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Nicholas Nickleby:
2005 Film
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The Mystery
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The Life and Advendutres
Of Nicholas Nickleby
By Charles Dickens  (1812-1870)
A Study Guide
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2003
Revised and Enlarged in 2008

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.......Nicholas Nickleby inherits a thousand pounds and a farm in Dawlish, Devonshire, from his father, Godfrey Nickleby. When Nicholas later marries, he receives a dowry of a thousand pounds. Thus, he appears financially secure. However, after two children arrive—Nicholas the younger and Kate—their upbringing and education require increasing outlays of money. Mr. Nickleby’s fortune soon dwindles, and he wonders how he can raise capital. 
.......“Speculate,” his wife urges.
.......He does. And he loses the rest of his money. Then he dies.
.......After his widow and teenage children—Nicholas is now 19 and Kate, 14—dutifully bury him, they wonder where their next meal will come from. The elder Nickleby’s brother, Ralph—young Nicholas’s uncle—is the obvious choice to provide help. Ralph has a purse fattened by three thousand pounds he inherited from Godfrey Nickleby and by profit from business enterprises. However, the Nicklebys are unaware that Ralph is a man of predatory instincts who uses unscrupulous practices, including usury, to build his bank account. He lives in London in a large house with a brass plate on the door. Mrs. Nickleby, Kate, and young Nicholas move to London to improve their lot and get assistance from Ralph. They lodge temporarily on the second floor of a building owned by Miss La Creevy, a painter of miniature portraits. When Ralph goes to see them, he does not provide ready cash to meet their needs. Instead, he arranges for Nicholas to work as assistant schoolmaster at a boys’ boarding school, Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, where children supposedly receive instruction in mathematics, astronomy, geometry, orthography, and, the narrator says, “all the languages living and dead.” Ralph gets Kate a minimum-wage job as a seamstress at Madame Mantalini’s dressmaking and millinery shop in London's Cavendish Square. He then relocates Kate and her mother to an old house on Thames Street, "the door and windows of which were so bespattered with mud, that it would have appeared to have been uninhabited for years," the narrator says. Kate says of it,
This house depresses and chills one and seems as if some blight had fallen on it. If I were superstitious, I should be almost inclined to believe that some dreadful crime had been perpetrated within these old walls, and that the place had never prospered since. How frowning and how dark it looks!
.......The look of the house foreshadows sinister and unseemly plans that Ralph has for Kate.
.......The operator and headmaster of the school where Nicholas works is a cruel man named Wackford Squeers. He and his wife teach the students next to nothing, beat them often, and serve them barely enough food to sustain them. Nicholas grits his teeth as he attempts to weather Squeers and earn money to provide income for the family. However, Nicholas—at times an impetuous young man—is unable to stand by while Squeers canes the children, in particular an anemic and mentally handicapped boy named Smike. So one day Nicholas turns the tables and canes Squeers, then runs off, followed by the sickly Smike. They head for Portsmouth to become sailors, but at an inn twelve miles from that seaport town they run into Vincent Crummles, the eccentric operator of a theatrical company, who is on his way to Portsmouth to stage a production. He hires Nicholas for various odd jobs, including writing advertising bills.
.......Under Crummles, Nicholas and Smike learn the acting craft and even perform in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—Nicholas as Romeo and Smike as the apothecary. But while things are going well for Nicholas, Kate faces a crisis. The problem is that Ralph Nickleby is attempting to use the vulnerable and innocent young lady as a plaything for his leering business cronies. One is Lord Frederick Verisopht, whom Ralph wants to lend money at high interest rates. Another is a despicable reprobate, Sir Mulberry Hawk, who deeply embarrasses Kate at a dinner given by Ralph by saying to his friends, “Here is Miss Nickleby, wondering why the deuce somebody doesn’t make love to her.” Then he wagers fifty pounds “that Miss Nickleby can't look me in my face, and tell me she wasn't thinking so.”
.......Kate is so discomposed, the narrator says, “that, without the power to stammer forth a syllable, she rose and hurried from the room. She restrained her tears by a great effort . . . .”
.......Hawk and Verisopht then hound Kate over the ensuing months. Hawk deceives her mother into believing that he is a good man. Mrs. Nickleby, in turn, urges her daughter to become involved with him. One day, Kate visits Ralph and tells him that his friends deeply wounded her “past all healing” and asks him to stop his friends from stalking her. Surprised that she has the gumption to speak up, he concludes that she is an upstart like her brother, Nicholas, who angered Ralph when he rebelled against Squeers. In retaliation, Ralph and Squeers accused Nicholas of thievery, a charge that Nicholas was cleared of with the help of Newman Noggs, Ralph’s honest clerk. 
.......Ralph refuses Kate’s request, saying that the men in question are clients of his and he cannot afford to offend them and lose business. 
