(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.


(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.)