I do love Charles Dickens’ books, but this is not one of my favourites. It is a great story, with wonderful descriptions and fantastic characters, like all his books, but the overall impression I am left with after reading this book is one of discomfort at the cruelty shown to the children in the story. I realise the situations described did happen at this time in England (young children being sent off to Yorkshire schools to be disposed of and forgotten about, and treatment of children not being monitored or regulated, and that enormous cruelty and ill-treatment often occurred), but I still found it difficult to read and was tempted several times to give up the book without finishing it.

The story is about Nicholas Nickleby and his life, the people he meets, the difficulties he faces, and decisions he makes. I also think Smike is equally, with Nicholas, the main character of the book and I cared more about him and his progress than I did about Nicholas. I do wonder sometimes why the book was named after Nicholas and not after Smike? There are many memorable characters; some loving and generous, and some cruel and selfish, and some with interwoven histories and links later to be discovered by the reader.

I am undecided about the character of Nicholas Nickleby. He isn’t a typical hero character (that you usually either have sympathy with, or admire for their bravery); rather he is a rash person who acts before thinking, often makes wrong decisions that cause other people pain (one example being leaving the Kenwig teaching job to become involved with the theatre company, and therefore abandoning his sister when she needed him most), he acts selfishly sometimes and is often determined to follow relentlessly on a path that others (and the reader) can see is not the right one, he is reluctant to take advice from people, he bears grudges and finds it difficult to forgive people, he takes offence easily and seems to have a habit of running away from difficult situations rather than standing his ground and explaining things (such as running from Squeer’s school, and again when Ralph tells everyone a distorted version of what happened at the school). I was also a little surprised at how many people seem to hate Nicholas – for a fairly ordinary person he does attract strong feelings against him!

Mr Wackford Squeers is one of the first major characters to be introduced to the reader, and he is the Master of a boy’s school in Yorkshire. It is obvious from the first time we meet this character that he has no intention of caring for the boys, and experiences no discomfort at hurting them (rather he seems to enjoy inflicting pain). The poor boys are so very young too and are treated so badly at the school; the descriptions of them as bony and thin with old mans’ faces that have seen such suffering, with no energy to run or move or make noise, and many of them disfigured or lame (these disabilities often being the reason they have been sent there, as their parents only want ‘perfect’ children), is truly heartbreaking to imagine. However it wasn’t only Squeers who was cruel to children, but it seemed to have been a common attitude of the time; the belief that children were an item to be easily disposed of like rubbish.

Smike is a very sad and pathetic character; he is treated so very badly and yet never questions why and expects nothing better, and is so eager to have Nicholas as a friend and to feel like he belongs. He knows nothing of his family and doesn’t even know his other name, and yet his parentage becomes quite a major theme in the book. I also think Smike makes Nicholas into a better person, I find I like him and wish him well far more than I do Nicholas; Nicholas seems to often cause himself more difficulties by the choices he makes, whereas Smike just plods on through life not asking for much at all, and is so pathetically grateful for any affection shown to him.

I adore Mrs Nickleby and enjoyed her rambling conversations, full of nonsense and contradictions, all long and waffling and unnecessary and unconnected. She amused me so much, and provided a lot of welcome light relief to counteract the heavier themes in the book.

Newman Noggs is a fascinating and complex character; earlier in life he was a rich gentleman who lost his money to one of Ralph Nickleby’s schemes, now he is working for Ralph and being treated with complete indifference and contempt, and at the same time joining forces with, and aiding, Nicholas. He is very loyal, and his hard work and dedication brings about great changes to the Nickleby family and Smike.

Ralph Nickleby is a sinister man; not as obviously and outwardly cruel as Squeers and yet his actions have dramatic effects on people, and he is driven by his dislike of Nicholas and won’t rest until he has destroyed him. He does have a hint of a kinder side, (shown with his feelings of guilt after his treatment of Kate Nickleby), but overall he is devious and clever with his cruelty. I did not guess the end of his story and was very surprised by it.

I see Kate Nickleby as the opposite to Nicholas; she stands her ground rather than running away from difficult situations, she is polite and deferential even to people she doesn’t like or respect, she works hard at jobs she dislikes because she has to provide for her mother after Nicholas leaves them. She is quite lonely and alone at times, even though her mother is always with her (Mrs Nickleby is only concerned with her own thoughts and feelings and unaware of Kate’s difficulties). She can be determined and forthright, just like Nicholas, but she seems better able to deal with people and situations.

As with all Dickens’ books there are some great names for characters; Mr & Mrs Wititterly, Mr Crummles, Mr Lillyvick, Mr Curdle, Mr & Mrs Cherrybles, and Mr Linkinwater being some examples. The characters in the theatre group were also fascinating and seemed to represent all the exaggerations of life; with the tragedian, the low-spirited lover, the comic countryman, the calm and virtuous old gentleman, the irascible old man, and the hero. (And, of course, the Infant Phenomenon)! I did find this part of the book very amusing, with Mrs Crummles always walking and talking as if she is playing a part, and the request that Nicholas include a pump and 2 washing tubs in the piece as these are Mr Crummles latest purchase!

I don’t find this such a complex or clever novel as his others; Bleak House for example is very clever with the way the characters are connected and intertwined, whereas the characters Nicholas meets are all interesting but seem a bit more random and unconnected to each other. The main theme of the book is the Nickleby family and the people they meet during their lives, and the development of the character of Smike. Perhaps another theme could be the different aspects of marriage that Dickens’ represents; the Crummles’ and the Kenwig’s marriages are successful and very loving and equal and strong, the Mantalini’s display an unequal marriage where she adores him and he is only interested in her money, Mr Lillyvick’s marriage to Miss Petowker seems to be undertaken for the same monetary reasons, the Nickleby’s marriage seems to have been happy but Mrs Nickleby remembers it differently after time, and the nastiness of Madeline Bray basically being sold to Arthur Gride in marriage are all examples of different types of marriages and married life.

I did so much want to enjoy this book, but I found it difficult to do so. There are several times in the book where the pace seems very slow and (I almost feel guilty saying it) some bits irrelevant, for example the descriptions of the ‘United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company’ at the beginning of the book, and the stories told by Nicholas’ fellow coach travellers. The book does seem full of the darkest deeds, nastiest people, and most cruel actions that can be done. I didn’t really find it enjoyable to read; rather I read it with a feeling of dread and foreboding of what would happen next.

Following the success of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist Nicholas Nickleby was hailed as a comic triumph and firmly established Dickens as a literary gentleman It has a full supporting cast of delectable characters that range from the iniquitous Wackford Squeers and his family to the delightful Mrs Nickleby taking in the eccentric Crummles and his travelling players the Mantalinis the Kenwigs and many more Combining these with typically Dickensian elements of burlesque and farce the novel is eminently suited to dramatic adaptation So great was the impact as it left Dickens pen that many pirated versions appeared in print before the original was even finished Often neglected by critics Nicholas Nickleby has never ceased to delight readers and is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic masterpieces of nineteenthcenture literature
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