JAN / FEB 2012: BY HANNAH KINGSLEY
“Gold, for the instant, lost its lustre in his eyes, for there were countless treasures of the heart which it could never purchase.”
It could be said that Charles Dickens is an acquired taste, and one I do not have. Yet upon searching library shelves in the historical fiction section, I have inevitably come across his novels, and eventually brought home a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. I wish I could say that after reading it I became impressed with Dickens’s literary style, but this was not the case. I did find the film by the same name an appealing (and faster-paced) alternative to the original story. Nicholas Nickleby remains one of my favorite history-inspired tales despite my prejudices against its author.
The difficulty of reading Dickens is, perhaps, that the lives he portrays are grittier and less forgiving than is found in other popular classics. His characters are primarily poor or working-class ordinary people. They are the sort that you could imagine frequently find dirt under their fingernails: they do not seem far-removed from reality, but drenched in it and all its obstacles and sorrows. Dicken’s heroes are also not born or rescued quickly from their plights. They are made, gradually- slowly, page by page or scene by scene. It is this slow, sometimes arduous plugging away at life that is highlighted in Nickleby.
For those unfamiliar with it, the story is set in the nineteenth century and chronicles the Nickleby family after the death of the father plunges them into financial despair. Nicholas, his mother and sister Kate seek the help of a well-to-do uncle with the hope that he will be able to give them assistance. But rather than provide them with a reasonable living as it is within his power to do, Ralph takes advantage of them under the guise of kindness. This sets the stage for a multitude of trials, especially in the case of Nicholas. As the new “man of the house,” he feels the responsibility to care for the remainder of his family, despite the harsh fate they have been dealt. Even with these grave circumstances, he seeks to provide and protect for those he loves. “Weakness is tiring, but strength is exhausting,” he comments at one point; and it is this enduring (albeit exhausting) strength that makes him a remarkable character. At many points in his life, it would seem that he has every right to give up. The odds are stacked against him, and little can improve his situation. Yet something to be learned from him is that none of his circumstances are severe enough to merit desperation when there is love to help overcome them. A love for his family and for the people around him drives Nicholas.
In addition to his love for his mother and sister, another aspect of Nicholas’s story that sticks out strongly (despite the dark storytelling) is the idea of happiness. Happiness is not something with which Nicholas is greatly familiar, and neither are his friends. As the character Madeline Bray shares: “Nicholas, I feel you know what it’s like to be without happiness… but do you know what it’s like to be afraid of it? To see the world as so conniving, you cannot take pleasure in the appearance of something good, because you suspect … it is only a painted drop behind which other troubles lie. That has been my life. Every good thing has been a trick…” Yet neither is happiness something that he or his friends seem to view as necessary to do the right thing. They do not revolve their lives around seeking happiness, but instead it finds them when they are in the right place. Nicholas gets to that place by doing as much as he is able with what he has.
Something we may forget about life is that in hard times we have the power to make changes that can influence the future and the right to hope. We do not have to be victims to the hardships we are faced with but instead find ourselves with an opportunity to make something of them and of ourselves, regardless of our situation or misfortune. To a modern or contemporary reader, Nicholas functions as a figure of hope and a reminder of these truths. It is love and his tireless efforts to improve the future even if he is painfully unhappy that give his hope the opportunity to find fertile ground. His positive outlook does not always come without work. Instead, desperation and cynicism are far more easy to cultivate when faced with disappointments or unmet expectations. Yet despite his difficulties, he ultimately chooses to become a hero by allowing his pain to grow him, rather than inhibit him. Where he could have had our pity or compassion, instead he inspires us by leaving literary footprints to follow. ♥