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Literature / Nicholas Nickleby

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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 Charlie Hunnam as Nicholas, Christopher Plummer as Ralph, and Jamie Bell as Smike, with a supporting cast including 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.

Can be read 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.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The Squeers are hideous and grossly overweight in the book and 2001 miniseries, but are no worse than average and much thinner in the 2002 film.
  • Adapted Out:
    • In the 2001 version, Tim Linkinwater and the entire Kenwigs family are nowhere to be seen.
    • Arthur Gride is absent in the 2002 film, and Sir Mulberry Hawk takes his role as Madeline's Abhorrent Admirer.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: Mrs. Nickleby, who can't keep on the same subject for more than two or three sentences.
  • A Taste of Their Own Medicine: Nicholas Nickleby often dishes these out to those who wronged those he cares about. For example, Wackford Squeers, who is often known for sadistically beating children, gets the living daylights beaten out of him by Nicholas. Another example is that Sir Mulberry Hawk, who for much of the novel tries to humiliate Kate and therefore damaging her good name, ends up being publicly humiliated himself when Nicholas' attack over him results in a crash that leaves him injured. Needless to say, Hawk does not take it well and plans to seek revenge.
  • Babies Ever After: What happens to Kate and Frank Cheeryble and Nicholas and Madeline Bray.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": When the entire RSC crew plays Romeo and Juliet (making a point of having several actors playing actors who play Shakespeare), they manage to play the piece so over the top and wooden that it comes out as a CMOF.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Nicholas is the warmest and most compassionate person ever, but he's also a definite force to be reckoned with. Threaten those he cares about and he will not let you get away with it. Just ask Mr. Squeers, Sir Mulberry Hawk, and Ralph.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Upon learning that Sir Mulberry Hawk is subjugating his younger sister to harassment and humiliation, Nicholas violently attacks him and threatens to not be so forgiving should he come near her again.
  • 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: Dotheboys Hall is one of the most famous examples in all of literature. The boys at the school are starved, regularly beaten, made to do menial physical labour, and given only the barest rudiments of an education (impaired by the Squeers family's own Book Dumb nature). Tragically, some of the boys either can no longer remember their lives outside the school or actually view it as a step up from where they were previously, and after Dotheboys is forcibly shut down in the wake of Wackford Squeers' imprisonment, they don't want to leave.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: John Browdie, who is usually seen either laughing lustily or threatening to beat someone's head in.
  • Broken Bird: Smike. Years of abuse and neglect before and after being sent to Dotheboys Hall made him a broken-spirited wretch.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Brooker. He is the one revealing Smike's true identity, and thus is the one instrumental in breaking Ralph Nickleby good and proper. Even more awesome — he does it on his own, helping Nicholas almost in absentia.
  • Child Prodigy: Subverted with Ninetta Crummles aka "The Infant Phenomenon." 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.
  • 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.
  • Corrupt Politician: Sir Matthew Pupker, MP. When Nicholas is applying for a job as his secretary, he shows himself clearly. He also has dealings with Ralph Nickleby.
  • Crapsack World: Dotheboys Hall, in stark contrast to how Squeers presented it in London, is a horrid place where boys are starved and abused on a regular basis.
  • Cross-Cast Role: In the 2002 version, Mrs. Crummles is played by Barry Humphries (credited as his drag alter ego, Dame Edna Everage).
  • Crowd Song: The play was set over two days, ending with a Crowd Song, assembling everyone on stage. The first "part" ends with a "national anthem" written for the production, featuring the "Shakespeare" players for the first verse, and the rest of the set (in their victorian costumes) for the second (gathering all actors on stage before curtain). The second part ends with a similar rendition of "God rest ye merry gentlemen", including Nicholas, having had Smike die in his arms earlier on, picking up another starving boy in the same manner.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Smike dies in Nicholas' arms under an old tree, in the garden where Nicholas grew up.
  • Dirty Commies: Nicholas, as far as Matthew Pupker is concerned. When Nicholas asks him what his tasks are, and what Pupker has "to do" as a Member of Parliament, Pupker reacts by showing him the door, calling him a "chartist" and a "leveller". The terms were as close as you could get to a communist in Victorian England (at least the early part of it).
