Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease reveals its ending at the beginning: Obi Okonkwo is on trial for accepting a bribe. The trial is the talk of Lagos and the courtroom is crowded. Obi has maintained a demeanor of indifference throughout, but at the judge’s summation tears come to Obi’s eyes. The scene shifts to a British club, where Obi’s boss, Mr. Green, cites the case as proof of his conviction that ‘‘the African is corrupt through and through.’’ The Umuofia Progressive Union, an association of Ibo from Obi’s home village, meets to discuss Obi’s case. This group has raised funds to send select young men from Umuofia to study in England. Obi Okonkwo, a brilliant student, won the first scholarship, but disappointed his sponsors by studying English instead of law. The flash-forward ends, and the narrative backtracks to reveal how Obi’s disgrace came about, beginning with a prayer meeting and feast held at the Okonkwo family home . . . Read More
Nicholas Nickleby was Charles Dickens’s third novel, after The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, and it is considered his first classic romantic novel. This latter point is important because Nicholas Nickleby marked an important turning point for Dickens, the definitive fork in the road at which he became a writer of fiction rather than journalism, and thereby changed the face of literature forever.
Dickens had been a successful journalist in his so far rather short writing career. (He was only twenty-six when Nicholas Nickleby was published in 1838.) A collection of his journalistic pieces from London newspapers, Sketches by Boz, had been published to enormous acclaim two years earlier. The two novels that followed,The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, are characterized by critics as having the quality of stories stitched together, as literary rather than journalistic ‘‘sketches.’’ Nicholas Nickleby would change that pattern.
The novel was born, however, . . . Read More
Reform in England
Charles Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby in 1838 and 1839, at the end of a turbulent decade in Britain. British workers had fought for an extension of the right to vote early in the decade, but the Reform Act of 1832 in actuality disenfranchised some workers. The Poor Law Amendment Act, passed in 1834, all but ended ‘‘outdoor relief,’’ or payments to supplement the income of the poor, and created harsh workhouses meant to be an alternative only for those facing starvation. Then in 1837 unemployment spread through industrial districts as a result of an economic depression that gripped the country. A largescale workers movement called the Chartist movement emerged from all of these causes to push for universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, the abolition of property requirements to be elected to Parliament as well as pay for its members, and annual elections. While the Chartist movement ultimately failed to achieve its goals, it . . . Read More
Class and Privilege
Nicholas Nickleby, like most of Charles Dickens’s novels, is explicitly concerned with the human costs of the class system. Nicholas and Kate suffer a tremendous loss of privilege when they lose their father’s fortune and sink from the genteel class status of their birth to a sort of purgatory class of the educated poor who must find paying work. They are no longer in charge of their own destinies, but must rely on the kindness of their one relative, Ralph, or on the kindness of strangers to procure work.
Both siblings are forced to do work that is beneath their accustomed class status—work that requires none of their talents or education, but rather hard physical labor and a willingness to abandon all ethical qualms in return for a paycheck. Ralph, in procuring these jobs for the siblings, makes it clear that this is the level appropriate to their new, lower-class status. Nicholas must work for the brutal and dishonest . . . Read More
Nicholas falls in love with Madeline Bray after seeing her at an employment agency. Not knowing her name, Nicholas despairs of ever meeting her until he discovers she is having secret evening meetings with the Brothers Cheeryble. Like Nicholas, she is from the gentler classes but has fallen on hard times and must now support herself and her family. Much drama ensues, including Nicholas’s ingenious and heroic plot to save her from a forced marriage to elderly miser Arthur Gride, yet another association brokered by Ralph for his own financial gain. Unbeknownst to Madeline, she will get an inheritance upon marrying, which will then become Gride’s, as a wife’s property becomes her husband’s. Ralph plans to force Gride to give it to him to pay Ralph back for Madeline’s father’s debts.
