Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Project: Nicholas Nickleby

Yes, yes, I know it's been a long time since my last BP post. I willingly allowed myself to get off-track during the holidays. Instead of reading dilligently each day, I chose to meander and putter my way through Nicholas Nickleby, and I finally finished it about two weeks ago.

I confess that I'm not as familiar with Dickens as a solid background in classic literature might demand. During my childhood Decembers, my parents fed us a steady diet of The Christmas Carol, and I loved reading A Tale of Two Cities as a teenager. I got about halfway through David Copperfield the year before I left for college, but I had to stop because I was swamped with other school assignments. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these encounters with this great 19th century author.

That said, I was surprised that I did not enjoy Nicholas Nickleby more. As always, Dickens' literary style is unmistakably and unfailingly brilliant, astounding me with his powers to describe his scenes and characters so vividly. But my enjoyment of the novel ended with that. I found the characters to be remarkably one-dimensional and unvarying. Kate is always modest and blushing; Mrs Nickleby is always annoying, too talkative and in the wrong; the Charyable brothers are always able to help and always in agreement with each other; Mr. Mantallini is always threatening suicide and punctuating every other word with "demmit." There was no depth or hidden qualities in any of the characters. I admit that I did not do very much digging, though. I read it on a very basic, surface level. I'm sure I could have found more depth than initially met my eye. Perhaps someday I will try again.

Before I go on, you might want to get an idea of what Nicholas Nickleby is about. Briefly, Nickleby is a romance in the purest, most basic sense. We have a princess, which is, in G.K. Chesterton's words, "a thing to be loved," a dragon, which is "a thing to be fought," and a St. George, "who both loves and fights." Of course, St. George fights the dragon and loves the princess, and they live happily ever after. All other points of plot revolve around these three characters and this small plot. Nicholas goes through the book fighting various dragons--wicked uncles, lecherous gentlemen, violent schoolmasters-- with always the same end--he wins, and the various princesses (which take the form of many helpless creatures--his sister, poor, starved schoolboys, and a fair young woman) are saved.

Nicholas, taking matters into his own hands, beats the cruel schoolmaster with his own cane.

The idea that interested me the most from this book is actually not from the book itself. It is from an essay analyzing Nicholas Nickleby, written by G. K. Chesterton, who was another literary giant at the turn of that century.

Chesterton is a great writer, and I'm afraid there is no possible way I could attempt to explain his ideas for him with a good conscience, because he just says it better than I can. So I'm going to include a rather lengthy quote from his article.

"Nicholas Nickleby...wanders through the world; he takes a situation as assistant to a Yorkshire schoolmaster; he sees an act of tyranny of which he strongly disapproves; he cries out "Stop!" in a voice that makes the rafters ring; he thrashes the schoolmaster within an inch of his life; he throws the schoolmaster away like an old cigar, and he goes away. The modern intellect is positively prostrated and flattened by this rapid and romantic way of righting wrongs. If a modern philanthropist came to Dotheboys Hall I fear he would not employ the simple, sacred, and truly Christian solution of beating Mr. Squeers with a stick. I fancy he would petition the Government to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into Mr. Squeers. I think he would every now and then write letters to newspapers reminding people that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, there was a Royal Commission to inquire into Mr. Squeers. I agree that he might even go the length of calling a crowded meeting in St. James's Hall on the subject of the best policy with regard to Mr. Squeers. At this meeting some very heated and daring speakers might even go the length of alluding sternly to Mr. Squeers... The Royal Commission would report about three years afterwards and would say that many things had happened which were certainly most regrettable; that Mr. Squeers was the victim of a bad system; that Mrs. Squeers was also the victim of a bad system; but that the man who sold Squeers his cane had really acted with great indiscretion and ought to be spoken to kindly....By that time the philanthropists would be petitioning Parliament for another Royal Commission; perhaps a Royal Commission to inquire into whether Mr. Mantalini was extravagant with his wife's money; perhaps a commission to inquire into whether Mr. Vincent Crummles kept the Infant Phenomenon short by means of gin."
 Chesterton goes on to say that Nicholas' violent, sudden way of stopping the schoolmaster in his cruelty was much more his forefathers' way of doing things, rather than his and succeeding generations (he lived in the early 20th century).

"...When they saw something which in their eyes, such as they were, really violated their morality, such as it was, then they did not cry "Investigate!" They did not cry "Educate!" They did not cry "Improve!" They did not cry "Evolve!" Like Nicholas Nickleby they cried "Stop!" And it did stop. This is the first mark of the purely romantic method: the swiftness and simplicity with which St. George kills the dragon."
There is something truly to admire and wish for in this swift manner of justice. It is not my purpose to examine the justice systems of our country, so I'm putting that on the shelf for another day. But what about our own personal justice systems? When is it right to kill the dragons of injustice and immorality in our lives? What dragons are present in my life right now that need killing?

That's where I'm leaving it for today. I'd love to hear your thoughts on dragon-slaying! More Book Project posts coming soon!

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking. In truth, I wonder where the "dragon slayers" are among us? Society does not seem to encourage or reward dragon slayers anymore, does it?