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[747] Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens


” It seems but yesterday that we were playfellows, Kate, and it will seem but tomorrow when we are staid old people, looking back to these cares as we look back, now, to those of our childish days: and recollecting with a melancholy pleasure that the time was, when they could move us. Perhaps then, when we are quaint old folks and talk of the times when our step was lighter and our hair not grey, we may be even thankful for the trials that so endeared us to each other, and turned our lives into that current, down which we shall have glided so peacefully and calmly. ” (Ch. LXI, p.762)

Nicholas Nickleby is the quintessence of a melodrama with many turns. Dickens derives the central plot of this door-stopper novel from his own primal scene of childhood abandonment. Childhood neglect drives him to crusade against institutionalized forms of child abuse. In this book he depicts the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, which, despite the often extravagant claims, it offers little in the way of education. It is, instead, a convenient dumping ground for unwanted, illegitimate, or handicapped children. When his family is left penniless by the premature death of the improvident father, the protagonist, Nicholas Nickleby, referred to by his uncle, takes up a teaching job at Dotheboys, where he has been the unwilling witness of cruelty imposed on the children and the coarse and ruffian behavior of Squeers, the headmaster.

Some people, I believe, have no hearts to break. (Ch. III, p.42)

Nicholas decides to escape, taking with him the orphan Smike, one of the most abused young charges, and embarks on a series of picaresque exploits that bring him, eventually, comfort and joy. Nicholas is provoked to into thrashing Squeers, a money-grubbing sadist who is friends with his uncle, a money usurer. While Nicholas assumes responsibility for his family, his mother, vain and ignorant, with her snobbery and gullibility, nudges her daughter to the brink of sexual ruin. Nicholas wards off those lecherous suitors who are associated to nobody but his uncle. Ralph revels in Nicholas’s degradation, which he has engineered, and orchestrates a sinister scheme to marry an innocent girl to a disgusting old moneylender, Arthur Gride.

It is one of those problems of human nature, which may be noted down, but not solved;—although Ralph felt no remorse at that moment for his conduct towards the innocent, true-hearted girl; although his libertine clients had done precisely what he had expected, precisely what he most wished,…still he hated them for doing it. (Ch. XXVIII, p.367)

The novel, no doubt, is a social commentary; but more powerful than its social protest against injustice, is the exuberant and absurd comedy that suffuses its narrative. The main plot is no more than a stage melodrama; the subplots proliferate, linking disparate scenes and characters with a complex of bizarre echoes and resonances. The characters abound, but they seem to have taken refuge within the walls of a narrowly defined identity—each of them represents a human virtue or a vice. They are most remarkable, therefore, not for their realism or originality, but for their absurdity. The book culminates in a fulfilling and square manner in which justice is served and everybody is put in their rightful position. It’s an epic work that proclaims the theme of poverty engendering an honest pride.

810 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Nicholas Nickleby


June sees the beginning of my reading Nicholas Nickleby.

The writing and serialization of Nicholas Nickleby, during 1837 to 1839, overlapped with that of Oliver Twist, and encouraged by the popular success of that novel with its indictment of the workhouses of the New Poor Law, Dickens began with the idea of taking on another social injustice which he had learned of from press reports: the scandal of the “Yorkshire Schools” and in particular the notorious case of William Shaw, headmaster of Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge.

Dickens decided that he would expose these schools in his new novel. Indeed, where Nicholas Nickleby is sent to teach, is one of those schools where unwanted children were incarcerated in squalid conditions, malnourished and tyrannized by brutal adults. The schools were often advertised in the London newspapers,

EDUCATION.—At Mr. Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum. No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled. (Chapter III)

Dickens’s painful experience of childhood neglect drove him to crusade against institutionalized forms of child abuse wherever he found them. Fresh from his devastating exposure of the sufferings of workhouse children in Oliver Twist, he embarked on Nicholas Nickleby with the express intention of attacking the notorious Yorkshire schools. Despite their often extravagant claims, these institutions offered little in the way of education; instead they were convenient dumping grounds for unwanted, illegitimate, or handicapped children.

