Study Guide

Nicholas Nickleby

by Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The title character of Nicholas Nickleby sets off to be a schoolmaster in the north of England when the death of his father leaves the Nickleby family in bad straits—a trial his pretentiously genteel and garrulous mother (a comic portrait of Dickens’s own mother) finds hard to bear. At Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, Nicholas wins a test of strength with the evil headmaster Squeers, whose reign of terror has resulted in the abuse and deaths of his cringing charges, all of whom are orphans and unwanted children—a fictionalization of the real-life horrors that Dickens documented during a visit to Yorkshire with his illustrator.

Next, Nicholas becomes an actor in the hilariously inept touring company of Mr. and Mrs. Crummies, a development that allows Dickens to demonstrate both his knowledge and his affection for the theater. Meanwhile, the rather precarious main plot of the novel concerns the pathetic Smike, a handicapped boy whom Nicholas rescued from Dotheboys; its climax occurs when the boy is revealed to be the illegitimate son of Nicholas’s evil uncle, Ralph Nickleby, who has also plotted against the innocence of Nicholas’s sister, Kate. Father and son both perish, but a happy conclusion is brought about by the fairy-tale benevolence of the Cheeryble Brothers. Not surprisingly, they have long been targets of attack for critics who believe that Dickens has no practical or political solutions to offer to the abuses that he exposes.

Nicholas Nickleby Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Nicholas Nickleby was nineteen years old, his father died, bankrupt. A short time after their bereavement, Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother set out for London. While there, they hope that the late Mr. Nickleby’s brother, Ralph, might be willing to do something for them. Ralph Nickleby, a miserly moneylender, grudgingly allows his sister-in-law and Kate to move into empty lodgings he owns, and he secures a position for Nicholas as assistant to Wackford Squeers, who operates a boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire.

Nicholas, leaving his mother and sister in Ralph’s care, travels to the school and finds it a terrible place where the boys are starved and mistreated almost beyond human imagination. Nicholas is forced to endure the situation, for his uncle had warned him that any help given to his sister and mother depends upon his remaining where he had been placed. A crisis arises, however, when Wackford Squeers unjustly and unmercifully beats an older boy named Smike. Nicholas intervenes, wresting the whip from Squeers and beating the schoolmaster with it instead. Immediately afterward, Smike and Nicholas leave the school and start walking toward London.

In London, meanwhile, Ralph Nickleby tries to use Kate to attract young Lord Verisopht into borrowing money at high rates. He also finds work for Kate in a dressmaking establishment, where there is a great deal of labor and almost no pay. Kate does not mind the work, but she is deeply distressed at the leers she has to endure when invited to her uncle’s home to dine with Lord Verisopht and Sir Mulberry Hawk. Not long afterward, the dressmaker goes bankrupt, and Kate becomes a companion to a wealthy but selfish and neurotic woman.

When Nicholas arrives in London, he seeks out Newman Noggs, his uncle’s clerk, who had promised to help him if it were ever in his power. Newman Noggs helps Nicholas clear himself of the false charges of being a thief that had been brought against him by Squeers and Ralph Nickleby.

With some notion of becoming sailors, Nicholas and Smike decide to go to Bristol. On the way, they meet Vincent Crummles, a theatrical producer, whose troupe they join. Both Smike and Nicholas are successful as actors. In addition, Nicholas adapts plays for the company to produce. After some weeks, however, Nicholas receives a letter from Newman Noggs warning him that his presence is urgently required in London. Nicholas leaves hurriedly and arrives in London late that night. Not wishing to disturb his family, Nicholas stays at an inn, where he encounters Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht and overhears them speaking in derogatory terms of Kate. Nicholas remonstrates with them and demands to know their names. In the altercation, Sir Mulberry’s horse bolts and the baronet is thrown from his carriage and severely injured.

Newman asks Nicholas to...

(The entire section is 1175 words.)

