, and the negatives I can summon are very slight… there are several examples of Dickens’ more sentimentally ‘perfect’ characters – the brothers, Ned and Charles (enjoyable), come to mind, as does Kate Nickleby (bland), although for once it’s hard to knock the stereotypical ‘perfection’ of one woman in a novel, when the entire cast consists of people drawn at the extremes of nature – and, being a tale with a happy ending for most of those that deserve it, the single undeserved tragedy feels rather more unfair to its victim than normal. Far more poignant and clever is the end of the antagonist, towards whom the reader had developed a sort of complicated pity (which in no way precluded the urge to slap him). There exists, perhaps, a weakness in the very last tying up of the plot in that the final machinations of Ralph Nickleby seem to have, in the end, been undone largely by the virtuous following the villainous around for a bit until things reveal themselves.
It took me a fortnight to read Nicholas Nickleby and, despite the pressing urge to read other books on my pile, and the unpleasantly small text in my copy, I consider it time well spent, an auspicious beginning to the year’s reading, and a new favourite.
There is an unfair misunderstanding of Dickens that he wrote in a hurry, by the word, in serials, and that as a result his books are not well thought out integrated novels but instead one incident following another in a somewhat muddled progression. That is unfair for just about all of Dickens’ novels but might be a reasonable characterization of Nicholas Nickleby, which was his third novel and written simultaneously first with Oliver Twist and then with the Old Curiosity Shop, all while editing and publishing various other works. As a result, at times much of the material seems like filler written by someone racing to meet a deadline. In some cases probably quite literally so, as in a few interpolated stories Dickens drops into the beginning.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with filler, the accusation could be made of virtually the entirety of the Pickwick Papers. It is the unevenness of the alternation between the overall arc of the story and the filler that is the problem, as you can almost literally see Dickens turn what starts out as a series of incidents into a full blown, large-scale novel.
By the second half, however, Dickens has hit his stride and with the major caveat of the somewhat insipid Brothers Cheeryble, the book moves along at a face pace with a combination of outstanding melodrama, comedy, and a satisfying culmination to the narrative that takes care of all of the many characters.
Of all the Nicklebys in the book, Nicholas is probably the least interesting – a cardboard virtuous hero, albeit with a bad temper. His mother is hilarious, his sister is touching, and his villainous uncle Ralph is one of the best characters in the book, whose tragic ending makes you almost feel sorry for him.
A: Because that is what he is.
Nicholas Nickleby is a good illustration. I set myself to finish this - 776 pages in this edition - in a month; in the event it took twelve days. On most days, I only put it down because my eyes were throbbing from the small print.
Of course, 776 pages is a lot of book but there is a lot of story; a lot happens to a lot of people. The reader must be given a chance to get to know these people if he is to a give a damn what happens to them. Dickens gives us this time; it is part of his art. He takes time, too, to describe people and places; remember that he wrote in the days before television, or newsreels, or even cheap picture-books. If he wanted the reader to know what something looked like, he had to describe it.
To many, in this world where one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a sound-bite, such a deliberate approach to story-telling will prove too taxing. To those with a more traditional attention span, it must simply add to the experience.
And experience it is. Nickleby loses nothing with the passing of years. Dickens dealt, as do all great writers, with human nature and the real world. At root, neither changes. We are still afflicted with businessmen who know no morality beyond the p&l account; educationalists who substitute cant for understanding and choose to forget the humanity of their charges; gold diggers, cheats and frauds; and parents who care nothing for their children.
Nicholas Nickleby was a page-turner in 1838 and it is a page-turner today. It has, by turns, villainy and romance, comedy and tragedy, sudden death and new beginnings. Truly, all human life is here.
Initially I found Nicholas Nickleby a strange mixture of styles; Dickens' contract with his publishers was to write something 'of a similar character and of the same extent and contents in point of quantity' to The Pickwick Papers, Dickens' first novel, which was a lighter, more episodic work than Oliver Twist. However, Dickens' had been doing some investigative work in respect of the infamous 'Yorkshire schools' of the period and wanted to include some criticism of these schools in Nicholas Nickleby in the same way that he criticised the Poor Laws in Oliver Twist so it has some darker sections unlike The Pickwick Papers.
Nicholas Nickleby follows the adventures of our eponymous hero, Nicholas Nickleby, his mother and his sister Kate after the death of their father. The family begin the story in a very bad way as Nicholas' father was in debt when he died. They are forced on the mercy of their uncle, the dastardly Ralph Nickleby who obtains a position for Nicholas as a teacher at a Yorkshire boarding school. The first quarter of the book shows us the appalling realities of life in a boys' boarding school in Yorkshire through the eyes of Nicholas. The villains who run the school are appropriately grotesque and their pupils appropriately pathetic so it would be easy for the reader to assume that Dickens' descriptions of these schools was an exaggeration. However, from the information in the introduction to my edition (the Penguin Classics edition) it seems that Dickens' description of these schools was all too accurate. Thankfully, the popularity of Nicholas Nickleby meant that most of these schools were forced to close down over the next ten years.
As with all of Dickens' stories, the family who are obviously good and begin the book in poverty don't end the book that way, although there are many twists and turns before all the characters get what they deserve. I initially found the story somewhat rambling in nature and it felt like a lot of the incidents described, although amusing, didn't really have a bearing on the main plot. It helped me to think of these asides as being similar to The Pickwick Papers which is less plot driven and apparently this style of writing is similar to the picaresque style used by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones and Tobias Smollett's Humphrey Clinker.