  • The Dreaded: Most of the people who wronged Nicholas' family end up cowering when Nicholas gets violent with them.
  • 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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Ralph Nickleby may be a ruthless moneylender and capitalist, but God forbid anything should happen to Kate. He clearly draws the line for Sir Mulberry to protect her. She is his only chance for redemption - but in the end he rejects it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Incest Subtext: The 2001 miniseries has a scene where Ralph asks Kate to live with him — and sounds disturbingly like he's proposing to her. Kate is as freaked out as the audience.
  • It's All About Me: Fanny Squeers in the 2002 film. She has this fantasy that Mr. Nickleby has fallen in love with her from the moment he laid eyes on her, which could not be further from the truth. She's absolutely oblivious to all the suffering her family brings upon their students, which Mr. Nickleby on the other hand is painfully aware of. So it's beyond her comprehension when he not only confesses he does not love her, but that he's been thinking about the school, the students, everything but her.
  • Large Ham: Several in the 1980 stage version. Mr Vincent Crummles should be an honorable example. Mrs Crummles even more so.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Nice Guy:
  • Oireland: The Cheeryble Brothers in the 1980 Production had audible Irish accents, and were even played by two redheads - giving a strong impression of the Fighting Irish as well. This goes even more for Frank Cheeryble, presented with traces of the same accent, with an Establishing Character Moment fulfilling no less than three tropes: Hot-Blooded, Fiery Redhead, and Fighting Irish.
  • Old Maid: Miss La Creevy, though she's much more optimistic about the benefits of her position than most examples.
  • 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. takes a striking resemblance to his father both in personality and appearance.
  • Papa Wolf: Nicholas Nickleby is fiercely protective of his family, despite the fact that he's only the oldest child in the family, and he can and will use violence on those who wronged them.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Think Dotheboys Hall is too over-the-top to be real? Wrong. It was based on real schools at the time, and Wackford Squeers was based on either a real person (William Shaw, headmaster of one such school) or an amalgam of real people.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Sentenced to Down Under:
    • Brooker is revealed to have had this happen to him, which prevented him from making up for his crimes sooner.
    • Squeers is transported for seven years, and his boarding school closed, on charges of stealing a will and conspiracy.
  • Shipper on Deck: Kate is this for Nicholas and Madeline, especially in the 2002 film.
    Kate: (smiles teasingly) Nicholas, have you found your matching half? (Nicholas looks at her smiling, confirming it) Well then, we must think of how to find her. For when she knows you, she will love you too.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Mr. and Madame Mantalini spend their entire marriage either fighting or smooching.
  • Stylistic Suck: From the 1980 stage version, the Crummles' theatre company all the way - and they probably know it.
  • 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.
    • Towards the end of the book, Ralph receives a much more effective one from Newman Noggs.
  • 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."
  • Token Good Teammate: Lord Frederick Verisopht is the only one of Ralph's associates with a functioning conscience. It gets him killed when he stands up to Sir Mulberry.
  • 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.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Implied. Sir Mulberry Hawk starts off dismissing Kate's statements that she wished her brother, Nicholas, is there to help her and attempts to sexually harass her. But when Nicholas actually comes and attacks him for it, he goes from merely underestimating him and being indifferent to him to utterly hating him to the point that he outright swears revenge against him.
    "When I am off this cursed bed, I'll have such revenge as never man had yet. By God, I will! Accident favouring him, he has marked me for a week or two, but I'll put a mark on him that he shall carry to his grave. I'll slit his nose and ears—flog him—maim him for life. I'll do more than that; I'll drag that pattern of chastity, that pink of prudery, the delicate sister, through...!"
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Subverted on both cases with Fanny and Tilda, Sir Mulberry and Lord Verisopht. In the former's case, the friendship ends due to Fanny's selfishness. In the latter's case, the friendship ends due to Verisopht gaining a moral conscience after witnessing Nicholas' heroism in defending his sister's honour from Sir Mulberry Hawk.
  • 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.