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 this stage of his career, Dickens was still attempting to provide something for everybody.
Because of his complicated, melodramatic plot, however, Dickens was not wholly successful in working out the psychology of the novel. As critic Douglas Bush has observed, the characters of Dickens’s early fiction are given over to self-dramatization. Mrs. Nickleby, in particular, evades the responsibilities of her troubled life by withdrawing into her blissful vision of the past. She sees herself as a romantic heroine, although her admirer is only a lunatic neighbor who throws cucumbers over the wall. Like many other characters of the book—among them Vincent Crummles, Smike, and Nicholas himself—she is isolated in her own imagination, locked in an often inimical world. Her eccentricity, like that of most of the minor characters, is an outward symbol of estrangement from the hostile social mechanisms of convention, order, and mysterious power. Nicholas succeeds in love and fortune, not so much by his own resources but through chance—good luck with the Cheeryble brothers, for example—and through his own amiable disposition.
At this point in his development as a novelist, Dickens was unable to create—as he eventually would in David Copperfield, Pip, and other protagonists—a hero who is fully aware of his isolation and confronts his sense of guilt. The reader must accept Nicholas on the level of the author’s uncomplicated psychology: as a genial, deserving fellow whose good luck, good friends, and honest nature reward him with happiness, affection, and prosperity.
Late criticism has focused on the importance of Nicholas Nickleby in Dickens’s canon of work. For Dickens’s art it represents a true advance over his methods in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Nicholas Nickleby features the characteristic array of malevolent characters trying to work their ruin on the hero. However, for the first time, Dickens deepens the psychology of one of his villains, recounting the unhappy upbringing of Ralph Nickleby.
The distinguished writer G. K Chesterton was one of the most astute early critics of the novel, praising it for its characterizations. The...
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novel is suffused with what would be the major themes of Dickens’s later fiction—love and money—and the loss and acquisition of both.Nicholas Nickleby is replete as well with Dickens’s favorite plot feature: the abandoned child who is eventually reconnected to his or her true relatives, although in this novel with sad consequences. Nicholas Nickleby is double-layered, revolving around the adventures of both Nicholas and his long-suffering sister, Kate. The theatricality of the novel has been much noted, certainly a major reason for its frequent dramatization on stage and in film.