Married in Black: The Subtle Impressions of a Tragic Villain

In Charles Dickens’ novel, Nicholas Nickleby, reading for plot and reading through close analysis allows for a varied understanding of the characters significance. When reading for plot, Nicholas Nickleby operates as the hero of the novel and Ralph Nickleby as the villain. In a closer analysis, Ralph Nickleby does not simply operate as a villain to distinguish the hero, but Nicholas seems to distinguish Ralph. The lack of depth in Nicholas’ character heightens Ralph’s character depth as it exists in the artistic negative space of Nicholas’ exaggerated and static presence. As Ralph and Nicholas operate in two separate spheres, Kate lingers in a curious relation to them both that compounds the readers understanding of the main characters. Although the novel clearly works to amplify the presence of Nicholas and his moral astuteness, careful analysis highlights a more disturbing story about Ralph that, because of its bleakness, is purposefully placed in a shadowy background.

The title, “Nicholas Nickleby,” exaggerates Nicholas’ presence in the novel through the straightforward repetition in his name. As the title on the front cover, his persistent name literally frames the entire work. The obvious and exaggerated presence of Nicholas stands out so ostentatiously that it goes beyond inciting the reader’s acknowledgment of Nicholas to completely blindsiding the reader with the assertion that the novel is all about him. This assertion is logical when reading the novel for plot, but delving into character analysis rouses another more challenging distinction, a distinction of Ralph Nickleby whose life moves diametrically of Nicholas’ and, yet, whose name is conspicuously not in the title.

Nicholas’ first spoken statement in the novel “That is my name, sir” (Dickens 23) is a tongue-in-cheek redundancy of the overtly exemplified presence of Nicholas. The fact that his first words subtly hint at the title and are directed to Ralph eloquently suggests the significance of Ralph’s character. Here, Dickens cleverly hints at the villains plot by pitting the title of book against Ralph’s character. This distinction becomes apparent only through a close reading of the text. If one were to simply read for the plot of Nicholas, Ralph’s deliberate and artistic existence in the negative space of Nicholas’ outline could be over looked.

An important frame from which to understand Dickens’ mechanisms of deferring to one character while bolstering another exists in the simple phrase “stretch a point, and say the latter” (Dickens 25). With this, it is clear that Dickens’ is conscious of using a sort of spotlight to not only bring attention to one main plot line, but to exaggerate the shadow that an overly bright spotlight creates. This spotlight effect is seen throughout the novel as Dickens’ creates intricate and deliberate connectivity amongst the three main characters.

At the beginning of the novel, Ralph’s persona is established before any other character in the novel. His character is first introduced as believing in the following moral code: “That riches are the only true source of happiness and power, and that it is lawful and just to compass their acquisition by all means short of felony” (Dickens 3). The fact that Ralph is placed so closely to the title of the book, literally, works to distinguish his importance in the novel, even if it is to establish him as lacking some moral quality. It is interesting that Dickens chose to elaborate on the villain character before introducing the hero character, because doing so seems suspicious compared to the exaggerated presence of Nicholas.

As Nicholas works to better the lives of those around him Ralph works to destroy the lives of others. In the beginning of the novel, Ralph is called upon to help his family after the death of his brother and Nicholas is first distinguished as a young man willing to sacrifice for the betterment of his family when he agrees to work for Mr. Squeers “I am ready to do anything you wish me. Let us try our fortune…” (Dickens 27). Two opposing characters become connected to each other in a plot of “fortune.” This first meeting defines Nicholas’ persona as a trusting and selfless young man whose genteel character will lead him to riches, but it also displays Ralph’s sinister persona as a conniving schemer who forces the hero to work for a man whom Ralph knows to have had a boy die in his school “[The boy] unfortunately died at Dotheboys Hall” (Dickens 36), thus making Ralph disagreeable to the reader from the onset. The novel’s plot of hero versus villain is very direct and easily recognizable, thus allowing Nicholas’ storyline to maintain its overt presence.

The subtle assertion that there is more depth to Ralph’s character than there is to Nicholas’ character is suggested because Nicholas’ morality is never questioned. Although he is violent at times, such as beating Mr. Squeers and fighting with  Sir Mulberry Hawk, his actions take root from his flat and outlined disposition of hero; whereas, Ralph’s character disposition is altered by a strikingly poignant deference to Kate. If the novel were simply about Nicholas’ rise to fortunes, Ralph’s character type would not be called into question by the reader as it is when he seems to soften in the presence of Kate. None of the Nickleby family shows a glimmer of reform or a sort of awakening as Ralph does upon meeting Kate: “Well, well, said Ralph, a little softened, either by his niece’s beauty or her distress” (Dickens 25). As none of the other characters exhibit this complication of character, it is clear that there is a unique depth to Ralph’s character development than there is to Nicholas and his life of static good.