.......After ending his employment with the theatrical company, Nicholas returns to London with Smike to meet with Noggs, who had sent Nicholas a letter saying he had an important message for him. Unable to track Noggs down, Nicholas stops at a hotel between Park Lane and Bond Street for something to eat and drink and, by pure chance, overhears a conversation in which several men insult and slander Kate. One of them is Sir Mulberry Hawk. Nicholas confronts him, identifies himself, and denounces Hawk as a liar, a coward, and a “spiritless scoundrel.” After Hawk leaves and goes to his carriage, Nicholas pursues him. Hawk lashes out with his horse whip. A struggle ensues, the whip breaks, and Nicholas uses the handle to open a gash on Hawk’s face.
.......Newman Noggs later confirms what Nicholas already knows about the abuse of Kate and Ralph Nickleby’s hand in it. Nicholas then has a stroke of good luck: He lands a job in a counting house with the kindly and generous Cheeryble brothers, Charles and Ned, who address each other as “my dear fellow” and not only look and act alike but also dress alike and wear white hats. They agree to pay Nicholas the handsome sum of one hundred twenty pounds a year. Moreover, they lease a home to him and his family at a reasonable cost. So it is that Nicholas is now a man of means and substance. 
.......Meanwhile, another of Ralph’s cronies, a seventy-year-old named Arthur Gride, is pursuing a beautiful woman, Madeline Bray, whose father owes Ralph a considerable sum of money. Ralph tells Madeline he will forgive the debt if she marries Gride. It appears that she has no choice but to assent to the marriage. 
.......When Nicholas learns of the scheme, he goes to Madeline’s defense, visiting Gride at his home and denouncing him as a wretch and a villain. The next day, the day of the scheduled wedding, Gride tells Ralph about the visit; then the two of them go off in a hired coach to Miss Bray’s residence. 
.......When Mr. Bray expresses doubts about the marriage, saying it is a cruel injustice against his daughter, Ralph persuades him it is all for the best. Gride will soon die, he says, and Madeline will inherit his fortune. Satisfied, Mr. Bray goes upstairs to dress for the occasion. Moments later, Nicholas arrives at the Bray residence with Kate to make a last-minute attempt to halt the wedding. Then fate intervenes: Bray drops dead. The surprise development eliminates the need for Madeline to go through with the wedding, and Nicholas—who, incidentally, has fallen in love with her—places her in the care of his sister and mother, beyond the clutches of Ralph Nickleby.
.......Afterward, Ralph and Arthur Gride go to the latter’s home, where Gride discovers that his housekeeper, Peg Sliderskew, has absconded with all his important papers, including deeds and other documents. He shouts, “I am a ruined man!” One of the documents, written in expectation of his marriage to Madeline Bray, is a deed granting her property in the event of his death. It seems that the old housekeeper had become jealous of Madeline after learning of Gride's planned marriage to her, and she stole the documents to get even. Believing that Nicholas will eventually marry Madeline, Ralph cannot tolerate the thought that Nicholas would share this wealth.
.......When Ralph returns to his own home, a letter awaits with shocking news: He has lost ten thousand pounds through financial reversals. In a foul mood, Ralph, with the help of Squeers, retrieves Gride’s documents for his own benefit and strikes back at Nicholas by having poor Smike kidnapped for return to Squeers’s school and enrolled as a child of a man named Snawley, who had earlier enrolled two stepsons in the school. However, Smike escapes and Nicholas takes custody of him. Unfortunately, Smike later dies of tuberculosis. 
.......Meanwhile, Charles Cheeryble calls upon Ralph Nickleby one morning to inform him that news of utmost gravity awaits him at the counting house. Nickleby despises the Cheerybles because they have sided with Nicholas against him, but he goes to their business anyway later that day, saying after his arrival that he demands to know the news. Both Cheeryble brothers are there, along with Newman Noggs, the Cheerybles' clerk Tim Linkinwater, and another man, Brooker. Noggs—who, as Ralph’s clerk, knows the finer points of Ralph’s financial activity—then implicates Ralph in illegal activity. Next, Brooker, who has been in contact with Noggs, comes forward. At one time, he had worked for Ralph as a clerk. When Brooker claimed part of the profits of a business deal that he had secured for Ralph, the latter had Brooker arrested and thrown in jail for failure to repay a loan on which Ralph was charging fifty percent in interest. After his release from jail, Brooker needed work and Ralph rehired him because of Brooker's experience in assisting Ralph with his shady business dealings. While in Ralph's employ, Brooker learned that Ralph had married a Leicestershire woman some years before because she was, Brooker says, "entitled to a pretty large property." But the marriage was kept secret because she had not received her brother's approval for it. (According to her father's will, she would have been disinherited if she married without the consent of her brother.) 
......."So they went on," Brooker says,"keeping their marriage secret, and waiting for him [the brother] to break his neck or die of a fever." 
.......Meanwhile, the woman gave birth to Ralph Nickleby's child, who was turned over to the care of a nurse. The mother seldom saw it. As time went on, the woman wanted Ralph Nickleby to reveal their marriage publicly. However, he refused to do so, for her brother had become seriously ill and Ralph held out hope that after the brother died he could get his hands on the inheritance. There was a falling-out between Ralph and his wife, and Ralph remained in London to look after his business affairs while his wife stayed in Leicestershire. Just before the time when her brother was expected to die, she eloped with another man. Ralph pursued the couple, Brooker says, either to get money or to wreak revenge. Although he never found them, he did take possession of the child, a boy. 
