Mrs. Nickleby is Nicholas and Kate’s mother. She is quite different from her sensible and smart children, and is given to long rambling monologues that wander wildly from one topic to another. Dickens’s portrayal of the workings of Mrs. Nickleby’s romance-muddled and utterly disorganized mind is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of Nicholas Nickleby. She is a precursor to similar characters in later literature, including Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses.
Nicholas Nickleby, the hero of the novel, is a handsome, capable, and intelligent young man. He has been raised in a genteel manner in the countryside, and is often referred to as the son of a gentleman (valuable currency in the world of the novel), but he has no employment experience yet. He is, like many of Dickens’s ‘‘good’’ characters, rather featureless. Nicholas excels, however, at every job he turns his hand to, and throughout the novel he matures noticeably, becoming able to acknowledge not only good but evil in the actions of those around him, losing his innocence as he grows from a boy into a man able to provide for and protect his family.
Ralph Nickleby, the uncle of Nicholas and Kate and brother of their deceased father, is a rich miser and money-lender. He is the dark villain of Nicholas Nickleby. Infinitely more complex as a literary creation than any of the ‘‘good’’ characters in the novel, Ralph is fully three dimensional in his evil. Dickens shows the reader, without any moralizing, how Ralph came to be the way he is and fleshes out his thought processes more fully than any of the book’s other characters. Ralph is unremittingly vile in his actions, but the reader occasionally gets a momentary glimpse of him softening emotionally, especially toward his niece, Kate, although these impulses are quickly submerged. Ralph judges others solely on their ability to earn money and scoffs at any imputation of good deed-doing, or any motive other than purely selfish gain. Ralph’s unraveling into madness at the novel’s conclusion is as complex as any psychological depiction Dickens ever attempted.
Newman Noggs is Ralph’s employee, a formerly well-to-do fellow who was ruined by causes unspecified but probably including alcohol and gambling. Ashamed of his fallen condition, Newman works for Ralph so that he can hide from the world. Newman takes an immediate interest in young Nicholas, and helps him in ways both large and small throughout the novel.
Smike is an unfortunate inmate of Dotheboys Hall, where he has grown from a small boy into a physically stunted and feebleminded young man of nineteen. He is used as the unpaid servant of the Squeers family. Nicholas takes pity on the boy and takes him with him to London when he leaves Dotheboys Hall. Smike is adopted by Nicholas, Kate, and their mother. In the book’s tragic conclusion Smike is revealed to be none other than Ralph’s only son, whom Ralph had long presumed dead.
Snawley is a weak-willed lackey of both Squeers and Ralph. He is first seen delivering boys into Squeers’s possession. Later he pretends to be the father of Smike to wrest him away from Nicholas and Kate.
Mr. Wackford Squeers
Wackford Squeers is the proprietor of Dotheboys Hall, the school for poor boys at which Ralph secures employment for Nicholas. He is a sadistic buffoon with one eye who will stop at nothing to maximize the profit he can gain from his charges, including stealing from them, beating them, starving them, and neglecting every aspect of their welfare. His is a provisional evil rather than the kind of total evil embodied by Ralph; when circumstances change, Squeers pursues another, less criminal path.
Lord Frederick Verisopht
Lord Frederick Verisopht, while younger than his mentor, Sir Mulberry Hawk, appears to be that man’s equal in venality in his immoral behavior toward Kate. However, he has a change of heart toward the novel’s conclusion, proving himself to be honorable despite his previous conduct.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010