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 knuckle-cracking. Ralph himself is dressed in a manner suggesting financial stability, and there is ‘‘something in his very wrinkles, and in his cold restless eye, which seemed to tell of cunning that would announce itself in spite of him.’’ This chapter also mocks the British Parliament as it debates the merits of the Muffin Trade, Muffin Boys, and the Muffin System, eventually voting in favor of a muffin monopoly. Meanwhile the eponymous hero, Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother, Mrs. Nickleby, have come to London from their home in the country and are renting rooms while they wait for an audience with Ralph, who, they hope, will help them. The family’s first meeting with Ralph goes badly. Mrs. Nickleby is weak-minded and easily influenced by anyone with authority. Ralph, while perceiving Kate’s beauty, takes an instant dislike to Nicholas because he resembles his late father (Ralph’s brother), for whom Ralph feels a scornful envy.
In Chapter 4, we are introduced to Mr. Wackford Squeers, headmaster of Dotheboys School for Boys in Yorkshire. Squeers, like Noggs, also has only one eye and is of freakish appearance. Ralph brings Nicholas to the Dotheboys School for Boys in Yorkshire, having learned from a newspaper advertisement that the headmaster is seeking a ‘‘first assistant master.’’ Dotheboys is a fictionalized version of a type of institution infamous in that era as a ‘‘Yorkshire school,’’ the eradication of which was Dickens’s goal in writing the novel. Illegitimate, deformed, or otherwise unwanted boys from poor families were consigned to these places, where insufficient food and harsh treatment led to injuries, as well as many premature deaths. Squeers, a past business associate of Ralph’s, agrees to hire Nicholas, who is overjoyed at what he naively believes is his uncle’s kindness. On the way home, Ralph asks Nicholas to drop off some papers at his office, and Nicholas meets Newman Noggs, who understands Ralph’s true motives and takes pity on Nicholas. Nicholas leaves for Dotheboys the next morning by coach, amid sad farewells from his mother and sister, whom Nicholas believes will be looked after by his uncle. Noggs appears at the leave-taking, pressing a letter into Nicholas’s hand. On the journey Nicholas is shocked by Squeers’s harsh treatment of his young charges, denying them food or a safe place in the coach.
Nicholas arrives at Dotheboys Hall and is horrified by the cruelty Mr. Squeers and his wife exhibit toward the children. He is also astounded by the appearance of Smike, a longtime inmate who acts as an unpaid servant to the Squeers family. Although Smike is clearly at least eighteen years old, he is dressed in a ‘‘skeleton suit’’ usually worn by little boys, and an old, shredded, linen frill around his neck. Smike is also lame, and is so ‘‘dispirited and hopeless’’ that Nicholas can scarcely bear to look at him. Nicholas opens the letter from Newman Noggs, who offers him a place to stay in London if he should ever need one. On Nicholas’s first day at the Dotheboys, he encounters sad, broken boys, prematurely aged and starving. He also discovers that Squeers steals the boys’ letters from home, including any enclosed money or belongings. Nicholas meets Squeers’ daughter Fanny, who resembles her father in both appearance and temperament, and who promptly falls in love with Nicholas. She arranges a tea party for Nicholas, her best friend Tilda, and Tilda’s fiance´, the large and hearty Yorkshireman John Browdie. Tilda flirts with Nicholas to enflame both John and Fanny. Nicholas flirts back, as Tilda is a distraction from his own predicament. John threatens Nicholas, and Fanny is furious. Nicholas, his mind occupied with other matters, is surprised by the vehemence of all parties, and blames himself for not paying attention. ‘‘Well, it is a just punishment,’’ he concludes, ‘‘for having forgotten, even for an hour, what is around me now!’’