Nicholas Nickleby Chapter Summaries

Chapters 1-4 Summary

When Godfrey Nickleby inherited five thousand pounds from his uncle, he bought a farm in Devonshire. When he died, his eldest son, Ralph, inherited the bulk of the estate and went to London where he managed to increase his fortune by financial speculation and sharpness. His brother, Nicholas, remained in Devonshire and also speculated but lost it all. He took to bed, said good-bye to his wife and two children (his son Nicholas and his daughter Kate) and died, leaving his family with no money but with a hope that his brother Ralph would look after Mrs. Nickleby and the children, though the two brothers had not been close since they reached adulthood.

Ralph Nickleby runs a business of unknown nature, but which generates a great deal of money. His clerk, Newman Noggs, had once been a gentleman, but, having run into financial difficulties, had come to Ralph for a loan, but was instead given the lowly job of clerk. Ralph Nickleby attends a meeting of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company to commence its business by request of Parliament. It is also decided that a petition be presented to Parliament for the elimination of muffin street-sellers, out of concern for their safety, but in actuality to prevent competition.

Ralph receives a letter telling him that his brother is dead (which does not upset him that much) and that his widow and two children are in London (which does upset him). He does not want poor relatives hanging about him, so he goes to the address where Mrs. Nickleby is staying. He talks to Miss La Creevy, a miniature portrait painter and Mrs. Nickleby’s landlady, that Mrs. Nickleby is poor and it would be best if Miss La Creevy throw her out. Miss La Creevy says that she hopes, if Mrs. Nickleby cannot afford to pay her rent, that her family will help her out. Ralph tells her that, as he is the only family, he will not do this. He visits Mrs. Nickleby and her children...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Chapters 5-7 Summary

As Nicholas prepares to leave for Yorkshire, his sister and mother help and try to keep their emotions in check. Nicholas decides to leave early in the morning to avoid a tearful scene, but he runs into Miss La Creevy, who has also risen early to paint noses of pedestrians on the early morning street below. She tells Nicholas that his sister especially will miss the protection of a brother. Nicholas asks her to be kind to his family, then he walks to the inn where Mr. Squeers is giving a weak breakfast to five new students. Mrs. Nickleby and Kate, along with Ralph Nickleby, arrive just as Nicholas is boarding the stagecoach. Kate is very unnerved by Mr. Squeers, and they wish Nicholas a tearful goodbye. Newman Noggs also arrives and gives a note to Nicholas.

The coach takes off before Nicholas can ask Noggs any questions. The weather is cold and snowy during the trip, which is interrupted when the stagecoach overturns. When the horses are cut loose, Nicholas catches them before they run away. The passengers walk to the nearest public house, where they wait for the next coach. They listen to an old man tell the story of the Five Sisters, who grieve for their youngest sister who died before them. The sisters are memorialized in a stained-glass window in the cathedral at York. Another gentleman tells the story of the Baron of Grogswig and his unpleasant wife. At last the next coach arrives, and the company sets forth. Nicholas finally arrives at Greta Bridge in Yorkshire the next evening.

A chaise and a cart arrive to take Squeers, Nicholas, and the boys to Dotheboys Hall, though Squeers explains to Nicholas that it is not really a hall. When they arrive, Nicholas sees a one-story, run-down building. Squeers calls for Smike, a crippled boy in his late teens who does all the errands. Mr. Squeers takes a bundle of letters from his pocket and Smike looks anxiously toward the bundle, hoping that one of the letters might be for him. Squeers says no one ever has written to Smike, nor as anyone paid for him past the first six years. Nicholas meets Mrs. Squeers, who dotes on her husband but has no use for anyone else. She feeds her husband a steak dinner. Nicholas has lost his appetite by pondering Smike’s sad situation, so Mrs. Squeers sees no sense in cutting a meat pie for him; he is given only a bit of leftover meat.

Nicholas is given a place to sleep for the night while Mr. and Mrs. Squeers consider where to put him permanently. They mention a bed that is already full—currently housing four boys. After they retire for the night, Nicholas remembers Noggs’s letter, which says that, should Nicholas ever need any help, Noggs would gladly provide it. This touches Nicholas so that it brings a tear to his eyes.

