The nine hundred pages of Nicholas Nickleby are Dickens’s outraged cry of ‘‘Stop!’’ The whole novel is Dickens’s stick. Another social issue of the time that Dickens explores thoroughly—one might say relentlessly—in Nicholas Nickleby is the family as an essentially economic structure. Throughout the novel, individual family members are depicted as units of income, either potential income, produced income, or lost income. This was a staple trope of Victorian literature, as it was a reality of Victorian life, and other British writers of the period based their dramas around this issue, including the Bronte¨ sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen.
In Nicholas Nickleby readers are made to understand the economic basis for the family from multiple perspectives, something that again would be difficult to do in journalism form. At the beginning of the novel, Nicholas and his sister, accompanied by their mother, have arrived in London to seek financial help from their Uncle Ralph after their father has literally died of grief over the loss of his wealth. As the book progresses Nicholas believes he cannot marry Madeline, the girl he loves, because she is to be married to a rich miser to support her father’s flamboyant lifestyle. Later Kate comes to the agonizing realization that she cannot marry the man she loves because of differences in their financial status, and also because he is the nephew of Nicholas’s employers, which could interfere with Nicholas’s livelihood, essential to support their mother.
There is also an elaborate subplot involving a family called the Kenwigses that Dickens seems to have added simply to reinforce this idea of the family as an economic unit. During repeated visits to the Kenwigs home, the reader is made privy to the family’s fervent hope, almost an obsession, that their one wealthy relative, the middle-aged yet unmarried Mr. Lillyvick, will leave his fortune to the Kenwigs daughters for use as dowries to catch rich husbands.WhenMr. Lillyvick abruptly marries an actress the family is devastated; they had shared their food and drink with Mr. Lillyvick for years in the most explicit hopes of inheriting his fortune. When the actress just as abruptly leaves Lillyvick, the Kenwigses receive him back only after he solemnly promises that no such frivolities will occur again. ‘‘I shall, tomorrow morning, settle upon your children, and make payable to the survivors of them when they come of age and marry, that money which I once meant to leave ’em in my will,’’ Lillyvick swears. Only then is he received back into the bosom of his loving family.
Nicholas Nickleby, in the view of Dickens scholar G. K. Chesterton, represents the precise point at which Dickens decided to write novels rather than journalistic ‘‘sketches.’’ Chesterton believes that Dickens reached this decision because he realized he wanted to write ‘‘a seminal and growing romance’’ that only a novel could contain. In his own life Dickens had reached a thrilling moment: He had just married Catherine Hogarth, the pretty eldest daughter of a family whom Dickens passionately admired, and he was also, according to Chesterton, ‘‘for the really first time, sure that he was going to be at least some kind of success.’’ Chesterton asserts that Nickleby represents the ‘‘supreme point of Dickens’s spring. . . . This book coincided with his resolution to be a great novelist and his final belief that he could be one.’’
And Nicholas Nickleby is a novel, rather than a collection of sketches, by virtue of many typically romantic characteristics. It is Dickens’s first novel, Chesterton observes, to include ‘‘a proper and dignified romantic hero; which means, of course, a very chivalrous young donkey.’’ The young donkey, Nicholas, goes on to slay more than one fearsome dragon on his way to winning the princess. The book contains many dragons—Ralph, Squeers, Hawk, Madeline’s father—all of them older men whom Nicholas must forcibly remove from his path toward manhood. And this coming-of-age story also rewards the reader with multiple happy endings; all of the good characters live happily ever after while the bad ones meet fates commensurate to their wickedness.
None of this, of course, could be accomplished through journalism. While Dickens used the novel to explore themes that had concerned him as a journalist, he could never have used journalism to express the ideas that consumed him as a novelist. Nicholas Nickleby marks the moment this transition occurred. Had it not, says Chesterton, ‘‘we might have lost all Dickens’s novels; we might have lost altogether Dickens the novelist.’’
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels – Charles Dickens, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Melanie Bush, Critical Essay on Nicholas Nickleby, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.