The plot of Nicholas Nickleby is episodic and owes a considerable amount to the devices of early Victorian drama—Ralph's villainy is unrelieved and relentless, and Nicholas's heart is invariably pure. It is the peripheral characters that Nicholas encounters as he makes his way who supply the humor and psychological interest. The young, romantic lead characters are not so idiosyncratic, and their dilemmas are rather formulaic. But Nicholas Nickleby is a lively and entertaining reading experience and, in the context of Dickens's other works, has several features of interest. Whereas the Pickwickians went out into the world to see what they might see, a leisure activity, and Oliver went out to find himself a home, Nicholas must confront the choices of a life work and a life partner (choices Dickens himself had had to make rather recently). He has to find a way to make himself an agent in the world rather than an observer, like the Pickwickians, but neither does he need or desire to escape the world, like Oliver; so Dickens has a look at several types of work—education, art, theater, finance, business, and fashionable dressmaking. There is even a portrayal of aristocratic profligacy as a career. Nicholas's story is the story of making choices, and therefore seeking maturity, though in the conventional modes of work and domestic life.

It is evident from the tone of the novel, which is ebullient and lively, that Dickens was enjoying his own domestic life (a few days before the publication of the novel in volume form, at the end of October 1839, Dickens and Catherine had a third child, Kate). The final image of Nickleby is of happy marital fertility—Nicholas and Madeline's children gathered about the quiet grave of Smike, honoring his memory. Nickleby is remarkable among Dickens's work for other reasons as well. Sir Mulberry Hawke and his associates are open sexual predators, who prey upon Kate with the collusion of her uncle, and, in a different way, the lascivious designs of the old miser, Gride, upon Madeline Bray are expressed and developed. In fact, much of the peril of Madeline's sacrificial marriage arises from the image of the young beautiful girl in the arms of the repulsive old man. Nicholas Nickleby is full of lusty men, young and old, and their beautiful objects of desire. In an interesting twist, Mr. Mantalini, who lives off his wife, repeatedly uses the language of ardent romance to woo her and blind her to the financial ruin he is bringing upon her establishment. This relative openness about romance and sexuality is not characteristic of later Dickens novels, which take a much less earthy view of happy domesticity and a much darker view of marriage in general. But the brightness of Nickleby is of its historical as well as its biographical moment—at the end of the 1830s, the respectability of Victorianism had not yet entirely supplanted the rowdiness of the eighteenth century, and traces of older ways remain in what we might otherwise see as the first truly characteristic novel of the most characteristic novelist of the Victorian period.

Nicholas Nickleby was successful as a serial publication, selling fifty thousand copies of the first number and maintaining sales throughout, then selling well as a volume, too. Its popularity did not sustain itself, however, and the novel became one of Dickens's least read works, a high-spirited but not quite successful transitional novel in which Dickens began to try out the ideas and methods that would bear fruit a few years later.

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Reprinted from Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley, copyright © 2002, with the permission of Penguin Books


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