In my introductory comments, I would like to talk about the background of Dickens and how he attempts to influence social change in his novel “Nicholas Nickleby”. Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire, during the turbulent times of the Industrial revolution. These were times of extreme wealth and poverty a huge number of people lived in terrible circumstances, while small number had great privilege it was also a period of great social and moral hypocrisy where the respectable classes where desperate to avoid scandal and disgrace. This explains why Squeers could get away with the horrible things he did to the children.
Dickens himself had suffered poverty and humiliation. His father was jailed for bankruptcy and debt he was sent to Marshalea debtor’s prison. Dickens worked at a ‘Blacking Factory’ and saw the underbelly of London life- the experience helped him populate his novels with thieves, prostitutes, pickpockets and fraudsters this allowed dickens to see how the under class were treated. And how the legal court welfare system dealt with the ‘undeserving punishments’ Dickens wanted to encourage social change and improvement by making his readers (i. e. the new middle class) aware of the terrible social injustices of his time i. e.the prisons, the work house, the mill, factories and mines.
Dickens wrote at a time when the written word was king. Educated Victorians (i. e. the upper and middle class) were fascinated by ideas innovation, so they were addicted to reading. This also meant their ideas were spread quickly and effectively through books and newspapers. Dickens novels were long intricate and flamboyant. He was a virtuoso performer who loved the power of words. Dickens always ended on cliff hangers. The majority of his novels were over 500 pages long his chapters wetted the appetites of his reader by hinting at the plot by page and chapter headings.
And as I have already said complex and ingeniously plotted. This was also a very Christian society which, publically, had very high moral standards. Victorians were very judgemental and would condemn any breach of accepted behaviour. This meant with ‘decent’ or ‘responsible’ people they would try to cover up any dark secret. Places like Dotheboys Hall flourished because Squeers could rely on a constant supple of boys who had been rejected by their family’s. This gives us a clue why he has such an interest/insight into the condition and physiology of the lower class. Dickens includes many typically recognisable characters.
Firstly, there is the handsome naive young hero, who is usually good hearted, courageous, honest and sympathetic. Such persons bravely battled against the evil until they often, quite expectedly won. Secondly there are the types of villains who are evil to the core who take many different shapes comic, brutal and bizarre like the Squeers family or sinister cold and calculating like Uncle Ralph. The third group of characters are the mysterious such as Smike and Newman Noggs. Smike plays the role of the disheartened boy, who when young, was abandoned at Dotheboys Hall.
We later find out that he is the son of Uncle Ralph. Mr Squeers sees Smike as ‘a handy fellow out of the doors and worth his meat and drink’. When we meet Smike for the first time we can see that Nicholas is taken back by what he sees for, ‘he could not have been less than eighteen or nineteen years old, and was tall for that age, he wore a skeleton suit, such as it usually put upon very little boys which, thought most absurdly short in the arms and legs, was quite wide enough for his attenuated frame. ‘ We get to see how bizarre this strange character really is in this wonderfully tragic account.