......."I don't know whether he began to think he might like the child," Brooker says, "or whether he wished to make sure that it should never fall into its mother's hands; but . . . he intrusted me
with the charge of bringing it home." 
.......By this time, six years had passed and Ralph had received word that his estranged wife was dead. After taking the child back to London, Brooker lodged him in the attic of Ralph's home. He was a sickly child. When he fell ill on one occasion, Brooker called in a doctor to treat him. The doctor said the child required removal to another location "for a change of air," Brooker says, or he would not survive. At the time, Ralph was away on business for six weeks. Brooker then confesses that he conceived and carried out a scheme against Ralph to extract money from him and gain revenge against him because "he had used me ill—cruelly" when he worked for Ralph. First, Brooker arranged for the child's enrollment in the Yorkshire school operated by Squeers (for the required "change of air") and paid the required sum to keep him there. Next, when Ralph returned from his trip, Brooker told him that the boy had died and been buried. 
.......Brooker then describes Ralph's reaction and the purpose of his scheme against Ralph: "He might have been disappointed in some intention he had formed [concerning the boy], or he might have had some natural affection [for the child], but he WAS grieved at THAT, and I was confirmed in my design of opening up the secret one day, and making it a means of getting money from him." In other words, Brooker had planned to blackmail Ralph after informing him that the child was still alive and would prove an embarrassment to him if it became known that he had fathered a child through a secret marriage. 
.......But Brooker says he no longer wants to profit from his scheme. He just wants to set the record straight. He then reveals a great secret: The boy he had enrolled at Dotheboys Hall was Ralph's child, not Snawley's, a fact to which Snawley attests. The child was, of course, Smike. And now, Ralph learns, Smike is dead. Overwhelmed by this news and unable to carry on, Ralph hangs himself. The other Nicklebys do not claim his estate, for they do not wish to prosper on dirty money. The third-person narrator says, “The riches for which he had toiled all his days, and burdened his soul with so many evil deeds, were swept at last into the coffers of the state, and no man was the better or the happier for them.”
.......One day, Nicholas travels to Yorkshire to visit his old friend John Browdie, who greets Nicholas heartily. He tells Nicholas he has news concerning Squeers but did not get the full story. Nicholas then says, "After various shiftings and delays, he has been sentenced to be transported for seven years, for being in the unlawful possession of a stolen will; and, after that, he has to suffer the consequence of a conspiracy." Curious about what is happening at Dotheboys Hall in Squeers's absence, Browdie rides over to the school to see for himself. He arrives at the door in the midst of a rebellion inside by the students after Mrs. Squeers serves them one of the school's typically horrid breakfasts—a treacle mixture. 
While one detachment [of boys] rushed to the door and locked it, and another mounted on the desks . . .  the stoutest (and consequently the newest) boy seized the cane, and confronting Mrs. Squeers with a stern countenance, snatched off her cap and beaver bonnet, put them on his own head, armed himself with the wooden spoon, and bade her, on pain of death, go down upon her knees and take a dose directly. Before that estimable lady could recover herself, or offer the slightest retaliation, she was forced into a kneeling posture by a crowd of shouting tormentors, and compelled to swallow a spoonful of the odious mixture, rendered more than usually savoury by the immersion in the bowl of Master Wackford's head, whose ducking was intrusted to another rebel. The success of this first achievement prompted the malicious crowd, whose faces were clustered together in every variety of lank and half-starved ugliness, to further acts of outrage.
They tell Browdie, "Squeers is in prison, and we are going to run away!" Five minutes later, the school is empty, and Dotheboys Hall closes permanently.
.......Nicholas marries Madeline, and they buy and reside in his father's old house. On the same day, his sister, Kate, marries Frank Cheeryble, a nephew of the Cheeryble Brothers. Old Tim Linkinwater ends up marrying Miss La Creevy, the painter of miniatures. The Cheeryble brothers retire, but the firm continues under the name of Cheeryble and Nickleby after Nicholas invests in the business and Frank becomes a partner. As for Arthur Gride, burglars break into his home one night and, while seeking his rumored riches, murder him in his bed. Brooker dies but is remembered as a man who repented the wrongs he committed while under the influence of Ralph Nickleby. Sir Mulberry Hawk, imprisoned for indebtedness, dies in jail. 
.......Meanwhile, as the years pass, Children enliven the homes of Nicholas and Madeline and of Kate and her husband. Mrs. Nickleby lives part of the time with Kate and part of the time with Nicholas. Newman Noggs moves to a cottage near Nicholas's home, and he takes delight in the children of Nicholas and Kate, allowing him to become a child himself. The children dutifully bring fresh flowers from time to time to Smike's grave and speak "low and softly of their poor dead cousin."
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Setting 

