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 Squeers, helping him brutalize and rob boys even more unfortunate than Nicholas himself. Kate must labor twelve hours per day in the millinery shop of Madame Mantalini, whose husband makes obscene remarks to her, and where she is subjected to the ridicule of the upper-class ladies who patronize the shop.
Nicholas Nickleby is, at heart, a story of exploitation. Kate and Nicholas are unaccustomed to being used in this way for someone else’s own advantage, having grown to adulthood in a privileged middle-class family. But with the financial ruin of their father, everything changes. Nicholas is thrust into Dotheboys Hall, where miserable, abandoned boys are mistreated and used by the unscrupulous Squeers. Kate is forced to work long hours for low pay and endure the lewd advances of adult men, all for the benefit of the owners of the establishments where she works. Only the most powerful persons, those who depend on no one for money, such as Ralph and the Cheeryble brothers, escape being exploited themselves. These hard lessons are learned by Nicholas and Kate as they come of age and realize that, with very few exceptions, people will exploit others who have less power. Ralph lives by this rule, and although the siblings defeat him in various ways by the end, Ralph seems to have actually won by imbuing them with this worldview.
Coming of Age
Nicholas Nickleby is a coming-of-age story of Nicholas and his sister, Kate. In a coming-of age story, also called a bildungsroman, a young protagonist undergoes several challenges that help strengthen his character and move him along the path to maturity. Nicholas starts out the novel as a handsome and intelligent young man with no experience of life other than a privileged childhood in a pastoral locale. He is all untried potential. This seems to be precisely what his uncle, Ralph Nickleby, hates about him. Ralph sets out to ruin Nicholas by getting hired at Dotheboys Hall, where he will work long hours at miserable tasks, and moreover he will be exposed to people possessing exactly the type of selfishness Ralph believes all people possess.
Nicholas rises nobly to each task set before him, and copes honorably with all of the dishonorable situations into which he is thrown. After the book’s first section, in which Nicholas obediently does what he is told to do by his uncle and by his employer, the sadistic schoolmaster Squeers, he shows his first sign of adult maturity by stopping Squeers from abusing a boy entrusted to his care. A true romantic hero, instead of attempting to reason with Squeers or threaten him with legal consequences, Nicholas takes actions he knows will get results: He yells, ‘‘Stop!’’ after which he beats Squeers with a stick and then departs, taking the abused boy Smike along with him.
After this episode, Nicholas shows his increasing maturity when he admits that his uncle is untrustworthy and may be in fact dangerous to his sister and mother, whom he has left in Ralph’s care. Nicholas is also now cautious about whom he chooses as an employer, rejecting a job with an impossibly demanding member of Parliament and quitting the Crummles’ theater when he senses that Kate may be in danger. His coming of age is complete when he is no longer shocked at how low people will stoop to get what they want.
Kate Nickleby presents a second, parallel coming-of-age story in the novel. She too must come to accept the fact of human evil in the form of her uncle, Ralph, as he sets her up with unendurable work, installs her and her mother in unsafe lodgings, and, worst of all, compromises her reputation (and with it her chance to make a good marriage), all for his own financial gain. Kate, a second romantic hero, proves herself to be honorable and good, refusing to be compromised by either her own poverty or by the grasping and selfish people around her.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels – Charles Dickens, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010