Chapters 8-10 Summary

In the morning, the air is so cold that the water pump has frozen. Mrs. Squeers proclaims that it is “brimstone weather” and begins to shovel treacle and medicine down each of the schoolboys’ throats, announcing that, since it fends off illness as well as appetite, it does good to the boys and the Squeers at the same time. After the boys eat their meager breakfast, Mr. Squeers announces the mail. He reads the letters aloud to the whole school (including the bad news) and pockets whatever money is enclosed.

During lessons, Mr. Squeers reads off vocabulary and manages to find some connection to a chore, which the scholar is then sent off to do. At the end of the day, Nicholas sees Smike shivering and bids him come...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Chapters 11-14 Summary

Kate prepares for her new life as a milliner’s assistant. Miss La Creevy warns her of the fate of milliners she has known, but Mrs. Nickleby is sure Kate’s fortune is assured. However, Mrs. Nickleby is enthralled by any new prospect solely for its newness. Newman Noggs arrives to escort Kate and her mother to their new home, but Mrs. Nickleby insists that they have a carriage; they may not own a great deal at present, but she does not want to be seen carrying large parcels through the streets. Newman states that he thought of getting them a carriage but was not sure if they would be ready. When the carriage arrives, Kate bids farewell to Miss La Creevy, who assures her that they will continue to be friends and stay in touch...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Chapters 15-17 Summary

Newman Noggs finds Nicholas and Smike waiting in his rooms (which are in the same building as those of the Kenwigs). He gives the two a place to get dry and to sleep for the evening. He tells Nicholas that Fanny Squeers wrote a letter to Ralph Nickleby; she said Mr. Squeers is now crippled and Mrs. Squeers narrowly escaped death or brain injury from the beatings that Nicholas gave them. Ralph has had no chance to reply to this report, Noggs says, because he has been out of town.

Downstairs, the Kenwigs and their guests speculate on what might be the news that called Noggs away from the party; they think perhaps it is a return of his property after all this time. Soon they hear the baby crying and rush upstairs. They...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapters 18-20 Summary

Kate’s position at Madame Mantalini’s millinery shop is enhanced when the forewoman, Miss Knag, befriends her. She walks Kate to meet Mrs. Nickleby, and the three of them stop in at Miss Knag’s brother’s business. This friendship lasts for three days, much to the amazement of the other female workers. However, when a lord and his family ask specifically to see Kate, it becomes clear that the women of the shop and especially Miss Knag become jealous of the attention Kate receives from the customers. Miss Knag declares that she hates Kate and effectively ends the pseudo-friendship she had instigated. The animosity against Kate from her coworkers continues and increases each day until Kate is glad when Saturday comes.

...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Chapters 21-23 Summary

Three days after the dinner party, Kate can finally manage to go back to work at Madame Mantalini’s. While she is there, two “professional gentlemen” of a rough and dirty appearance come and inquire for Mr. Mantalini. He has put himself into serious debt through gambling and horse racing and now must pay up. The two gentlemen have come to take inventory of his possessions. Madame Mantalini is beside herself and Mr. Mantalini runs off. Madame Mantalini sends Kate after him; she finds Mr. Mantalini in the act of sharpening a breakfast knife in preparation to end his life. Madame Mantalini arrives and takes the knife from him.

Kate discovers in the papers that the millinery has gone bankrupt, that it has been taken...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapters 24-26 Summary

Nicholas is working on translating the play the next morning when Mr. Folair and Mr. Lenville of the troupe come to visit him. They give him several suggestions, particularly on expanding their own parts. He is then informed by Mr. Crummles that he is to go with Miss Snevellicci (who is the lead actress of the troupe) to go on a round of calls to different patrons to subscribe to the upcoming performances. Nicholas is unwilling to do this, but he finally relents under pressure. He and Miss Snevellicci, along with the Infant Phenomenon, proceed on their visits. The Infant Phenomenon is called on to do impromptu performances, especially in households with children, to excite interest in the play.