.......The action takes place in nineteenth-century England in the counties of Devonshire, Yorkshire, Surrey, and Hampshire and in the cities of Portsmouth and London.

Main Characters
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Nicholas Nickleby (the Younger): The novel’s protagonist. He is a young man quick to defend his family and others against the evils of society, in particular those committed by his uncle, Ralph Nickleby, and Ralph's friends. While teaching at a boarding school, Nicholas thrashes the cruel schoolmaster Wackford Squeers and befriends and comforts a sickly boy named Smike.
Nicholas Nickleby (the Elder): Young Nickleby’s father, who dies after impoverishing his family through financial speculation.
Ralph Nickleby: Uncle of young Nicholas and the novel’s main villain. He is a cold, manipulative usurer. 
Kate Nickleby: Beautiful and vulnerable sister of young Nicholas.
Mrs. Nickleby: Mother of Kate and young Nicholas.
Wackford Squeers: Cruel headmaster of a boarding school, Dotheboys Hall.
Mrs. Squeers: Wife of Wackford Squeers. She is his accomplice in maltreating the children at the school. 
Wackford Squeers Jr.: Son of Wackford Squeers. His parents spoil him with gifts intended for the other children at the school. The elder Squeers intends to turn the school over him to when he grows up. Of this prospect, the boy says, "Oh my eye, won't I give it to the boys!' 
Fanny Squeers: Daughter of Wackford Squeers. She has eyes for Nicholas.
Matilda Price: Friend of Fanny Squeers.
John Browdie: Jovial Yorkshire countryman who woos and marries Matilda Price. He dislikes Wackford Squeers and assists Nicholas after the latter beats Squeers and leaves Dotheboys Hall.
Smike: Victim of Squeers’s cruelty who becomes a friend of young Nicholas.
Newman Noggs: Ralph Nickleby’s honest clerk.
Sir Mulberry Hawk: Loathsome reprobate who pursues Kate. He is a business crony of Ralph Nickleby.
Arthur Gride: Seventy-year-old business crony of Ralph Nickleby.
Madeline Bray: Beautiful young woman whom Ralph Nickleby tries to manipulate into a marriage with Gride. Nicholas falls in love with her.
Walter Bray: Madeline Bray's father, who is deep in debt to Ralph Nickleby and Arthur Gride. They agree to eliminate Bray's debt if he consents to a plan to marry his daughter to Gride.
Peg Sliderskew: Gride's hag of a housekeeper. When she learns that Gride plans to marry Madeline Bray, she becomes jealous and steals important documents from his home to gain revenge. 
Vincent Crummles: Operator of a theatrical company who employs young Nicholas and Smike for a time.
Cheeryble Brothers (Ned and Charles): Kind and generous operators of a counting house who employ Nicholas after he leaves the theatrical company.
Frank Cheeryble: Nephew of the Cheeryble brothers.
Tim Linkinwater: Elderly bookkeeper for the Cheeryble brothers.
Brooker: Man who had business dealings with Ralph Nickleby. Brooker reveals that Ralph is Smike's father.
The Leicestershire Woman: Ralph Nickleby's wife by a secret marriage.
Mr. Snawley: Man who enrolls his two stepsons at Dotheboys Hall. Ralph Nickleby later gets him to pose as Smike's father. At the time, Nickleby is unaware that he himself is the father of Smike.
Miss La Creevy: Miniature portrait painter who owns a building in which she rents rooms to Nicholas, his sister, and their mother after they arrive in London. 
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Complete Title