Walter Bray is Madeline’s father. Once a dashing man who swept Madeline’s mother off her feet, he is now a . . . Read More
Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby opens with Nicholas’s grandfather Godfrey Nickleby, who has been driven by poverty almost to the point of suicide, inheriting money from an uncle. He buys a farm and raises two sons, Nicholas and Ralph. Cold and miserly Ralph becomes a rich money-lender, while the kinder Nicholas remains poor, eventually investing badly in the stock market and losing what little he has. He dies a broken man, leaving his wife and two children, Nicholas and Kate, penniless. The scene shifts to the office of the children’s uncle, Ralph Nickleby, in Golden Square, where readers first meet Ralph’s assistant, Newman Noggs, another former gentleman who was ruined through bad investments. Newman is the first of many characters in the novel who is deformed in some way. In Newman’s case, it is due to his ‘‘two goggle eyes, of which one was a fixture’’ [made of glass], his absurdly small clothes, and his incessant . . . Read More
Much of the plot of Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady turns on incidents of tragedy, loss, and brokenness. From cracked limbs to strokes to personal and financial breakdowns, the author uses these difficult events to reveal the depth and breadth of her characters. Through it all, Niel, arguably the novel’s primary character, must deal with the repercussions of his initial, idealized belief that Mrs. Forrester is a perfect example of womanhood. Cather draws everyone as very human, including Mrs. Forrester, something Niel comes to understand as he fully becomes an adult. An examination of how Cather depicts these dark incidents illuminates the reasons why Niel’s idealization is so key to the novel and what affect it has on both him and Mrs. Forrester.
Cather often uses calamity and misfortune to define characters in A Lost Lady. She first employs the concept of loss in Part One, Chapter I when describing Captain Forrester’s history and merits, then mentioning at the end that . . . Read More
Conflict of Values between Generations
One concept that underscores much of the plot in A Lost Lady is how human values change over time. In the novel, Cather distinguishes between the generations and their different sets of principles. Men like Captain Forrester and Judge Pommeroy represent the old guard, the backbone of towns like Sweet Water in this period. The Captain helped build the railroads that crisscrossed the Plains States and linked the East to California and the Pacific Ocean, thereby fulfilling America’s ‘‘Manifest Destiny.’’ While the judge’s exact role in building up Sweet Water is unclear, he is regarded as a leading citizen and upright lawyer. His respectable social standing extends to his beloved nephew, Niel Herbert, who shares many of his values despite his youth.
Mrs. Forrester’s values contrast with those of her husband, who is twenty-five years older than she is. While the Captain loves his wife and her youthful . . . Read More
George Adams is one of the local boys who enters the Forrester property with Mrs. Forrester’s permission to fish. He is the son of a gentleman rancher from Lowell, Massachusetts, and is the one who directly asks Mrs. Forrester for permission that day. Like Niel, George despises Ivy Peters and is upset that he disrupts their day of fun. A few years later, George and his family return to Massachusetts after a number of crop failures.
Mrs. Beasley is Sweet Water’s telephone operator. She overhears Mrs. Forrester’s drunken call to Frank Ellinger after his marriage.
Black Tom is the African American servant of Judge Pommeroy. The judge lets the Forresters use him as a server during their dinner parties. Black Tom also helps care for the Captain after his second stroke.
The son of the German tailor in Sweet Water . . . Read More
The novel A Lost Lady by Willa Cather opens with a description of how Captain Daniel Forrester became a prominent, rich man by building an extensive railroad network. While constructing his rail lines, he found a spot surrounded by creeks and meadows near the growing town of Sweet Water in Nebraska. There he eventually built a house, and, with his much younger second wife Marian Forrester, he provides hospitality for visiting friends, businessmen, and prominent local citizens. Although they also own properties in Colorado, the Forresters consider Sweet Water their primary home.
When Niel Herbert is twelve years old and Mrs. Forrester is still young, Niel and a group of local boys from town enter the Forrester property one summer day. They ask Mrs. Forrester’s permission to fish and eat lunch there. In part because Mrs. Forrester favors Niel, she gives her consent. At lunchtime, she brings them . . . Read More