In terms of characters there were some wonderful villains such as Wackford Squeers, the owner of the Yorkshire school, and Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas' uncle who takes an immediate dislike to his nephew. Both were so deliciously villainous that I felt myself wanting to boo or hiss at them in pantomime style every time they entered the story. There are also many ridiculous characters to laugh at such as Nicholas' mother who never fails to wander from the point in the most amusing fashion and the deceitful yet entertainingly flattering Mr Mantalini.
To me Nicholas Nickleby seems to lie somewhere in between Dickens' first two novels in terms of style, or rather, it seems to be combine aspects of both and so overall, I didn't think it worked quite as well as either. However, I still enjoyed it a lot, especially once I was past the slower first quarter of the book.
The positive aspects of the novel are led by the marvelous comic characters: Mrs Nickelby, who would drive the most patient of listeners to commit mayhem; Mr Lilyvick of the modest fortune and ever-changing will; Mr Crummles and his unusual family, which includes the Infant Prodigy, and several others. Another two believable, if less comic, characters are Newman Noggs and Miss LaCreevy. The settings are beautifully developed, and there’s a considerable amount of humor in the book. And the horrors of Dotheboys Hall are Dickens at his best—so good, in fact, that several headmasters considered suing Dickens for his portrayal, citing it as libelous.
But my heavens! The plot is, even for Dickens, too full of coincidence and deus ex machina for the modern reader to take seriously. Parts of the ending are eminently satisfying, but other parts are too pat. And the book is so very, very long.
Taken as a whole, this is an above-average novel, but it’s certainly not one of Dickens’s best.
When Nicholas Nickleby is left exiguous after his father's death, he turns to his hard-hearted uncle to solicit succor. But Ralph Nickleby, a most unscrupulous and avarious man he is, demonstrates that he is proof against all appeals of blood and kindred, and is steeled against every tale of distress and sorrows. The man will never fail to exert any resolution or cunning that will promise increase of money for there is scarcely anything he will not have hazarded to gratify his greed. It's not that he is unconscious of the baseness of the means with which he acquires his gains. He cares only for gratification of his passions of avarice and hatred. He might have from the beginning conceived dislike to his nephew whom he brazenly places in Squeers' Dotheboys Hall, a school for unwanted boys, as an assistant master.
The cruelty of Squeers, who's coarse and ruffian behavior even at his best temper, Nicholas has been an unwilling witness. The filthy condition of the school and the bodily distortion of the boys impart in him a dismal feeling. The thought of being a helper and abettor of such squalid practice fills his with honest disgust and indignation. The cruelties descend upon helpless infancy fuel this rightful indignation in Nicholas, who interferes with the schoolmaster's flogging a boy named Smike and astonishes everyone in school.
Not only does Ralph persuade Nicholas' family to renounce him for the atrocities to Squeers of which he is guilty, he also betrays his niece Kate into the company of some libertine men who are clients of his and who speak of her in a most casual, lecherous, ribald and vulgar terms. She is roused beyond all endurance by a profusion of compliments of which coarseness becomes humor and of which vulgarity softens down to the most charming eccentricity. The mutual hatred between uncle and nephew aggravates as Nicholas overhears conversations about his sister. The hidden feud further percolates to the surface and leads to a pitch to its malignity as he tries to rescue a girl from a marriage to which she has been impelled.
As the uncle insidiously hatches a scheme to retaliate against his nephew who has in every step of the way interceded and thwarted his plans for mercenary gains, Nicholas entwines with a cast of characters who are humorous, memorable, and true to life. Peripheral to his molding to become a gentleman are episodes of political satire, theatrical success, courtship, family farce, and chicanery. The most significant character is no doubt Smike, whom Nicholas saves from the hellish grip of the schoolmaster and has become his best friend. Nicholas' unfailing love and protectiveness toward the boy accentuates his being the novel's hero, whose domestic virtues, affections, compassion, and delicacy of feelings qualifies him to his later fortune and does him justice.
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY is a flamboyantly exuberant work in which Dickens wreaks the tension of his social satire to a pitch. Details on the Yorkshire school offer such magnifying vision of the cruelty, filthiness, and despotism in the boarding schools. Nor does he spare the rogues and the greedy, whose squeamishness he sarcastically embellishes as a common honesty and whose pride as self-respect. NICHOLAS NICKLEBY also evokes the subtle problem of human nature in establishing boundary of one's remorse. Although Ralph might feel no remorse in his betraying his niece to the temptation of his libertine clients, he hates them for doing what he has expected them to do.
In a sense, Nicholas is seen as the unswerving force that is determined to right the wrong of the society. He tries to appeal to the compassion and humanity of those who have gone astray and to lead them to consider the innocent and the helpless. Nicholas might embody energy for radicalism and ambition to challenge social injustice; his ultimate goal is the recovery of his ancestral position in the social hierarchy. But in the effort to undertake the good deeds, he is influenced by no selfish or personal consideration but by pity for the people he helps and detestation and abhorrence of the heartless schemes. In the same way he is determined to appeal to his uncle's humanity and not to wreak revenge on him. But Ralph's hatred for his nephew has been fed upon his own defeat, nourished on his interference with all his schemes.
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY is a sober social commentary woven with social and domestic issues. Woven in one man's aspiration to restore family's ancestral dignity is Dickens' own musing, monologues, teachings on the soul, the life, and the moral. The discourse at times assumes a voice of despondency, sobriety and indignation.