A neglected masterpiece if ever there was one, Nicholas Nickleby is one of the funniest books you'll read. Chesterton was right: Dickens's genius was his humor. Nicholas moves through all levels of society in his efforts to provide for his mother and sister, and everyone he meets is ridiculous. Both caricatures and deeply human characters people this book:larger-than-life, but very real beneath the overblown eccentricities.
One simultaneously chilling and hilarious episode in the book is Nicholas' brief stay with Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall, a boarding school for deprived young men who are beaten and forced to eat a nasty treacle concoction every morning. This interlude reveals Dickens' hatred of social injustice, particularly the treatment of children in Victorian English society. His indictment, while comedic, is nevertheless gut-wrenching; it led indirectly to reforms in schools and the workplace.
Smike, the semi-retarded waif Nicholas rescues from Dotheboys, offsets the cruelty inflicted on him, a cruelty he accepts as a way of life. This understanding of the immutability of suffering permeates Dickens' work, though he never simply abdicates. Nicholas's determination to overcome Squeers' and Ralph Nickleby's evil, his championing of Smike, and his success in these endeavours reveals Dickens' underlying optimism despite 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 blend of light and dark is most evident here among all the early works, ranging from Newman Noggs beating people with a fireplace bellows to a suicide completed in an empty apartment with a bit of rope and a chair. For those unfamiliar with Dickens, this is an exhilirating introduction; for established fans, it's confirmation of his genius.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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