Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens: Book Summary & Characters

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  • 0:02 The Novel
  • 0:35 Cast of Characters
  • 3:50 Plot Summary
  • 7:30 Theme: Social Injustice
  • 8:09 Theme: Greed
  • 8:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we learn about Charles Dickens' novel 'Nicholas Nickleby.' After exploring an overview of the characters, we'll examine the plot of the novel, briefly analyze some of its themes, and finish with a short quiz.

Introduction to the Novel

Nicholas Nickleby, the third novel by Charles Dickens, follows the life of Nicholas Nickleby. After his father dies, Nicholas is left to take care of his mother and sister. His uncle is a crook and actively tries to ruin Nicholas's life. Luckily, the novel ends happily, with all of the bad characters either in jail or dead, and both Nicholas and his sister are happily in love with good matches. Like many of Dickens' novels, it was first published in the serial format from 1838 to 1839.

Cast of Characters

A trademark of Charles Dickens' novels is an extensive cast of characters. It would be impossible to list every character here, but before we can outline the plot, it is important to get to know a few of the more crucial characters. There are essentially five groups of characters, some of whom overlap: the Nickleby family, Ralph Nickleby and his business partners, the Squeers and the other characters who live in Yorkshire and/or are involved with Dotheboys Hall, Nicholas' London associates, and, finally, the Crummles' theater troupe with which Nicholas becomes involved.

The Nicklebys

  • Nicholas Nickleby is loyal, honest, young, and, as a result of his youth, often hotheaded. His sister, Kate Nickleby, has many similar qualities to Nicholas, but is more demure. Their mother, Catherine Nickleby, often serves as comic relief.

Ralph Nickleby and Company

  • Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas' uncle, hates him. He is also greedy and most of the people he hangs out with share his bad qualities. One of the few exceptions is Newman Noggs, Ralph's clerk and Nicholas's friend. A few of his other associates are Sir Mulberry Hawk, Lord Verisopht, Mr. Pluck and Mr. Pyke, Arthur Gride, and Brooker.

Dotheboys Hall/Yorkshire

  • The Squeers run Dotheboys Hall. Wackford Squeers, Mrs. Squeers, and their two children, Wackford II and Fanny, are all fairly despicable. Mr. and Mrs. Squeers beat the children entrusted to them at Dotheboys.
  • Smike, one of the boys at Dotheboys Hall, is beaten by the Squeers more than the others. Smike is secretly Nicholas's cousin (and the son of Ralph). His parentage is the subject of a lot of scheming and blackmailing in the novel.
  • John Browdie (the eventual husband of Tilda Price) and Tilda Price (Fanny's best friend for part of the book) are two of the few honorable characters featured in this location.


  • The Nicklebys' landlady, Miss La Creevy, is a great family friend.
  • Kate Nickleby is employed by Mr. and Mrs. Madame Mantalini for a time, then she's employed by Henry and Julia Wittiterly as Mrs. Wittiterly's companion.
  • Charles and Ned Cheerblye, twin merchants, are two of the most moral characters in London. They do a lot of charity work, employ Nicholas, and help restore his hope in humanity. Their nephew, Frank, loves and marries Kate. He is similar in personality to Nicholas: a good man with a temper, especially over unjust situations.
  • Walter and Madeline Bray used to be rich, but they are in a lot of debt. Walter is not a great father, but Madeline is loyal to him. She and Nicholas love each other.

Crummles Theater Troupe

  • Vincent Crummles and Mrs. Crummles, both prone to dramatics, run the Crummles theater troupe. Vincent is a mentor to Nicholas. Their daughter, Ninetta Crummles, is somewhere between 10 and 18. Her age is vague because of her diet, which stunted her health. She features in every performance.

Plot Summary

When Mr. Nickleby dies, his wife and two children move to London to be with Mr. Nickleby's brother, Ralph. Ralph, however, hated his brother and hates his wife and children by association. He gets Nicholas an awful job working for Wackford Squeers, who is headmaster at Dotheboys Hall, a school for unwanted children in Yorkshire.

Nicholas is outraged by the way Squeers treats the boys at the school. Squeers goes too far beating Smike one day and Nicholas stops him. Squeers and Nicholas fight. Aided by John Browdie, Nicholas and Smike run away from the school to London.

Ralph, meanwhile, makes Catherine and Kate miserable. He moves them into a bad apartment, and while he gets Kate a job working for the Mantalinis, Ralph also uses her beauty to entice his greedy associates to do business with him. When Hawk tries to attack Kate, Ralph intervenes, but threatens Kate not to tell anyone. When Ralph learns about what Nicholas did at Dotheboys, he disowns Nicholas and orders Catherine and Kate not to help him.

Driven out of London, Nicholas and Smike take to the road. Nicholas joins the Crummles theater troupe. Back in London, Kate is fired from her job with the Mantalinis because Miss Knagg is jealous of her youth and beauty. She is briefly employed by the Wittiterlys as a companion for Mrs. Wittiterly. Kate has a falling out with her employers because Mrs. Wittiterly becomes jealous of the attention Ralph's associates are showing Kate, even though Kate does not want it. Ralph's clerk, Newman Noggs, urges Nicholas to come home.

Afraid Nicholas will severely beat Hawk for his offenses against his sister, Newman Noggs and the Nickleby's former landlady do not tell Nicholas the specifics immediately. Unfortunately, Nicholas learns of the behavior anyway. He gets in a physical fight with Hawk. The fight gives Verisopht a change of heart and results in a duel between Verisopht and Hawk. Verisopht is killed in the duel and Hawk flees the country.

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