A neglected masterpiece if ever there was one, Nicholas Nickleby is easily one of the funniest books you will ever read. Chesterton averred that Dickens' genius lay primarily in his humor, and this novel is proof. Nicholas encounters members of every level of society in his efforts to provide for his mother and sister after the death of his father, and they are all ridiculous. Though the accusation that Dickens wrote caricatures rather than characters is empty noise for anyone who has read this book:larger-than-life, certainly, but the population of Nicholas Nickleby is very real and beneath the overblown eccentricities are people each of us knows.
Perhaps the most chilling (and one of the funniest) episodes in the book is Nicholas' brief stay with Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall, a boarding school for young men who are summarily deprived, beaten and forced to eat a nasty treacle concoction every morning. (Treacle is molasses mixed with sulphur, as vile as it sounds, once thought to prevent illness.) This interlude reveals, perhaps more than in any of his other books, Dickens' hatred of social injustice, particularly the treatment of children in English society during the Victorian era. His indictment, while comedic, is nevertheless gutwrenching and indeed led indirectly to reforms in schools and the workplace.
Smike, the frail semi-retarded waif Nicholas rescues from Squeers' clutches, represents innocence and offsets the cruelty endured by him at the hands of nearly everyone, a cruelty he accepts as a way of life. This inbred understanding of the immutability of suffering permeates Dickens' work, though he never abdicates to simple acceptance. Nicholas' bravery and determination to overcome Squeers' and Ralph Nickleby's evil, his championing of Smike, and his success in these endeavours reveals Dickens' underlying optimism depsite the bleakness of his assessment.
Nicholas Nickleby has all the elements of a Dickens novel—uncertain lineage, madcap humor, adventure, romance, evil motives, heartbreak, a bittersweet ending. The representative blend of light and dark is most evident here among all the early works (The Pickwick Paperswas all lighthearted; Oliver Twist was mostly dark), ranging from Newman Noggs beating people with a fireplace bellows to a certain suicide accomplished in an emptyapartment room with a bit of rope and a chair. For those unfamiliar with Dickens, this is an exhilirating introduction; for established fans, it is confirmation of his incomparable genius.
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