[Aside:] As is often the case with this tremendous blog, the following transcription includes various spoilers which will, if one is so interested in suspense, absolutely ruin the novel which is discussed: Nicholas Nickleby. Thus, the Compiler of this blog wishes to warn you, dear reader, to first give a go at the novel before plunging into the depths of such an insignificant little post. Better to enjoy the waves of the sea before reading a book on how grand they are. Of course, a book on the sea is still an enjoyable book, so I hope this post will be to you, dear reader, even if it does ruin the novel.
Our world is full of fascinating people who, at face value, are often misunderstood. For example, introverts — that class of people I rather term “monks” — are for the most part misunderstood to be either shy, pretentious, or terrified of people. Of course all three could be true and all three could be very false. (I should know being one.) Like Mr Darcy they are often labeled before studied. Nobody understands a Monk completely after that first handshake. Another group of people have a rough go at it in this world, and that is because they are so busy living in another one altogether. They look at people not as people but as symbols, as types. Their world is shortened because this fantastic perspective they come from sees not just what is right in front of them but what occurred and what is to happen in the future. John is no longer the man in the room but the man who was once a child with no cares and will one day be an old man heading to his grave. They see the world in beginnings and endings. Lest this appear childish or morbid, these types of people themselves can fall into two groups: they can either distance themselves entirely from society, as many often do, or they can take this perspective, which is always residing in the subconscious, and apply it to the present. And the strange perspective creates an even stranger individual before them, an everlasting soul. The type of people I am discussing are, of course, Romantics. Not, in case of confusion, romantic in the sense of one being good at “making love” as the Victorians would say, but one who instead of looking at this world as would generally be done, looks at the broader context of the thing and finds himself in the midst of a grand adventure. Such is the case with our protagonist to be analyzed, Nicholas Nickleby.
Charles Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby shortly after penning his first two novels, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. The novel is his first and perhaps his only romance (that I am aware of) in the sense that his protagonist is a young, chivalrous, and we could say quixotic young man. This novel is also by far his best up to this point and even far better a story than The Old Curiosity Shop, his fourth novel . Much like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Nicholas finds himself in a situation in which the death of his father puts him in the hands of his tyrannical uncle who is bent on suppressing the young man. In fact, I felt the first half of the novel was actually fairly close to the plot of Hamlet. Nicholas is never affected by the “charms” of his uncle, Ralph Nickleby, as his mother and sister are at first. This leads him to being ostracized by Ralph, and when he beats the evil school teacher Mr Sqeers, his fate places him in direct odds with the older Nickleby, and he flees London. Much like Hamlet was involved in the stage, Nicholas too falls into a playwrighting job with the successful Vincent Crummles. But the novel does eventually take a little turn from Hamlet as it should, and Nicholas is not so deranged. Indeed, the only person with suicidal thoughts is Ralph himself, whose thoughts come to fruition.
I suppose we should begin with “criticisms” first and do away with those. The novel was a disappointment on various levels, the first and most obvious being the lack of true characterization in my opinion. I cannot think of one character who undergoes any significant change throughout the novel, and the characters themselves are not as true to the nature of a good Dickens character as I would have liked. There are no Dick Swivellers or Sam Wellers running around. Consequently, the creations are flat by Dickens’s standards, which means they are still fanciful by any other. Newman Noggs can still run circles around Tom Bombadil, and that is saying something. The creatures however were unsatisfying in that they were very stereotypical. Now, nearly every Dickens’s character is stereotypical, or perhaps a better way to phrase it is that every Dickens’s character is an absolute, a caricature. Ralph is the stereotypical “bad guy”, but unlike the other bad guys — Uriah Heep, Magwitch, Daniel Quilp, Alfred Jingle — he does nothing to redeem himself. He is so much more like Richard III than anything else, and there is subsequently nothing funny about him. The effect of all of this is that the actions of these characters are stereotypical and they rarely do anything to surprise us. This leads to their speeches, which even at times seem too constructed and processed to be anything worth remembering. This was only a minor disappointment in the end. I only wanted to meet another Swiveller, but Noggs will suffice.
I earlier stated, this was by far the best novel up to this point in Dickens’s career. The Pickwick Papers is the best book this side of the Bible, but it is not really a novel so much as a series of random events about a mere man who just happens to have more magical abilities than Gandalf. Oliver Twist is a blur in my mind. I read the novel just before the fall semester of 2011, before the conception of this blog. This is probably why the book did not make such an impact. I do know that the plot was so coincidental and seemingly far-fetched, that I felt Dickens was straining to make something out of nothing. But most critics of Dickens acknowledge that many of his stories are unlikely coincidences, and he, or rather Mr Tim Linkinwater, addresses this concern in Nicholas Nickleby.
