I am still very new to Dickens and the mighty collection of works he left over his lifetime. This is the second Dickens’ novel I’ve read (after GreatI am still very new to Dickens and the mighty collection of works he left over his lifetime. This is the second Dickens’ novel I’ve read (after Great Expectations), but my first Dickens’ review, so I’m going to be a little cautious on this review and not go into too much depth on this one. To be honest, I think there’s very little to read between the lines in Nicholas Nickleby. Looking at the 700 odd pages, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is going to be a mammoth of a read, but if you can commit yourself to the first few chapters, I promise you that more than likely you’ll be hooked. The basic story itself is surprisingly, and pleasantly, straight-forward. Compared to, say, Great Expectations, there’s almost very little to mull on after you finish a chapter.
The story itself is fast-paced, maybe even “jumpy” at times. There are frequent cliff-hangers at the closing of chapters - not really surprising when you learn that Dickens originally published this work in serial instalments. But the erratic nature of the plot aside, the story is ridiculously entertaining, going from adventure to adventure in leaps and bounds as Nicholas tries to find a financial living to support his recently widowed mother, Mrs. Nickleby and his younger sister, Kate.
With the reluctant help of his hard-hearted uncle, Nicholas finds himself as a teacher’s aide in Yorkshire at Dotheboy’s Hall (gotta love the irony behind the sound of the name) where he witnesses gross atrocities committed against the students at the hands of the Squeers family. After rebelling against the establishment, Nicholas leaves to find his fortunes elsewhere, this time in the company of a new friend, the piteous drudge, Smike. Nicholas moves through a number of different vocations: private tutor, travelling actor, and later thanks to the Brothers Cheeryble (again, these names are wonderfully Dickensian), finds a job as a clerk. Kate Nickleby shares her brother’s disappointments in securing a job, going from seamstress to lady’s companion, all the while being sexually hounded by the vulgar Sir Mulberry Hawk and his reprobate associates. The last half of the novel culminates in a storyline surrounding Nicholas and his attempts to help Madeline Bray, the girl he fell in love with, out of an arranged marriage and the foiling of his uncle and Arthur Gride’s devious machinations.
Probably my only real gripe with the novel was the sheer number of coincidences that occurred every time an important subplot was unfolding. The amount of times some luckily informed friend or acquaintance lets Nicholas know of some dastardly plot that is taking shape is absurd. Nicholas and Kate are likeable enough characters (if a little bit on the saintly side), but it’s the supporting cast of characters that really shine in this novel, and the ones that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading about Nicholas and his love at first sight encounter with Madeline, who seems more like a plot device than a real character who has won the affections of our hero. Ralph Nickleby as the primary antagonist was unbelievably one-dimensional, even though there was a lot of potential earlier on in the novel to see a different side to him. For instance, when he is helping Kate to find a suitable job, the novel suggests that he has a certain soft spot for his niece of which he is uncomfortably aware, which contrasts nicely with his desire to make more money by showing her off to Lord Verisopht. Sadly, this conflict of familial affection and desire for personal gain is never really played out. Ralph Nickleby just seems to be in it for the money and nothing else. It was like reading about a Disney villain. The female leads in the novel were astonishingly bland in comparison to the likes of Miss Havisham and Estella from Great Expectations. The only female characters that remain with me from Nicholas Nickleby are Mrs. Nickleby and Fanny Squeers. The other female protagonists are largely forgettable. While Kate is ready to defend her virtue with the same spirit you can find in other 19th century literary heroines, she seems completely devoid of sexual or romantic longing, long before and after the threat of Sir Mulberry Hawk. Nicholas is marginally less bland than his sister; the novel shows us many instances that while he is compassionate and chivalrous, he is not above using brute force to administer a rather speedy form of justice, something which I found surprisingly human. But his sudden and unexplainable love for Madeline Bray irked me to no end (I’m not a fan of the love at first sight tropes), not to mention the bewildering coincidence of seeing her again months later after he chances upon her in the Cheeryble’s office, all with his infatuation intact.
But despite the rather forced plotlines and black-and-white portrayal of good versus evil, Nicholas Nickleby remains a funny, witty and utterly charming novel. What is most enjoyable about it, aside from the wonderful cast of memorable and largely unique characters, is the novel’s ability to juggle with moments that were comedic and satirical and those that were emotional and heartfelt. The ending, while it wrapped up a little too nicely for my taste, is not an entirely happy one. I won’t spoil it for you, but I cried at the passing of one particular character that I came to love dearly. So, I laughed and cried reading this one. As a reader, that's a rare enough occurrence for me (I rarely cry watching films or reading books unless I am deeply invested with a character emotionally), but considering this is a classic novel, well, that actually deserves some serious lauding, if you ask me....more