On opening night,...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Chapters 27-29 Summary

Mrs. Nickleby is thinking about her daughter’s future as Lady Mulberry Hawk when two gentlemen, Pyke and Pluck, arrive. They are emissaries of Sir Mulberry and request that Mrs. Nickleby join them, Sir Mulberry, and her brother-in-law Ralph at the theater that evening. Mrs. Nickleby explains that she never goes out, but Pyke and Pluck insist and tell her that a carriage will arrive to pick her up. Mrs. Nickleby eventually agrees, thrilled at the thought of being in the company of aristocracy and unhappy that Kate never told her of the acquaintance. When she arrives at the theater that night, Mrs. Nickleby is met by Pyke and Pluck and escorted to the box where Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht are waiting. As they settle into...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Chapters 30-33 Summary

Mr. Crummles convinces Nicholas to stay for a “final performance,” which lasts for three nights. He attends a dinner with some of the actors as well as Miss Snevellicci’s parents. Mr. Snevellicci expounds on his adoration of females, even married ones. To prove it, he winks and blows kisses to Mrs. Lillyvick. Mr. Lillyvick becomes irate and attacks the elderly gentleman, knocking him under the table.

Rumor has it that a London manager is to be in the audience at the final performance. This causes each actor to make the most of his own performance, only to discover that the manager is asleep. He awakens and leaves the audience, for which Nicholas is grateful, not yet having come on stage.

Nicholas...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Chapters 34-36 Summary

Mr. and Mrs. Mantalini come to see Ralph Nickleby about a loan, but Mrs. Mantalini also is interested in setting up an allowance for her husband. Mr. Mantalini proclaims his wife is trying to kill him, so Mrs. Mantalini postpones further thought of this. Mr. Mantalini asks Ralph if he has heard about Sir Mulberry Hawk’s recent attack. Ralph is pleased to learn that Nicholas was the attacker because this gives him further “ammunition” against his nephew.

Ralph’s next visitor is Mr. Wackford Squeers and his son. Mr. Squeers tells him of the low state of his own health due to Nicholas’s attack upon him. He hints that he would appreciate some financial compensation from Ralph because it was he who suggested...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapters 37-39 Summary

Nicholas begins his work at the offices of the Cheeryble Brothers under the watchful eye of Tim Linkinwater, the elderly clerk. Linkinwater had worried that the business would fall apart after he died, but he now has confidence that Nicholas will carry on with success. The Cheeryble Brothers announce that it is Linkinwater’s birthday and there will be a dinner that evening, to which Nicholas is invited. The party is lively with the humor of the Ned and Charles Cheeryble, and Nicholas feels that he has at last fallen on good times.

On arriving at home, Nicholas is surprised to find his mother and Smike still awake and evidently waiting for him. Mrs. Nickleby has been entertaining (or rather confusing) Smike with tales...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapters 40-42 Summary

Smike quickly runs away from the place of his imprisonment and takes a circuitous route back to the home of Newman Noggs. Newman and Nicholas are overjoyed to see him, having imagined the worst. Nicholas suspects that his uncle had something to do with Smike’s kidnapping. He goes to the Cheeryble Brothers’ office and unwittingly interrupts a conversation between the brothers and the young lady who caught his eye long ago in the Register Office. Forgetting his intention to discover Ralph’s involvement, he has Newman Noggs follow the young woman. Noggs returns to inform Nicholas that her name is Cecelia Bobster and that she lives with her widowed father. Nicholas has Noggs lead him to the Bobster residence, but it turns out...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Chapters 43-45 Summary

Nicholas, at the Saracen’s Head Inn, overhears an argument between a young gentlemen and other patrons who have made inappropriate remarks about a young woman. Nicholas steps in and helps the young man, remembering a similar instance when he had to defend his sister’s honor from the remarks of Sir Mulberry Hawk. By a great coincidence, the young gentleman is Frank Cheeryble, the expected nephew of the Cheeryble Brothers. Frank has been in Germany, at the branch of the business there, and he spent a few months in the north of England. Nicholas wonders if Frank knows the young woman from the Register Office and the Cheeryble Brothers’ office, though he reasons that, since Frank has been gone for four and a half years, it is...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Chapters 46-48 Summary

Nicholas goes to the Cheeryble brothers to report the events of the previous evening. He learns that Ralph has already been there and tried unsuccessfully to turn the brothers against Nicholas. They assure Nicholas that he will have their full support in keeping Smike away from his reputed father.

