Sometimes a story smacks you squarely in the face with precisely the thing you need. So it was for me with Nicholas Nickleby last month, which I read over the course of only a week and which has been growing on me ever since, like a widening light.
Charles Dickens’ third published novel, Nicholas Nickleby is among the author’s earlier writings, and belongs very definitively to that set of his work that was the most Dickensian. That is, it is full of flair and hyperbole and drama and oppression and cold weather and child abuse and misery and heroics and ideals. Especially ideals.
Indeed, as with all of Dickens’ best work, Nicholas Nickleby’s strengths lie not in any unique plot twists or unusual characters, but in the incarnation of ideals, their taking on of flesh. Nicholas Nickleby is strong because its’ characters are ideals. And they take on flesh quite well – indeed, in 900 pages they have plenty of time to do so. The ideals are very fully fleshed out. But they are also very strong ideals, that have endured in the world since the genesis of Christendom. And if you love them already, you will find them splendid because Dickens makes them so, but mostly because they are splendid in their own right.
At the heart of these ideals is the hero. This is Nicholas himself. He is not particularly original, but he attracts us because he is not merely a protagonist, but is, in fact, really a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. He adores justice and honor with a childlike simplicity and he takes on the miseries of life with a pure heart and cheery self-denial. Beside his fiery innocence, every contaminated sentiment and half-wrong seems horrible, and not to be endured.
All my days I have been seeking to be like him. Quite without knowing his story, at all, of course. Because Nicholas Nickleby is not a character invented by Dickens at all. He is the quintessential human hero, a picture of the man that men will follow, and that the world is not worthy of.
In Dickens’ story, Nicholas is afflicted by some rather prosaic difficulties when his father, a country gentlemen, dies unexpectedly, leaving the nineteen-year-old Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother in dire straits. They are forced to apply for assistance to the senior Nickleby’s brother, Nicholas’ uncle Ralph. Ralph is a ruthless and unscrupulous miser, who sends Nicholas off to work for pennies at a wretched boarding school in Yorkshire, and exploits Kate’s feminine graces to please his business partners. Their mother, while an amiable woman, lacks discretion, and cannot serve as a source of guidance for the two young people in their difficulties.
All told, the title character’s situation seems thoroughly unenviable. Fortunately, Nicholas carries something with him that turns the desolation of the world into an adventure: his stalwart decency. Thrust into scenes of unbearable degradation and injustice, his ideals of truth and righteousness do not falter, and cannot be co-opted. He is an honest man, and no one can take that away from him. This makes his life bearable and serves as a roadmap. You pity him in his hardship, but not too much, because you know he has a treasure of incalculable worth, and that he has what it takes to get to the other side of what is before him. Before his story is over, he will be the one turning the arrogant from their ease, and rescuing the downtrodden with remarkable flair.
I can’t not want to be that guy.
But I’m not.
I spent all my childhood imagining myself as something of a champion in the making. Oh, the places I would go, and all of the rescue I would dispense! All of my dreams were about heroics. So the knowledge that I have been somewhat mistaken in my aim has been a long time coming home to me.
With Nicholas Nickleby, it came home a little more. Because beside even Dickens’ simple and clichéd ideal, I seem very unheroic indeed. And I know that there must be something besides the fruitless chase after championship.
And so there is.
At Dotheboys’ Hall, a stereotypically Dickensian hell-hole, where Nicholas serves as an assistant to the evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, we meet another character. Smike is crippled, and hardly a boy anymore at eighteen. He was abandoned at the school six years ago, and has been exploited by the Squeers ever since, serving them as a slave in deplorable conditions and beaten continually. His ill-treatment and ignorance have given him a feeble mind and doubled his terror and helplessness. Smike has no ideals to nourish him, and no prospects or plans ahead of him. His life is a living death.
Nicholas, enraged by the cruelty that Smike endures, is very kind to the drudge. This is something Smike has never experienced before, and something happens to him that he did not realize could happen: it dawns upon him that there is a reason to live, and that waking up in the morning doesn’t have to be just the shock of death flooding his lungs. His reason to live is Nicholas, and the hope of Nicholas’ approval and the ambition of serving him.
The Squeers, who are evil, are annoyed by the sight of goodness thriving anywhere, and redouble their efforts to make Smike’s life a torment to him. Nicholas decides this additional oppression is just about the last straw, and he informs Smike that he is going to leave. In a wild fit of desperation, Smike abandons the disgraceful institution on his own that night. Lame and starving, he doesn’t get far before he is dragged back by the schoolmaster’s wife. The Squeers, who find it necessary to deal with the imminent threat of mutiny among the boys, decide to make a great spectacle of Smike, and to flog him severely before the whole school.
As this ordeal commences, Nicholas snaps, and descends like a hurricane upon the schoolmaster, administering a sound drubbing to the latter, before packing his little bag and quitting the place. As he sets out on the long journey back to London, impoverished and with grim prospects, he runs into Smike, who has been following him all the way. Smike drops to his knees at Nicholas’ feet.
‘Why do you kneel to me?’ Nicholas asks.
“To go with you–anywhere–everywhere–to the world’s end–to the churchyard grave,” says Smike in a wild supplication. “Let me, oh do let me. You are my home.”
Smike is a cripple all of his days. He drags his deformed limbs with him everywhere, and his weak mind is never made whole. Wherever he goes, people will stare and whisper and feel sorry for him. He will never be a specimen of perfection. But in spite of all this he is at rest, and at home. Because he is following Nicholas Nickleby , and consumed in a sort of slavish devotion to his hero. What he is is wretched indeed, but what he is is not important to him. For he is utterly wrapped up in worshipping a worthier champion. In himself, there is limitless impotence and fear. But in his master there is enough glory to satisfy him.
And when the full import of this burst upon me, I found it disturbing, like a call to wake up. Because my Dearest Friend is the prince of champions, and oh, are all of my springs in Him? The grace that has set me free, is it enough for me? Or must I do something of my own to add to it, before it is sufficient to be happy-making?
Hudson Taylor wrote to his wife in 1869,
“I now see that it is not in what He is to me, not in what He is working, or has worked, or may work in, for, or by me, but in Himself I am to rejoice; in what He is and has in Himself absolutely. And this, it appears to me, is the only possible or even legitimate ground for constant, unchanging, full joy.”
But to get at the joy that is only outside of ourselves, we must come to the end of ourselves. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said our Lord. Not because they are lesser or more wretched than their brothers, but because they know it. And theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
For the life at the heels of Christ is not about being a hero, but about loving a hero. And the more you love Him, the more you are at home in Him. And when He is all that matters, it doesn’t matter that you are what you are.
Because He is what He is.