“That Mr Frank and Mr Nickleby should have met last night,” said Tim Linkinwater, getting slowly off his stool, and looking round the counting-house with his back planted against the desk, as was his custom when he had anything very particular to say — “that those two young men should have met last night in that manner is, I say, a coincidence — a remarkable coincidence. Why, I don’t believe now,” added Tim, taking off his spectacles, and smiling as with gentle pride, “that there’s such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!… Well, but let us know. If there is any better place for such things, where is it? Is it in Europe? No, that it isn’t. Is it in Asia? Why, of course it’s not. Is it in Africa? Not a bit of it. Is it in America? You know better than that, at all events.”
And so Dickens argues, through Tim, that London is the best place in the world for unlikely coincidences. And when we reflect on Dickens and his unlikely coincidences (the greatest being that Ralph is the father of Smike), we have to ask the question: are not all instances in which fate places two people together acts of some fantastic coincidence that we would normally do away with? We live in a world of unlikely coincidences. If we take the example of a miracle, we would not associate the “unlikeliness” of the miracle any more so than if it occurred at a regular pace. As CS Lewis states in his book Miracles, water is turned into wine every year, but one Man did it in a day which makes it more miraculous. But the miracle happens every year. And we live in a world of miracles. Dickens merely took our everyday coincidences and heightened them to an entirely new level, making them appear unlikely. But before all this dreadful technology made our world so small, it may have been nothing but the effects of a higher fate that brought two souls together, and this in my opinion is nothing to fault Dickens for.
We turn now to story as a whole. Nicholas, as I earlier stated, is a romantic hero. He at times is St. George fighting the dragon, at other times Don Quixote. He is very unworldly in his street smarts of how the world works, and this opens him up to possible disaster. But the guiding principle in Nicholas is his innate goodness and his willingness to fight for what is good as all romantic heroes believe themselves to be in a battle between good and evil. Thus, he does not think twice before he beats Squeers to save the children. However, his downfall is that he often does not think of the consequences of his actions, plunging head first into the fight based on his sense of what is the right thing to do at the time. And this makes him quixotic at times as he “falls into” fortune like a Victorian Cosmo Kramer who doesn’t actually do anything but still finds a way to make a living. Indeed, the way he lands a job with the Cheeryble brothers by mere chance is more annoying to me than anything else in the story. But overall he believes himself in a battle for good over evil, and this is manifested throughout the novel.
Perhaps the first instance we see Nicholas act in this way after he beats Squeers and flees London, is his return to help out his sister Kate. He (coincidentally) discovers himself to be in the same dining area of her persecutors, specifically Sir Mulberry Hawk, and upon hearing his sisters name “taken in vain” beats up Sir Mulberry and decides that his mother and sister will no longer be under the care of his uncle. The effects of the second act are more heroic than the beating of Sir Mulberry. He acts upon impulse when he beats both villains — Squeers and Hawk, but when he decides that he will take on the role of supporting his family in whatever way he can, he acts upon romanticism. Unfortunately, he does not actually end up “fighting” for a job, but landing in one as Charles Cheeryble randomly offers him a job and his family a place to stay out of mere goodwill. After arriving at this destination and obtaining relative peace for his family, Nicholas finds himself fighting for a new cause: Madeline Bray.
Miss Bray as a Damsel in distress is not a highly developed character. She does not do anything particularly striking to the reader, and furthermore, Nicholas’s love for her is nothing more than erotic. I’m not sure if “love at first sight” can function on any other level but this, and that is all that Nicholas’s love knows. Instead, of fighting for a higher love, he is fighting for a higher good, and nothing makes this more apparent than the chapter in which he decides the best thing to do is to dismiss courting her as to better her position. As a perpetual cynic, this “sacrifice” is not all-sufficient in my mind because I believe his love for her was merely erotic, a love at first sight. But we take it as it is, I suppose, and the dismissing of her is far more heroic and romantic than any statement or action prior, for he has her best interests in mind. Fortunately for him, he gets the girl in the end anyways.
But overall, his highest romantic action in the novel is his actions for the lowly Smike. That he leaves his family for the care of the young man is striking, and as we discover that Smike is the child to Ralph Nickleby, we begin to see that the entire novel focuses around this relationship that appears to be a backdrop. That Nicholas would go to so much care and attention for a down and out like Smike without knowing that he is actually his cousin is telling because Smike could offer nothing in return. Fighting for his sister and mother is one thing, for they are his family. Madeline is the object of his affections, and so rightly he would fight for her. But to fight for Smike is the highest call of the novel. It is only an icing on the cake, an ironic coincidence, that he does so for the offspring of his mortal enemy.
Another pithy documentation has been produced on a much greater work than I had any right in commenting upon. The overall impression, I received from Nicholas Nickleby is the ultimate fight we find ourselves in concerning the battle of good and evil. It is fitting that I have also been reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for that invisible spiritual battle within us is the real war that must constantly take place before anything is affected in this world. Ironically it is that invisible world that is unseen in which the true substance of all things takes place, while this transient world we inhabit is a shadow directing our attention elsewhere, higher up. May we not lose that perspective that looks at both a beginning and an end of it all, coloring everything else in between.