Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Back to School: No more school!


I watched Douglas McGrath’s 2002 adaptation of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby on a whim and, besides the lead actor’s flat acting, enjoyed it tremendously. Thus I decided to change my ‘Back to School’ reading list and add this coming-of-age tome.

The eponymous character is an angry but loving young man who loses his father early in life; his father unfortunately left his family in a bit of a conundrum – he rids them of their savings on a business plan that goes awry. And so the Nicklebys are forced to ask for help from Ralph, Nicholas’s uncle, a man who has no love but for money, no care but for manipulation. Nicholas, eager and willing to do anything for a shilling, decides to work at a Yorkshire school (Dotheboys Hall) under the auspices of Wackford Squeers and family, but upon arriving he sees the utter brutality and ignorance of the Squeers – how they cane the boys, feed them something worse than gruel, and mentally unprepare them for the world outside.
When the physically – and mentally – disabled servant of Dotheboys Hall, Smike, tries to run away and is caught by the Squeers family, when Wackford decides he will torture and mutilate the boy in front of the rest of the school, Nicholas finally steps in and saves the boy from his fate, instead whipping Squeers. Nicholas and Smike become a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of sorts along the English countryside, trying to find a way home, a way back into favourable society, and a way that Nicholas and his family can be independent from Ralph, who becomes much more sinister, especially when you see how he terrorizes Nicholas’s sister and her innocence (it’s almost surprising she doesn’t follow the path of Tess of the D’Urbervilles).
Of course, as this is a Victorian novel and one by Dickens, there many more storylines and characters than this. And the McGrath film adaptation does a fine job managing them all in an entertaining and essence-capturing way. I found the second half of the book a bit annoying, as if there was such a change in theme (Nicholas finds a love interest) that it didn’t have the same exciting energy that the first half had. Additionally – and I know that this a large aspect of 19th century writing – I did not enjoy how everyone was so black or white; characters couldn’t be in the grey area, having good and bad qualities, having issues of the past that they’re working against. And I felt like Dickens manipulated the narrative too much when it came to Smike: although he was my favourite character in the novel itself – and Smike himself had some of the best, tearjerking lines – I didn’t find it necessary that he had to be so abused and so belittled that he was so dependent upon Nicholas and, eventually, his family.
But in closing, my preferred lines from the novel:
‘Do you remember the boy that died here?’ [Smike said]
‘I was not here, you know,’ said Nicholas gently; ‘but what of him?’
‘Why,’ replied the youth . . . ‘I was with him at night, and when it was all silent he cried no more for friends he wished to come and sit with him, but began to see faces round his bed that came from home; he said they smiled, and talked to him, and died at last lifting his head to kiss them. Do you hear?’
‘Yes, yes,’ rejoined Nicholas.
‘What faces will smile on me when I die!’ said his companion, shivering. ‘Who will talk to me in those long nights? They cannot come from home; they would frighten me if they did, for I don’t know what it is, and shouldn’t know them. Pain and fear, pain and fear for me, alive or dead. No hope. No hope.’
As beautiful and as provoking as this passage is, it is dripping with melancholy. But still, a worthy read.


Nicole said…

I think I enjoy reading about Dickens more than I enjoy reading him. I tried with Great Expectations and wasn't able to finish it. This time around I think I will try reading The Christmas Carol,and if I can get through that I will try another of his books.

Kari said…

I feel like Dickens is something I SHOULD read, but I can't really recall anything I've actually read by him. Oliver Twist…I believe I read that one in the 10th grade.

Also, I am seriously failing. I have yet to read a book for this challenge. Guess I'll get to that when I get through my sudden influx of library books.

J.T. Oldfield said…

I've hardly read any Dickens. Sad but true. Great review!

Amy Reads Good Books said…

Great review! I agree – I always feel like I should read Dickens, but don't. However, when I get around to actually reading one of his novels, I'm happy that I did!