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Nicholas Nickleby is Victorian writer Charles Dickens’s third novel. Published through serialization in 1838, it first appeared in its novel form in 1839. The novel has been adapted for the stage and for the screen several times, the first theatrical version appearing in 1838, before the novel was even finished. Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby with the intention of exposing the abuses of for-profit boarding schools in England. In focusing on the titular hero, Nicholas, Dickens’s novel explores the dangers of greed, the sublimity of family, and the central importance of maintaining one’s ethical values.
Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of child abuse, sexual harassment, and suicide.
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Nicholas Nickleby’s father dies unexpectedly amidst a financial downfall. Nicholas is now responsible for the well-being of his widowed mother and his beautiful sister Kate. First, the family appeals to Nicholas’s estranged uncle, Ralph. Ralph is a ruthless businessman with little compassion. He hardly registers his own brother’s death and believes his in-laws to be a nuisance. He quickly finds Nicholas a job at a boarding school, Dotheboys Hall, run by a man named Mr. Squeers, and finds Kate a job with a dressmaker, Madame Mantalini. Nicholas is eager to prove himself capable of providing for his family, so he takes the job despite his reservations about Mr. Squeers.
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Nicholas discovers that Dotheboys Hall takes advantage of vulnerable families by charging relatively cheap tuition; Mr. Squeers hardly teaches the boys anything and abuses them. The boys live in decrepit conditions while Mr. Squeers and his family live in opulence. Nicholas is especially disgusted by the treatment of Smike, Mr. Squeers’s personal servant. Nicholas is further bothered by the attentions of Mr. Squeers’s daughter, Fanny, who fantasizes about marrying Nicholas. Through Fanny, Nicholas meets John Browdie, a jovial local man. One day, desperate to escape his abuse, Smike runs away. He is quickly found, and Mr. Squeers whips him in front of the entire school to teach the boys a lesson. Nicholas reaches his breaking point while watching this abuse and snatches the whip, turning it on Mr. Squeers. Nicholas then escapes the Yorkshire countryside with John Browdie’s help. On his journey back to London, he discovers that Smike has followed him. Nicholas agrees to take Smike with him.
Meanwhile, Kate is humiliated at Ralph’s house when he invites her as the sole woman to a party of men. Sir Mulberry Hawk makes a pass at her, hurting her reputation and making her uncomfortable. Ralph has a soft spot for Kate and confronts Sir Mulberry about his behavior but does not stop him from trying to ingratiate himself with Kate’s mother. The Mantalinis go into bankruptcy, and Kate loses her job. She finds a new position as a companion to an older woman, Mrs. Wititterly.
When Nicholas returns to London, he seeks help from Ralph’s secretary, Newman Noggs. Newman helps arrange for an impoverished apartment for Nicholas and Smike. Nicholas believes he must explain to his uncle what happened in Yorkshire before he can reunite with his mother and sister. However, Nicholas flees London when it becomes clear that Mr. Squeers will try to have him arrested. While at an inn, Nicholas meets an actor and theater manager named Mr. Vincent Crummles. Mr. Crummles takes a liking to Nicholas and offers him a job with his theater troupe in Portsmouth. Nicholas is well paid for this work, and he enjoys the hospitality of the troupe. Nevertheless, when Newman Noggs sends word that Kate needs his help, Nicholas returns to London.
While waiting to reunite with his sister, Nicholas overhears Sir Mulberry denigrating Kate in a drunken conversation with other men. Nicholas confronts and badly beats Sir Mulberry. A family friend named Miss La Creevy agrees to take in Kate, Mrs. Nickleby, and Nicholas while they figure out their next step.
Nicholas meets a wealthy businessman named Charles Cheeryble who offers Nicholas a well-paid job in his firm and a charming cottage for his family. This opens a new, happy chapter in Nicholas’s life. Kate is safe from Sir Mulberry, and the whole family is together, including Smike. Nicholas’s job is productive, and the Cheeryble brothers are good and generous bosses. The Cheerybles financially support a young woman named Madeline Bray, who devotes herself to caring for her impoverished father. Nicholas falls in love with her at first sight, but he doesn’t know who she is. Unbeknownst to Nicholas, Ralph also knows of Madeline Bray. Ralph’s associate, Arthur Gride, is an elderly man who wants Madeline as a wife because he has illegal possession of a will that would grant her a small fortune. When Nicholas discovers the plot to marry her off, he stops the wedding. At the same moment, Madeline’s father dies suddenly. Nicholas whisks Madeline away to his cottage, where Kate helps cares for her in her grief and trauma.
Ralph is incensed that Nicholas has again ruined one of his business relationships. Another blow comes when Arthur discovers that his servant, Peg, has stolen all Arthur’s financial documents, including Madeline’s will. Ralph employs Mr. Squeers to help him track down the will. Newman Noggs, the spy on the inside, follows Mr. Squeers and captures him just as he steals Madeline’s will. Mr. Squeers is arrested, and Madeline receives her small fortune.
Meanwhile, Smike is increasingly ill; a doctor diagnoses Smike’s condition as fatal. As Nicholas brings Smike to Nicholas’s childhood home so he can die in peace, Kate and Charles Cheeryble’s nephew, Frank, grow closer. Smike dies in Nicholas’s arms and is buried under Nicholas’s favorite tree. When Nicholas returns to the cottage, he and Kate agree not to act on their feelings for Madeline and Frank because they worry that the Cheeryble brothers will judge them as opportunists.
Newman Noggs and the Cheerybles seek more answers about Ralph’s seedy business dealings with Mr. Squeers. They track down a former adversary of Ralph’s, a Mr. Brooker, who tells a terrible story. Mr. Brooker knew Ralph when Ralph was secretly married. Ralph’s wife gave birth to a son, who was also raised in secrecy, and then ran off with another man. Rather than give the child to Ralph, Mr. Brooker faked the boy’s death and placed him in the care of Dotheboys Hall. This boy, whom Ralph believed to be long dead, was Smike. This revelation, coupled with the news that Smike is dead, breaks Ralph. He dies by suicide.
When the Cheeryble brothers discover the love connections between Frank and Kate and Madeline and Nicholas, they proudly welcome Nicholas and Kate into the family. Both couples marry. They all move to the countryside together, where they have children and live prosperous lives.
By Charles Dickens