Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nicholas Nickleby

by Charles Dickens

If you haven't seen the recent film adaptation of this novel you ought to give it a try--see it first if you have a hard time with Dickens or see it after if you enjoy the whole Dickens experience and aren't put off by an 800-page book (the size of my edition).

It's not David Copperfield because Nicholas is a man when we meet him and never gets into peril as David does and it's not Oliver Twist because Nicholas isn't an orphan and isn't so pathetic a character.

However, it is a story of the fortunes of a commendable you man and his dependant mother and sister where social reform plays a strong role. Early on Nicholas becomes a teacher at Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire where the headmaster, Wackford Squeers (love those names), abuses and tyranizes over the resident boys in a way that recalls similar scenes of poverty and wretchedness in Dickens' other novels. At the time of publication Yorkshire schools had become known for their brutality and public outcry demanded reformation. Nicholas' experience is one piece of propoganda designed at heightening public awareness of the conditions many children were facing.

Nicholas learns to earn his way in the world with the help of various endearing characters--Mr. Vincent Crummles, the Brothers Cheeryble, Newman Noggs, Miss LaCreevy, the Kenwigs family--and despite the best efforts of such villains as the Squeerses, Sir Mulberry Hawk and his uncle, Ralph Nickleby, who is all the more degenerate for his persecution of Nicholas in the face of their blood tie.

If you do see the movie (with Anne Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Nathan Lane and Dame Edna to give you a taste) they do a superior job of taking the setting and characters and expanding them visually. Ralph Nickleby's house is in such Victorian decay, undescribed in the book but unveiled on screen in a way which Dickens would have approved of and wished he'd thought of first.

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