.......The complete title of the novel is The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings and Complete Career of the Nickelby Family.

Type of Work

.......The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is (1) a bildungsroman (apprenticeship novel) centering on the coming of age of the main character, Nicholas Nickleby, and (2) a social commentary injustice—including the maltreatment of children in the educational system—through pathos, comedy, satire, and powerful storytelling that is sometimes marred by coincidences and melodrama. As a bildungsroman, the novel traces the development of Nicholas Nickleby, who becomes the head of the family after his father dies, into a responsible and upstanding young man. As a social commentary, it indicts the overseers of the school system that treats children with unconscionable cruelty, as well as practitioners of usury and other dishonest business practices. 

Publication

.......The novel—Dickens's third, after The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist—was published in serial form between March 1838 and September 1839.

Source

.......Dickens used his imagination to create the plot, but he conducted firsthand research in 1838 to support his account of the woeful state of private education in England. Because conditions at the schools were especially bad in Yorkshire, that is where he went to do the research. In a preface to the novel, Dickens wrote, 

I went down into Yorkshire before I began this book, in very severe winter time which is pretty faithfully described herein. As I wanted to see a schoolmaster or two, and was forewarned that those gentlemen might, in their modesty, be shy of receiving a visit from the author of the "Pickwick Papers," I consulted with a professional friend who had a Yorkshire connexion, and with whom I concerted a pious fraud. He gave me some letters of introduction, in the name, I think, of my travelling companion; they bore reference to a supposititious little boy who had been left with a widowed mother who didn't know what to do with him; the poor lady had thought, as a means of thawing the tardy compassion of her relations in his behalf, of sending him to a Yorkshire school; I was the poor lady's friend, travelling that way; and if the recipient of the letter could inform me of a school in his neighbourhood, the writer would be very much obliged.
In the same preface, he discussed his conclusions. Here is an excerpt from his findings:
Of the monstrous neglect of education in England, and the disregard of it by the State as a means of forming good or bad citizens, and miserable or happy men, private schools long afforded a notable example. Although any man who had proved his unfitness for any other occupation in life, was free, without examination or qualification, to open a school anywhere; although preparation for the functions he undertook, was required in the surgeon who assisted to bring a boy into the world, or might one day assist, perhaps, to send him out of it; in the chemist, the attorney, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker; the whole round of crafts and trades, the schoolmaster excepted; and although schoolmasters, as a race, were the blockheads and impostors who might naturally be expected to spring from such a state of things, and to flourish in it; these Yorkshire schoolmasters were the lowest and most rotten round in the whole ladder. Traders in the avarice, indifference, or imbecility of parents, and the helplessness of children; ignorant, sordid, brutal men, to whom few considerate persons would have entrusted the board and lodging of a horse or a dog; they formed the worthy cornerstone of a structure, which, for absurdity and a magnificent  high-minded LAISSEZ-ALLER neglect, has rarely been exceeded in the world.
Narration

