Critical Evaluation

Although Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, objected to Nicholas Nickleby on the grounds that the novel was insufficiently edifying, most Victorian readers—including Charles Dickens’s rival, William Makepeace Thackeray—admired it; from its initial sale of fifty thousand copies, the book was one of Dickens’s triumphs. The first of his novels in which the love story is the main subject, Nicholas Nickleby still retains many picaresque elements that appear in The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) and Oliver Twist (1837-1838).

Dickens’s greatest strength in Nicholas Nickleby lies in the marvelous descriptions of people and places. The characters still tend to be eccentrics dominated by a single passion (almost in the manner of Ben Jonson’s “humors” characters, although lacking Jonson’s theory of the psychology of humors); the minor characters in particular seem to be grotesques. However, there is a vitality in the farcical elements of the novel that is delightful. The influence of Tobias Smollett, both in the comedy and the tendency to realistic detail, is still strong in this early novel. The influence of melodramas also still colors the plot, but Dickens breathes new life into old stock situations.

Even if the melodramatic and episodic structure of Nicholas Nickleby is unoriginal, confusing, and improbable, the comedy and vitality of the book are the result of genius. Readers feel the tremendous force of life, of the changing times, of youth and growth, on every page. Tales develop within tales, and countless life stories crowd the chapters. It is a young man’s creation, indignant, farcical, and romantic in turn, and it is filled with vivid scenes. At...

(The entire section is 712 words.)