In this lesson, we learn about Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’ After an overview of the characters, we examine the plot of the novel, briefly analyze some of its themes, and finish with a short quiz.

Introducing to the Novel

Nicholas Nickleby, the third novel by Charles Dickens, follows the life of Nicholas Nickleby. After his father dies, Nicholas is left to take care of his mother and sister. His uncle is a crook and actively tries to ruin Nicholas’ life. Luckily, the novel ends happily, with all of the bad characters either in jail or dead, and both Nicholas and his sister are happily in love with good matches. Like many of Dickens’ novels, it was first published in the serial format from 1838 to 1839.

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Cast of Characters

A trademark of Charles Dickens’ novels is an extensive cast of characters. It would be impossible to list every character here, but before we can outline the plot, it is important to get to know a few of the more crucial characters. There are essentially five groups of characters, some of whom overlap: the Nickleby family, Ralph Nickleby and his business partners, the Squeers and the other characters who live in Yorkshire and/or are involved with Dotheboys Hall, Nicholas’ London associates, and, finally, the Crummles’ theater troupe with which Nicholas becomes involved.

The Nicklebys

  • Nicholas Nickleby is loyal, honest, young, and, as a result of his youth, often hotheaded. His sister, Kate Nickleby, has many similar qualities to Nicholas, but is more demure. Their mother, Catherine Nickleby, often serves as comic relief.

Ralph Nickleby and Company

  • Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ uncle, hates him. He is also greedy and most of the people he hangs out with share his bad qualities. One of the few exceptions is Newman Noggs, Ralph’s clerk and Nicholas’ friend. A few of his other associates are Sir Mulberry Hawk, Lord Verisopht, Mr. Pluck and Mr. Pyke, Arthur Gride, and Brooker.

Dotheboys Hall/Yorkshire

  • The Squeers run Dotheboys Hall. Wackford Squeers, Mrs. Squeers, and their two children, Wackford II and Fanny, are all fairly despicable. Mr. and Mrs. Squeers beat the children entrusted to them at Dotheboys.
  • Smike, one of the boys at Dotheboys Hall, is beaten by the Squeers more than the others. Smike is secretly Nicholas’ cousin (and the son of Ralph). His parentage is the subject of a lot of scheming and blackmailing in the novel.
  • John Browdie (the eventual husband of Tilda Price) and Tilda Price (Fanny’s best friend for part of the book) are two of the few honorable characters featured in this location.

Londoners

  • The Nicklebys’ landlady, Miss La Creevy, is a great family friend.
  • Kate Nickleby is employed by Mr. and Mrs. Madame Mantalini for a time, then she’s employed by Henry and Julia Wittiterly as Mrs. Wittiterly’s companion.
  • Charles and Ned Cheerblye, twin merchants, are two of the most moral characters in London. They do a lot of charity work, employ Nicholas, and help restore his hope in humanity. Their nephew, Frank, loves and marries Kate. He is similar in personality to Nicholas: a good man with a temper, especially over unjust situations.
  • Walter and Madeline Bray used to be rich, but they are in a lot of debt. Walter is not a great father, but Madeline is loyal to him. She and Nicholas love each other.

Crummles Theater Troupe

  • Vincent Crummles and Mrs. Crummles, both prone to dramatics, run the Crummles theater troupe. Vincent is a mentor to Nicholas. Their daughter, Ninetta Crummles, is somewhere between 10 and 18. Her age is vague because of her diet, which stunted her health. She features in every performance.

Plot Summary

When Mr. Nickleby dies, his wife and two children move to London to be with Mr. Nickleby’s brother, Ralph. Ralph, however, hated his brother and hates his wife and children by association. He gets Nicholas an awful job working for Wackford Squeers, who is headmaster at Dotheboys Hall, a school for unwanted children in Yorkshire.

Nicholas is outraged by the way Squeers treats the boys at the school. Squeers goes too far beating Smike one day and Nicholas stops him. Squeers and Nicholas fight. Aided by John Browdie, Nicholas and Smike run away from the school to London.

Ralph, meanwhile, makes Catherine and Kate miserable. He moves them into a bad apartment, and while he gets Kate a job working for the Mantalinis, Ralph also uses her beauty to entice his greedy associates to do business with him. When Hawk tries to attack Kate, Ralph intervenes, but threatens Kate not to tell anyone. When Ralph learns about what Nicholas did at Dotheboys, he disowns Nicholas and orders Catherine and Kate not to help him.

Driven out of London, Nicholas and Smike take to the road. Nicholas joins the Crummles theater troupe. Back in London, Kate is fired from her job with the Mantalinis because Miss Knagg is jealous of her youth and beauty. She is briefly employed by the Wittiterlys as a companion for Mrs. Wittiterly. Kate has a falling out with her employers because Mrs. Wittiterly becomes jealous of the attention Ralph’s associates are showing Kate, even though Kate does not want it. Ralph’s clerk, Newman Noggs, urges Nicholas to come home.

Afraid Nicholas will severely beat Hawk for his offenses against his sister, Newman Noggs and the Nickleby’s former landlady do not tell Nicholas the specifics immediately. Unfortunately, Nicholas learns of the behavior anyway. He gets in a physical fight with Hawk. The fight gives Verisopht a change of heart and results in a duel between Verisopht and Hawk. Verisopht is killed in the duel and Hawk flees the country.

Nicholas tells his uncle that they are done with him. Nicholas, his sister, their mother, and Smike all move back in with Miss La Creevy. He finds work with the Cheeryble twins. Smike, unfortunately, runs into some bad luck. Ralph’s former clerk, Brooker, tries to blackmail Smike about his parentage. Meanwhile, Wackford Squeers moves to London. He targets Smike and kidnaps him. John Browdie learns about the kidnapping and rescues Smike. As a thank you, Nicholas invites John Browdie and his new wife to dinner.

Nicholas falls further in love with Madeline Bray, a penniless beauty. She is set to marry Gride to settle the debt of her father, Walter Bray. Nicholas is devastated because he loves her. Luckily, on the day of her wedding, her father dies of guilt and Madeline is freed from the deal. Just as everything starts to look up for the Nicklebys, Smike falls ill and dies.

Gride is robbed by his housekeeper. In the process, it is revealed that he had a copy of Walter Bray’s will. Legal retribution and/or death occurs for all of Ralph’s associates due to their various illegal schemes. Ralph commits suicide when he learns that Smike was his son, partly because he hates Nicholas so much that he can’t stand the thought that Smike and Nicholas were friends. Squeers, meanwhile, is sent to Australia.

The novel ends with a lot of marriages: Nicholas and Madeline, Kate and Frank Cheeryble, Tim Linkinwater and Miss La Creevy. At the very end of the novel, the Nicklebys move back to Devonshire, where they live happily ever after.

Theme: Social Injustice

Like many of Charles Dickens’ novels, Nicholas Nickleby focuses on social issues. While Dickens could not admit it for legal reasons, there is strong speculation that Wackford Squeers was based on an actual schoolmaster. Even though he could not specifically name names for fear of a libel suit, Dickens did justify the setting by stating that the school and the headmaster were both based on a compilation of real schools operating in London at the time. Since both Wackford Squeers and Dotheboys Hall are awful, anyone reading Nicholas Nickleby will understand how truly abysmal these types of schools were back then.

Theme: Greed

The novel can also be read as a cautionary tale against greed. All of the characters motivated by money, rather than friendship or family loyalty, are punished either by the law or by death for their wrongdoings. The only two deaths in the novel that are not punishments for immoral behavior are Mr. Nickleby’s sudden death, which instigates the action of the novel, and Smike’s death, which is seen as truly tragic.

Lesson Summary

Charles Dickens’ third novel, Nicholas Nickleby, is an excellent example of a classic Dickens novel. Dickens creates a wild and extensive cast of characters to discuss social issues, especially social injustice, in a contemporary (at the time) London setting. While the good characters suffer a lot of obstacles, by the end of the novel, moral order has been restored and all of the good characters who are still alive wind up in good marriages, while the evil and greedy characters end up in prison or dead.