No grown-up person can read Dickens without feeling his limitations, and yet there does remain his native generosity of mind, which acts as a kind of anchor and nearly always keeps him where he belongs. It is probably the central secret of his popularity.—George Orwell
Although Nicholas Nickleby lacks the focus and intensity of Dickens’ best works, I find that as the story progresses certain elements become stronger and the tale more engrossing. Undoubtedly the most contrived aspect was Nicholas’ thespian career with Crummles, though it does have some humorous aspects like the “Infant Phenomenon,” the undersized daughter of the theater manager who is still living off her fame as a child prodigy, though well past her prime at age fifteen. As for villains, the sadistic master of the boys’ school, Wackford Squeers, and his wife are among the most despicable of any novel. One relishes their gradual decline and fall.
After Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ miserly uncle, the vicious and lewd Sir Mulberry Hawk is next in line for loathsomeness. But the nobleman’s hangers-on, Pluck and Pyke, provide needed comic relief with their absurdly theatrical sycophancy. Hawk’s rich young friend, Lord Frederick Verisopht, finally evinces some decency and his ultimate fate belies his outward foolishness. Admittedly, Dickens is less happy in his choice of names in this novel—Verisopft (“very soft”) is one example. And I think the reason that people object to the kind Cheeryble brothers as being “saccharine” is not so much because of their goodness as the fact of their names. Dickens was too obviously descriptive, whereas his best names are those that are obliquely evocative or humorous.
Among the more noble characters are Newman Noggs, the eccentric down-and-out gentleman and English Don Quixote, and the Cheerybles’ loyal clerk Tim Linkinwater. Tim is quieter and more stolid than Noggs, and represents the old virtues of patience, kindness, dependability, and there is an air of nostalgia that hangs around him and the office he has inhabited for the past forty years. Finally, Smike, the orphan whom Nicholas rescues from Squeers’ infamous Yorkshire “Academy,” adds some pathos to the story, especially when his relationship to one of the main characters is revealed at very the end.