Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby

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Nicholas Nickleby Summary

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After a poor investment that results in the loss of all his money, Nicholas Nickleby’s father dies, leaving Nicholas to look after his mother and Kate, his younger sister. Nicholas’s unpleasant, hateful Uncle Ralph finds Nicholas a low-paying job as an assistant to Wackford Squeers, who works as the schoolmaster at Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire. Squeers is unpleasant, and only has one eye.

Nicholas soon receives word from Newman Noggs, Uncle Ralph’s clerk, offering Nicholas assistance. Noggs hates Ralph, too, but his personal history and poor economic condition has pushed him into Ralph’s employ.

Nicholas learns that Squeers takes unwanted children into his school and forces them to live under terrible conditions, pocketing most of the money their parents send for their upkeep. The lessons Squeers teaches are terrible, too, revealing his own lack of education.

Fanny Squeers, Wackford’s daughter, takes a liking to Nicholas, and convinces herself that Nicholas loves her. At a card game they both attend, Nicholas flirts with Tilda Price. She, however, is engaged to John Browdie. Both John and Fanny take offense to Nicholas’s flirting, and Nicholas makes it clear to Fanny that he does not share her feelings.

In return, Fanny makes life difficult for Nicholas and for his friend, Smike. Nicholas intervenes during one of Squeers’s beatings of Smike—a perpetually ill and dim-witted boy who befriends Nicholas—and Nicholas brutally attacks Squeers.

John Browdie comes upon Nicholas after Nicholas leaves the school after the attack. Browdie takes pleasure in Squeers’s beating and gives Nicholas money and a walking stick. Later, Smike finds Nicholas, and the two friends set out for London.

Kate and her mother are forced by Uncle Ralph to leave their house and move in with the friendly Miss LaCreevy in a house in the London slums. Kate goes to work for a milliner, but because of office intrigue, she is not liked.

Nicholas seeks the assistance of Noggs, who reveals that Uncle Ralph has received a letter from Fanny, making Nicholas seem like the aggressor in his fight with Squeers. Ralph uses the attractive Kate to entice wealthy business partners at a dinner party. During the dinner, Kate is assaulted, though Uncle Ralph intervenes before she is injured. Ralph forces Kate to keep the encounter a secret.

Later, Nicholas and Smike head to Portsmouth, intent on becoming sailors. Instead, a theater company hires Nicholas. The boys are warmly welcomed by the assorted theater folk, and successfully make their debut in Romeo and Juliet. Nicholas begins flirting with Miss Snevellici, the Juliet to his Romeo.

In London, Kate is fired when the business gets a new owner. Kate again becomes the target of unwanted attention, and is rescued by Noggs. Noggs reaches out to Nicholas, who quickly returns to London.

Once in London, Nicholas overhears Kate’s assailants boasting in a coffeehouse, and he attacks them. As the assailants flee, they fight amongst themselves. As a result, one of them is killed, and the other heads to France. Uncle Ralph loses a large amount of money that was owed to him by the dead man.

Nicholas, Smike, his mother, and Kate all move back into Miss LaCreevy’s house. Soon, though, Nicholas meets the friendly and generous Charles Cheeryble, who offers Nicholas a job and provides a home for Nicholas and his family.

Squeers comes to London, and together with Ralph, plots more pain for Nicholas. During this time, Squeers finds Smike and kidnaps him. As fate would have it, John Browdie is there and rescues Smike. Nicholas falls in love with Madeline Bray, who very nearly marries someone else.

Smike later contracts tuberculosis. Smike tells Nicholas that he loves Kate before dying in his friend’s arms.

As the novel approaches its conclusion, Uncle Ralph and Squeers reveal a plot to steal the will of Madeline’s grandfather. Ralph learns that Smike was actually his son from a beggar who has been appearing throughout London. Broken by this news, Ralph commits suicide.

For his role in the crime, Squeers is sentenced to transportation to Australia. The Nicklebys all return to Devonshire.

Nicholas Nickleby shares many themes and ideas with other, familiar Dickens works. The novel features a complex plot, filled with characters that move in and out of the narrative. Like many of Dickens’s books, matters of economics play a vital role in the book. Nicholas spends time among both poor and wealthy characters, and finds people of a variety of moral firmness.

Several of the settings feel familiar to Dickens readers, as well. The school that Squeers manages strongly resembles the poor houses that appear in other Dickens work, as does Nicholas’s time spent on the London streets.

While Nicholas Nickleby is considered by some to be among Dickens’s finest works, some critics have commented on the characters’ lack of development.

The book has been adapted for the stage and screen, as well as television.