The Cheeryble brothers then tell Nicholas that they have a specific job for him. There is a young woman by the name of Madeline Bray who has come to them for help. She is the same woman with whom Nicholas has fallen in love, who fainted when he walked in on her meeting with the Cheerybles. Madeline is the daughter of a former love of Charles Cheeryble’s. Madeline’s mother had married Mr. Bray, who made her life miserable...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Chapters 49-51 Summary

Smike seems to sink further into ill health. Nicholas calls a physician, who determines that it might be consumption but says it is too early to tell yet. His symptoms are not serious, so there is no cause to worry. However, Smike seems to take himself early to bed on the evenings when Frank Cheeryble comes to call, which is usually three nights a week. On one of these evenings, Miss La Creevy also comes to visit. Frank maneuvers himself close to Kate. As they talk, they hear a noise coming from the chimney in the next room. When they investigate, they find a pair of legs encased in grey stockings hanging down into the fireplace. Mrs. Nickleby and Kate immediately recognize them as belonging to the mad gentleman from next door, who...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Chapters 52-54 Summary

Nicholas continues to run even when Newman Noggs catches up and tells him that he is unlikely to change Mr. Bray’s mind. When Nicholas speaks of going to see his uncle instead, Newman says this is also likely to be fruitless. Nicholas eventually goes home, determined to find some way to stop Madeline’s marriage.

Mrs. Kenwig is despairing that her eldest daughter, Morleena, is in need of a haircut but she has no time to take her. Newman volunteers and takes Morleena to the barbershop. The only other customer is an old man getting a shave. Morleena sits patiently, but then she cries out when she recognizes the old man as her great-uncle Lillyvick. Lillyvick asks Newman if the Kenwigs took the news of his marriage...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Chapters 55-58 Summary

Nicholas takes Madeline to his own home, where Kate watches over her recovery. Mrs. Nickleby is confused as to why her son and his friends are so intent on preventing Madeline’s marriage. Kate tries to explain but is unsuccessful. Mrs. Nickleby tells Nicholas that she is sure Frank Cheeryble is in love with Kate. Nicholas is horrified rather than pleased. He explains to his mother that he cannot repay the Cheeryble brothers for their kindness by allowing their nephew to marry a girl from so poverty-stricken a family as the Nicklebys. Mrs. Nickleby does not agree, but Nicholas vows to find some way to divert Frank from Kate. Smike, in the meantime, becomes increasingly unwell. Nicholas decides to take him to Devonshire, where he...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Chapters 59-62 Summary

When Newman Noggs does not appear at work by noon, Ralph sends for him. He learns that Newman is not at home and has not been at home all night. Ralph finds this suspicious, but he is interrupted when Charles Cheeryble arrives, offering him mercy. Ralph rejects this, so Charles leaves with the warning that he will soon come to him when he is forced to do so. Ralph goes to the home of Mr. Snawley. Mrs. Snawley, however, refuses to let him in. Ralph next goes to the inn where Mr. Squeers has been staying, but he is told that Squeers left with two men, and after him an old woman was taken away. He does not find Arthur Gride at home either. He realizes that he must go to the Cheeryble Brothers office, where he finds both brothers and...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Chapters 63-65 Summary

Nicholas and Kate try not to regret their decisions while Mrs. Nickleby grieves over the loss of the excitement in her life, especially after Madeline is placed in another home. Frank no longer comes to visit. One day the Nicklebys receive an invitation to dinner from the Cheerybles. Mrs. Nickleby is suspicious, sensing that there is something more than just a dinner in this. When they arrive, they are surprised to find that Frank Cheeryble has returned. The Cheeryble brothers draw Nicholas and Frank aside. They explain that the will Gride had stolen shows that a considerable sum was left to Madeline by an uncle, who changed his mind from leaving it to charity out of spite for Madeline’s refusal to do what he wanted. Frank is...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster