Literature: Nicholas Nickleby

Charles Dickens' third novel, originally written in serial form, is about a young upper-middle-class man forced to support his mother and sister after his father's death and financial ruin. Grudgingly assisted by his uncle, Ralph Nickleby, the title character Nicholas finds work as a teaching assistant at Dotheboys Hall, possibly the most famous Boarding School of Horrors in the history of literature, and struggles with the moral dilemma of keeping his livelihood vs. standing up to injustice. Meanwhile, his sister Kate, working as a milliner and lady's companion, faces her own challenges in the form of demanding employers, jealous co-workers and unwanted male attention. Like many other Dickens novels, this story centers on the social conflicts of the time, especially child abuse and harsh working conditions, and relies on satire to get the point across; Wackford Squeers, the headmaster, seems too outrageous to be true until one remembers that Dickens based him on a real life Yorkshire schoolmaster named William Shaw.

The novel spawned several film and television adaptations, including one in 2002 with Anne Hathaway and Nathan Lane, among others. It also was adapted into an incredibly faithful, 8.5 hour long stage production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980. For those interested, that one can be watched here.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Arthur Gride to Madeline Bray, since he's old, ugly, greedy and lecherous; Sir Mulberry Hawk to Kate, since he's a cad. Fanny Squeers to Nicholas, because she's ugly and the daughter of Wackford Squeers, who abuses the children in his care.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Mrs. Nickleby, who can't keep on the same subject for more than two or three sentences.
  • Babies Ever After: What happens to Kate and Frank Cheeryble and Nicholas and Madeline Bray
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: Ralph Nickleby's secretary, Newman Noggs, was a gentleman before Nickleby ruined him financially and left him with no other choice but to work for him; his efforts to subvert Ralph's schemes have to be very subtle so as not to be discovered.
  • Big Eater: Wackford Squeers Jr., encouraged by his father so as to be an example of the supposed rich diet given to the boys. When the boys revolt, they dip him repeatedly in a bowl of treacle.
  • Boarding School of Horrors
  • Broken Bird: Smike.
  • Chewing the Scenery: In the 1980 stage play, the Crummles's production of Romeo and Juliet is actually performed, with hilarious results. Made even better since it was a parody of the Victorian era habit to bowdlerise William Shakespeare.
  • Child Prodigy: Subverted with Ninetta Crummles aka "The Infant Phenomemon." She is advertised as being only ten but is actually eighteen, her growth having been deliberately been stunted with gin. Suggests that the public's obsession with child stars (and attempts to pass them off as younger than they are) is Older Than Radio.
  • Christmas Cake: Miss La Creevy, though she's much more optimistic about the benefits of her position than most examples.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Mrs. Nickleby who at one is convinced that a mentally ill neighbor who tosses cabbages over her garden wall is in love with her.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Peg Sliderskew.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Smike dies in Nicholas' arms under an old tree, in the garden where Nicholas grew up.
  • Driven to Suicide: Ralph, after finding out that Smike — a pitiful young man he has been tormenting mostly to get to Nicholas — is his own son, whom he had believed dead.
  • Fat Bastard: Wackford Squeers Jr., due to both his gluttony and his father's use of him as an advertisement. Tim Linkinwater is an aversion.
  • Full-Name Basis: Tim Linkinwater.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mr. Mantalini. None of his endearments ("my soul's delight"; "my cup of essential pineapple", etc.) can prevent his wife's spying on him, scolding him, and finally putting him to work washing clothes. Perhaps understandable, since he is a Casanova Wannabe who hits on every woman he meets, including the seamstresses employed by his wife.
  • Hot-Blooded: Frank Cheeryble is described that way, for attacking a man who was talking dirty about Madeline.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Tim Linkinwater to the Cheeryble Brothers.
  • Love Before First Sight: Nicholas falls for Madeline by seeing her twice, long before their first conversation; first he is overcome by her beauty, then by hearing her sad backstory.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Mr. Snawley uses his fake paternal authority to try to drag Smike away from Nicholas, much to their dismay. It's a plot devised by Ralph to get revenge on Nicholas for defying his authority; by the time Ralph finds out that he is Smike's father, the boy is already dead.