.......Dickens presents the story in third-person point of view. Sometimes the narrator reveals the thoughts of a character (omniscient third-person point of view), as in the following Chapter 3 passage centering on Mrs. Nickleby after her husband dies: 

This appeal set the widow upon thinking that perhaps she might have made a more successful venture with her one thousand pounds, and then she began to reflect what a comfortable sum it would have been just then; which dismal thoughts made her tears flow faster. . . . 
Here is an example from Chapter 7 that presents the feelings of young Nicholas after he arrives at Dotheboys Hall:
A host of unpleasant misgivings, which had been crowding upon Nicholas  during the whole journey, thronged into his mind with redoubled force when he was left alone. His great distance from home and the impossibility of reaching it, except on foot, should he feel ever so anxious to return, presented itself to him in most alarming colours; and as he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.
At other times, the narrator suggests what a character is thinking through a gesture or facial expression, but does not directly reveal his thoughts (limited third-person point of view). Here is an example of this narrative approach, also from Chapter 7: 
Mr. Squeers was emptying his great-coat pockets of letters to different boys, and other small documents, which he had brought down in them. The boy [Smike] glanced, with an anxious and timid expression, at the papers, as if with a sickly hope that one among them might relate to him. 
Notice that the narrator merely guesses at what Smike is thinking, saying, as if with a sickly hope rather than with a sickly hope.
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Themes

Coming of Age

.......Beginning with the death of his father, Nicholas Nickleby's challenging experiences bring out the best in him, turning him into a responsible and upstanding young man. 

Condemnable Educational System

.......Through his depiction of Wackford Squeers and description of the boarding school he runs, Dickens severely criticizes the educational system in England. His message is clear: British society commits a grave sin by permitting the existence of poorly run boarding schools that abuse children.

Benevolence

.......The Cheeryble Brothers build a thriving business on treating others with respect and compassion. They are largely responsible for helping Nicholas and his family rise from their sorry circumstances. Newman Noggs also emerges as something of a guardian angel because of his benevolence and integrity.

Avarice

.......All of the reprehensible characters in the novel ignore this biblical admonition: The love of money is the root of all evil (First Epistle of Paul to Timothy, Chapter 6, Verse 10). They accumulate wealth at the expense and suffering of others.

Maltreatment of Women

.......At a time when women were often looked down upon, Dickens condemns mistreatment of them. Kate Nickleby and Madeline Bray eventually accede to the elevated status they deserve. 

Compassion Toward the Less Fortunate

.......Nicholas befriends the mentally deficient and physically weak Smike—and remains loyal to him to the end. In depicting the relationship between Nicholas and Smike, Dickens develops the theme that every  human being—no matter his or her defects—deserves love and friendship. 
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Climax

.......The buildup to the climax begins when Newman Noggs—backed by the Cheeryble brothers, Tim Linkinwater, and Brooker—accuses Ralph Nickleby of engaging in illegal activity. The climax itself begins when Ned Cheeryble—speaking for himself and for Charles Cheeryble, Noggs, Linkinwater, Brooker, and Nicholas Nickleby—tells Ralph in Chapter 60:

Prepare yourself for intelligence which, if you have any human feeling in your breast, will make even you shrink and tremble. What if we tell you that a poor unfortunate boy: a child in everything but never having known one of those tender endearments, or one of those lightsome hours which make our childhood a time to be remembered like a happy dream through all our after life: a warm-hearted, harmless, affectionate creature, who never offended you, or did you wrong, but on whom you have vented the malice and hatred you have conceived for your nephew, and whom you have made an instrument for wreaking your bad passions upon him: what if we tell you that, sinking under your persecution, sir, and the misery and ill-usage of a life short in years but long in suffering, this poor creature has gone to tell his sad tale where, for your part in it, you must surely answer?
.......The precise moment of the climax occurs in the same chapter when Brooker reveals to Ralph that Smike "was your only son, so help me God in heaven!'
.......A question arises at this point: Why does the climax center on Ralph Nickleby if Nicholas Nickleby is title character of the novel? The answer is that the public exposure of Ralph as a villain removes him as the chief obstacle to the happiness of Nicholas and all those he loves. Thus, the climax is a major turning point in the life of Nicholas.
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Imagery