Although the book contains all the requirements of melodrama—-secrets, coincidences, dramatic confrontation and bold declamatory speeches—cannot contain the exuberant comedy of the characters

[283] A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

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“The fountain in the village flowed unseen and unheard, and the fountain at the chateau dropped unseen and unheard—both melting away, like the minutes that were falling from the spring of Time—through three dark hours. Then, the grey water of both began to be ghostly in the light, and the eyes of the stone faces of the chateau were opened.” [Book 2, IX 132]

Set in vengeful Paris and (relatively) tranquil London before and during the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities limns the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocrats in the years leading up to the revolution. Where hungers sweeps France, England is rife with crime. Espoinage is also in rampage. The French government commissions spies to eavesdrop on its nationals who are affiliated with the peasant uprising. The Brits recruit agents to collect intelligence on the cause of the rebellion in colonial America.

Thrown out of his honourable employment in England . . . he knew that he had crossed the Channel, and accepted service in France: first, as a tempter and an eavesdropper among his own countrymen there; gradually, as a tempter and an eavesdropper among the natives. [Book 3, VIII 313]

Fallen victim of such espionage is Charles Darnay, a French once-aristocrat who has renounced his status and property. Living in England as a teacher of the French language who is conversant in French literature, Darnay is accused of collecting information for France. Later, as the footsteps (a recurring motif Dickens employs to show the pull of destiny) of the revolution gains momentum, Darnay, who is really a marquis of the detestable aristocratic family Evremonde, falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature.

Little need to show that this detested family name had long been anathematised by Saint Antoine, and was wrought into the fatal register. [Book 3, X 344]

At the heart of this inveterate pursuit is the sovereign Madame Defarge, who maintains her composure behind the counter of her wine-shop, knitting.

But, imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her. [Book 3, XIV, 375]

The cause of her revenge is more personal because the Evremondes had done her family wrong. She is implacable that she wants to pursue this family to annihilation, to extermination. Her surreptitious management of Darnay’s rearrest is cunning—vengeance has consumed her that she won’t regard his child and wife with sensibility. Meting out deadly punishment, figuratively, is her knitting, a coded register of the death roll when the revolution triumphs.

He always remembered with fear and trembling, that the terrible woman had knitted when he talked with her, and had looked ominously at him as her fingers moved. [Book 3, VIII 313]

Duality, as suggested by the consecutive clauses in the opening chapter, is obviously at work in the novel. he ultimate duality would be that between life and death, or more subtly, sacrifice and resurrection. Dickens first drops hint of this sacrifice on the part of Sydney Carton, a dissipated British barrister, when he saves Darnay from the trial in England. Carton’s martyrdom atones for his ill-spent life full of wrongdoings. The fatal act in a sense has perfected him, as he opts for death and resurrection to a life better than that which he has ever known. As Darnay is recalled to life (another recurring motif), Carton has redeemed himself. He wields a prophetic power through a secret atonement. As much a havoc in which the novel takes place and progresses, the events all converge in hopeful resurrection.

482 pp. Penguin Classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Best of Times, Worst of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” [I, 1, 5] (First paragraph of Ch. 1)

Dickens has written some of the most recognizable and grand opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities. However, I have also found the opening chapter very obscure, in fact challenging to read, as it embodies the psyche of the time, when London was rife with crimes and Paris starving. The repetitive phrase at the beginning of consecutive clauses—known as anaphora in literature—in these famous lines hint at the novel’s central tension between love and family, on the one hand, and oppression and hatred, on the other. Duality is obviously at play in the novel as this central idea asserts in politics, family, and relationship. I won’t be surprised that for any moral attribute the subsequent story brings into awareness, there exists an exact opposite of that attribute. A universal rule as demonstrated by Newton in physics. The opening chapter also tap the novel into a rhythm to suggest that good and evil, wisdom and folly, and light and darkness stand equally matched in their struggle.

“All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Environed by them, while the Woodman and the Farmer worked unheeded, those two of the large jaws, and those other two of the plain and the fair faces, trod with stir enough, and carried their divine rights with a high hand. Thus did the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—along the roads that lay before them.” [I, 1, 7] (Last paragraph of Ch.1)

The ultimate duality would be that between life and death. In this final paragraph of the opening chapter, Dickens lays down the rules that are beyond human beings, even the royalties who often think they are bestowed with the power of divination. The Woodman (fate) and the Farmer (death) work hand in hand silently, spinning the wheel of life of the creatures that are ineluctably tossed into the game called destiny that is beyond their control. On the verge of American colonies’ slipping the hands of the Brits, and at the approaching footsteps of the French Revolution, those were the best of times and the worst of times. But think about how these lines apply to our time with greater force, as America’s public gloom contradicts people’s enduring. This opening chapter, which I skimmed through inadvertently when I first read the book, breathes so powerful a meaning to me upon this re-reading.