  • Manly Tears: Nicholas cries at the drop of a hat.
  • Morality Pet: Kate, to a limited extent. She is the only character to make Ralph feel remorse for his actions (such as putting her on display for a bunch of his colleagues to harass) but not enough to make him stop.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Fanny Squeers works hard for an upper-class accent, but when she gets upset, she loses control over her h's.
  • Oop North: John Browdie, often referred to as "the Yorkshireman" in case there was any doubt where that accent comes from.
  • Overlord Jr.: Wackford Squeers Jr.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Cheeryble brothers.
  • Redemption Equals Death: While not evil so much as easily manipulated and a playboy, Lord Frederick Verisopht fits this trope. Upon realizing that his actions allowed Kate to be degraded by Sir Mulberry Hawk, he confronts and threatens Hawk and gets killed in a duel against him, because he knows that dying unmarried will disinherit him and lose his creditors (Hawk and Ralph Nickleby) large sums of money. His death also forces Hawk to flee the country, saving Kate and Nicholas from his revenge.
  • Sadist Teacher: Squeers.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Madeline suffers from a variation of this. Arthur Gride and Ralph Nickleby team up to inform her that if she marries Arthur, her invalid father will be sent off to live comfortably in a French villa; if she doesn't, his disease and their poverty might kill him any day.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Mr. and Madame Mantalini spend their entire marriage either fighting or smooching.
  • Sweet and Sour Grapes: Kate and Nicholas nobly renounce their respective lovers, because said lovers are proteges of Nicholas' new employers the Cheerybles (Frank is their nephew; Madeline an old family friend) and Nicholas is afraid of taking too much advantage of the Cheerybles' generosity. But then an old document shows up, naming Madeline as a wealthy heiress, the Cheerybles give their blessing to both couples, and everyone lives happily ever after.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Sir Mulberry to Kate, and she's not happy.
  • The Caretaker: Madeline to her father; later Kate to Madeline after the father's convenient death.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Newman to Ralph, in spectacular fashion. The entire Squeers family also suffers this: beating-obsessed Mr. Squeers is beaten by Nicholas, Mrs. Squeers literally gets a taste of her own medicine (treacle) when the boys revolt, gluttonous Wackford Jr. has his head shoved in the treacle, and Fanny Squeers is attacked by boys.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Nicholas fires off several of them at Ralph, who is less than impressed.
  • The Scrooge: Ralph, also Arthur Gride in a lesser fashion. Averted by the Cheeryble Brothers, who are not only moneylenders, but some of the kindest, most sensible people in the novel.
  • They Call Me Mister Tibbs: Newman is only called "Mr. Noggs" by his housemates, who still remember him as a gentleman; Ralph derisively calls him "Noggs". Meanwhile, when Fanny Squeers decides to put a final end to her volatile friendship with Tilda, she invokes this trope as well:
    "Have the goodness not to meddle with my Christian name ... ma'am."
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Pike & Pluck
  • Unholy Matrimony: Mr. and Mrs. Squeers. She calls him "Squeery" and saves all the best food for him; he compliments her lovingly on her ability to break the students' spirits.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Fanny and Tilda; Sir Mulberry and Lord Verisopht.
  • Wacky Marriage Proposal: The old neighbor tries to court Mrs. Nickleby by throwing cucumbers over the garden wall and dancing around in his underwear.
  • Woman Scorned: Fanny, jealous of Tilda for being the first one to get engaged, starts chasing after Nicholas and convinces herself he loves her back. When he rejects her — right in front of Tilda and her fiance — Fanny snaps into full Yandere mode and joins the rest of the family in making Nicholas' life as hellish as possible.
  • You Leave Him Alone!: When Smike is caught running away and beaten harshly to "make an example of" in front of the other boys, Nicholas (who feels responsible, having told Smike there was a better world out there) loses control. He orders Squeers to stop, beats the living daylights out of him, and rescues Smike, winning his eternal gratitude.