Nicholas and his sister Kate must leave their countryside house of their youth after the death of their father leaves them destitute and accompany their widowed mother to London, hoping their uncle, Ralph, a rich capitalist and usurer will help support them in their time of need. Ralph plays on his nephew’s naiveté about the world and sends Nicholas off to serve as an assistant teacher at a school for destitute boys where they are starved and abused by the evil and greedy Mr. Squeers. Meanwhile, Kate finds a job working as a seamstress for the comical Mantalinis and her uncle purposefully exposes her at a dinner party to a group of rakish nobles who make obscene remarks and display indecorous behavior towards her all so he can gain their business. He allows them to continue harassing and stalking his niece for profit. Unable to stand back quietly at the degradation of the children around him, Nicholas attacks Mr. Squeers while he is in the middle of beating one of his wards, rescues Smike from the terrible school, and returns to London. There he confronts his uncle and castigates him for his behavior. They declare each other sworn enemies from this point onwards, trying to thwart each other at every turn. In his adventures to make his fortune, Nicholas ends up doing a stint as an actor and eventually ends up in the firm of the Brothers Cheeryble.
Dickens throughout his novels is very good at showing the darker side of capitalism and greed, even if he never quite questions the system outright. Ralph as the stand-in for the capitalist is an empty and soulless being caring nothing for empathy or human feeling; he is a worldly man, but knowledge of the “real” world and how it really works has transformed him into a bitter cynical human being, caring only for money and his own petty hatred. The Brothers Cheeryble, on the other hand, represent a parallel to him as rich businessmen with a troubled past that care deeply about other human beings and the lives of strangers. They put family, virtuous behavior, and love over money, the complete opposite of Ralph, even though, they, too, are rich businessmen. Ralph in the end destroys himself with his own hatred and need for revenge, literally causing the death of his own son unbeknown to him at first.
The various side characters such as the Mantalinis, Madeleine (who plays the part of Nicholas’ love interest), and Mr. Squeers demonstrate all the ways having or not having money can change a persons’ lot in life. Each of them represent some sin or virtuous behavior towards money. For example, Mr. Mantalini spends more money than he has, destroying his wife’s business and credit. Mr. Squeers mistreats the children partially out of his greed. Madeleine almost ends up in a marriage to a much older man because her father is in debt.
Dickens smartly adds another layer to these characters and themes by having them rationalize their behavior. Mr Squeers genuinely believes at times that he is a good teacher and has the best interest of the children at heart, even as he abuses and starves them. When Ralph repeats calumnies and lies about Nicholas’ characters to try to defame him and destroy the nice little life he is building, the reader gets the impression that Ralph himself isn’t just saying it to ruin Nicholas, but actually believes that he is the virtuous businessman wronged by an ungrateful mean-spirited criminal nephew. In a way, Dickens is suggesting that nasty people don’t actually see the reality of their own behavior. Since many of these figures have positions and money in society that protect them, Dickens is also suggesting true virtue is deeper than money. Having money and being on the upper echelons of society doesn’t make one virtuous.
While I mostly enjoyed the book, Nicholas Nickleby is gigantic bloated monster at over 900 words and it struggles to justify that length. Often when I read a novel by Dickens my feeling is that his books could easily be cut a good two hundred pages and streamlined without losing much.