.......In all his novels, Dickens packs his prose with vivid imagery about people, places, and things. True, at times, Dickens can be wordy and melodramatic. But even when he dallies and sentimentalizes, he enthralls. There can be no gainsaying that he was a gifted storyteller who could infuse an adjective with Olympian power and turn a whole chapter into a too-brief candle. In Chapter 4, when Nicholas Nickleby travels to the Newgate section of London to meet his prospective employer, Wackford Squeers, the narrator presents this grim picture of the district:

There, at the very core of London, in the heart of its business and animation, in the midst of a whirl of noise and motion: stemming as it were the giant currents of life that flow ceaselessly on from different quarters, and meet beneath its walls: stands Newgate; and in that crowded street on which it frowns so darkly--within a few feet of the squalid tottering houses--upon the very spot on which the vendors of soup and fish and damaged fruit are now plying their trades—scores of human beings, amidst a roar of sounds to which even the tumult of a great city is as nothing, four, six, or eight strong men at a time, have been hurried violently and swiftly from the world, when the scene has been rendered frightful with excess of human life; when curious eyes have glared from casement and house-top, and wall and pillar; and when, in the mass of white and upturned faces, the dying wretch, in his all-comprehensive look of agony, has met not one—not one—that bore the impress of pity or compassion.
.......Dickens's Chapter 8 description of abused children at Dotheboys Hall skillfully uses such figures of speech as metaphor (deformities with irons upon their limbs), alliteration (scowl of sullen, dogged suffering), personification (childhood with the light of its eye quenched), and hyperbole (lonesome even in their loneliness):
Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys, brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!
.......In Chapter 56, when Ralph Nickleby and Arthur Gride enter the latter's home to look for the housekeeper, Dickens presents a scene in which the beat of an iron heart breaks the silence and a spider pretends to be dead:

......It was the same dark place as ever: every room dismal and silent as it was wont to be, and every ghostly article of furniture in its customary place. The iron heart of the grim old clock, undisturbed by all the noise without, still beat heavily within its dusty case; the tottering presses slunk from the sight, as usual, in their melancholy corners; the echoes of footsteps returned the same dreary sound; the long-legged spider paused in his nimble run, and, scared by the sight of men in that his dull domain, hung motionless on the wall, counterfeiting death until they should have passed him by.

.......Chapter 62 presents a memorable passage in which a dark cloud follows Ralph Nickleby and cemetery weeds grow from rotting corpses. 

.......The night was dark, and a cold wind blew, driving the clouds, furiously and fast, before it. There was one black, gloomy mass that seemed to follow him: not hurrying in the wild chase with the others, but lingering sullenly behind, and gliding darkly and stealthily on. He often looked back at this, and, more than once, stopped to let it pass over; but, somehow, when he went forward again, it was still behind him, coming mournfully and slowly up, like a shadowy funeral train.
.......He had to pass a poor, mean burial-ground—a dismal place, raised a few feet above the level of the street, and parted from it by a low parapet-wall and an iron railing; a rank, unwholesome, rotten spot, where the very grass and weeds seemed, in their frouzy growth, to tell that they had sprung from paupers' bodies, and had struck their roots in the graves of men, sodden, while alive, in steaming courts and drunken hungry dens. And here, in truth, they lay, parted from the living by a little earth and a board or two—lay thick and close—corrupting in body as they had in mind--a dense and squalid crowd. Here they lay, cheek by jowl with life: no deeper down than the feet of the throng that passed there every day, and piled high as their throats. Here they lay, a grisly family, all these dear departed brothers and sisters of the ruddy clergyman who did his task so speedily when they were hidden in the ground!
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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Other than Nicholas Nickleby, who is (are) the most admirable character(s) in the novel?
  • Who is the most memorable character, good or bad?
  • Does Nickleby undergo significant changes by the end of the novel? Explain your answer.
  • Write an essay centering on the typical education of a lower-class child in England of the 1830s.
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the typical education of a lower-class child in England of the 1830s with that of an upper-class child.
  • In the time of Dickens, what privileges (social, political, and otherwise) enjoyed by males were denied to women, such as Kate Nickleby and Madeline Bray?
  • Write an essay explaining the extent to which Dickens based his novel on his own experiences.
  • What was a debtor's prison, such as the King's Bench Prison in Nicholas Nickleby?