The Nickleby family.
The hero of the novel. His father has died and left Nicholas and his family penniless. Nicholas is honest and steadfast, but his youth and inexperience of the world can lead him to be violent, naïve, and emotional. In his preface to the novel, Dickens writes: “There is only one other point, on which I would desire to offer a remark. If Nicholas be not always found to be blameless or agreeable, he is not always intended to appear so. He is a young man of an impetuous temper and of little or no experience; and I saw no reason why such a hero should be lifted out of nature.” He devotes himself primarily to his friends and family and fiercely defies those who wrong the ones he loves.
The book’s principal antagonist, Nicholas’s uncle. He seems to care about nothing but money and takes an immediate dislike to the idealistic Nicholas; however, he does harbour something of a soft spot for Kate. Ralph’s anger at Nicholas’s beating of Wackford Squeers leads to a serious rift with his nephew, and after Nicholas interferes with his machinations several more times, Ralph schemes to deliberately hurt and humiliate Nicholas; but the only man Ralph ends up destroying is himself. When it is revealed that Smike was his son, and that the boy died hating him, he takes his own life. He dies without a will, and his family refuses to take his property, so his hard-earned fortune is given back to the Crown and lost.
Catherine “Kate” Nickleby.
Nicholas’s younger sister. Kate is a fairly passive character, typical of Dickensian women, but she shares some of her brother’s fortitude and strong will. She does not blanch at hard labour to earn her keep, and defends herself against the lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk. She finds well-deserved happiness with Frank Cheeryble.
Mrs. Catherine Nickleby.
Nicholas and Kate’s mother, who provides much of the novel’s comic relief. The muddleheaded Mrs. Nickleby often does not see the true evil her children encounter until it is directly pointed out to her, and her obtuseness occasionally worsens her children’s predicaments. She is stubborn, prone to long digressions on irrelevant or unimportant topics and unrealistic fantasies, and displays an often vague grasp of what is going on around her.
A cruel, one-eyed, Yorkshire “schoolmaster”. He runs Dotheboys Hall, a boarding school for unwanted children. He mistreats the boys horribly, starving them and beating them regularly. He gets his comeuppance at the hands of Nicholas when he is beaten in retaliation for the whipping of Smike. He travels to London after he recovers, and partakes in more bad business, fulfilling his grudge against Nicholas by becoming a close partner in Ralph’s schemes to fake Smike’s parentage and later to obfuscate the will that would make Madeline Bray an heiress. He is arrested during the last of these tasks and sentenced to be transported to Australia.
In January 1838, Charles Dickens and the and his illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne (“Phiz”) visited some notorious Yorkshire schools, in particular Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge run by headmaster William Shaw. In 1823, Shaw had been prosecuted for criminal negligence when two of his pupils were blinded. Wackford Squeers was modelled on Shaw, and Dotheboys Hall on his school.