When his father dies, Nicholas Nickleby travels to London with his mother and sister, Kate, to seek help from his uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Uncle Nickleby, a hardened and unscrupulous moneylender, grudgingly secures Nicholas a position at Dotheboys Hall, run by Wackford Squeers, a dishonest, cruel, and greedy schoolmaster.
Exploited by Squeers and his wife and pursued by their unattractive daughter Fanny, Nicholas berates Squeers for his abuse of Smike, a retarded boy, and leaves, taking Smike with him.
Nicholas and Smike are protected by Newman Noggs, Ralph’s secretary. Nicholas confronts his uncle, who denounces him and refuses to support any who have anything to do with him. To shield his mother and Kate, Nicholas takes Smike, leaves London, and joins a theatrical company.
Forced to attend a dinner party give by her uncle, Kate is subject to the unwelcome advances of Sir Mulberry Hawk and attracts the admiration of Lord Frederick Verisopht. Ralph refuses to discourage Hawk. Noggs, in desperation, sends for Nicholas, who confronts Hawk. Verisopht, realizing Kate’s integrity, fights a duel with Hawk. Verisopht is killed, but Hawk is forced to flee England.
Nicholas is employed by the Brothers Cheeryble, philanthropic twins, and falls in love with Madeline Bray, befriended by the Cheerybles when her father is in debt. Nicholas is horrified to discover that his uncle, scheming to defraud Madeline of her inheritance, has arranged for her to marry the aged Arthur Gride. To save her father, she agrees, but Nicholas and Noggs rescue her.
Kate is courted by Frank Cheeryble, the brothers’ nephew. Feeling that they cannot marry the wealthy Frank and Madeline, Kate and Nicholas retire to Devon with the dying Smike, who they and Ralph discover is Ralph’s son, abducted years ago. His crimes catching up with him, Ralph commits suicide. The Brothers Cheeryble reunite the couples.
NICHOLAS NICKLEBY appeared in serial form when Dickens was only twenty-six. While the novel is a success story with a happy ending, its portrayal of education, poverty, and greed make it one of Dickens’ more realistic and mature works.
Adrian, Arthur A. Dickens and the Parent-Child Relationship. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984. Discusses the status of children in working-class Victorian England and Dickens’ own experience as a son and a father. Includes drawings of children at work in a variety of occupations.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Charles Dickens. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of essays on various aspects of Dickens’ art. Raymond Williams’ contribution is especially illuminating with regard to Dickens’ portrayal of urban life in Nicholas Nickleby.
Flint, Kate. Dickens. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1986. Discusses Dickens’ works in the context of a newly industrialized society. Flint also calls attention to Dickens’ portrayal of women and actors.
Giddings, Robert, ed. The Changing World of Charles Dickens. London: Vision Press Limited, 1983. A collection of essays on Dickens’ style, generally and in specific works. Loralee MacPike discusses Dickens’ influence on Fyodor Dostoevski. David Edgar and Mike Poole discuss stage and film productions of particular novels, including Nicholas Nickleby.
Nelson, Harland. Charles Dickens. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Explores Dickens’ philosophy of writing and his serial publications. Also discusses the structure and narrative of seven of his novels.