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.