Kate plays an integral part to both Ralph’s depth and Nicholas’ flatness. On the one hand, she is obviously tied emotionally to Nicholas, her brother. On the other, she seems to exist in a stark contrast to Nicholas because she is extremely passive and self deprecating: “The word slipped from my lips, I did not mean it indeed” (Dickens 122), “Yes, ma’am, replied Kate not daring to look up” (Dickens 125), “I am foolish, my opinion is of little importance” (Dickens 211). She has neither the violent enthusiasm of Nicholas, nor the wealth and cunning of Ralph. With this reading, her clever and complex presence can be interpreted as a point of origin on the axis of Nicholas and Ralph.  Her presence on the axis of their two stories furthers the idea that the entirety of the novel is not to be understood only through Nicholas’ plot line. She seems to add to both Nicholas’ plot, as he is working to provide for her, and to Ralph’s plot as she invokes the reader’s awareness of Ralph’s depth.

This idea of a corresponding and intricate relationship among the three characters is further exhibited through Kate’s initial presence in the novel. Kate Nickleby is first introduced by her mother as “Kate too, poor girl, without a penny in the world” (Dickens 5). The narrator then refers to Kate with “The poor girl was about to murmur something, when her uncle stopped her, very unceremoniously” (Dickens 25). She is placed in direct contrast to the extremely rich and assertive Ralph who stops her before she can speak for the first time in the novel. Though this exhibits a contrast to Ralph,  she is being talked about by others rather than speaking and, therefore, seems to exist in the background much like Ralph exists in the negative space around Nicholas. Coupled with the fact that she is also like Nicholas, in that she appeals towards humanity’s greater good, it seems Dickens has purposely established her from the beginning of the novel as distinctly vital to the two main characters. She is the necessary motivator for Nicholas’ continuing good and she is the igniter for Ralph’s moral dilemma. She operates as a sort of equilibrium at the center of the two different storylines.

It is not until Kate’s third occurrence in the novel that she finally speaks: “But the salary is so small, and it is such a long way off, uncle! faltered Kate” (Dickens 26). With the use of an exclamation point attached to the word uncle, Dickens emphasizes a sort of calling to Ralph’s humanity. It’s as though through her desperation the reader is also drawn in to urge on Ralph’s greater humanity. She desperately pleads to him and it seems to work when Ralph is “a little softened, either by his niece’s beauty or her distress” (Dickens 25). Ralph is affected by her presence and the reader’s idea of his character is called into question, but in order for the two plot lines to work coherently, it is impossible for there to exist more than just a glimpse at Ralph’s challenged nature. If Ralph were to change completely at this moment, it would garnish too much attention on Ralph and switch the spotlight, rendering the subtle assertions Dickens has made more obvious. By remaining inconspicuously subtle and in the background of the ongoing Nicholas plot, Ralph’s grappling character development and incapacity to morally transform is magnified.  There is no room in the happy plot line for the depth and darkness of Ralph’s character.

The depth of Ralph’s character is finally reckoned as he develops fully into a tragic villain. Where the reader initially was confused by Kate’s effect on Ralph, a clarity about his character emerges.  The revelation that Smike is his son and that Ralph had a wife and family before the novel began to tell his story acts  as the final key to understanding the depth of his character. He is more than a villain. Interestingly, the scene where he learns that Smike is his son is coupled with a light burning out: “He had hardly spoken, when the lamp which stood upon the table close to where Ralph was seated, and which was the only one in the room, was thrown to the ground, and left them in total darkness. There was some trifling confusion in obtaining another light; the interval was a mere nothing; but when the light appeared, Ralph Nickleby was gone” (Dickens 790). This emblematic burning out and disappearance forshadows the end of Ralph’s life and story. The reader is left to follow the lighter plot line of Nicholas and his family, but not without an unnerving and conflicting understanding of Ralph. Ralph struggles against an unanswered moral challenge and his ultimate suicide is a dark contrast to the morally astute and blissful end to the story of Nicholas.

As the end of the novel is neatly wrapped up in true Victorian fashion with an onslaught of marriages, it seems the darker side of the novel comes into clear view when Ralph commits suicide. This ending also works with the spotlight metaphor: white wedding gowns are opposed to the black garb one wears to a funeral. It’s as though Dickens uses this stark contrast to insist that there is more to his novel than the typical, plot driven reading. He seems to be calling out to the reader to examine more closely the details of Ralph’s development. By killing Ralph, there exists a statement of his psychological stagnation and the reader is urged to mourn Ralph’s death even though he was a villain to Nicholas.

Examined accordingly with the straightforward title, the novel operates as a story about a young man whose good moral intentions lead him to a life of riches and a happy marriage. This reading falls neatly in line with the archetypical plot of some Victorian era novels: be the right kind of person and live happily ever after. The subtle development of Ralph’s character is a striking and playful method of drawing together a broad and diverse  audience of readers. This subtly exaggerates that reading for plot is obvious and expected and in turn requires depth of the reader to realize the difference in depth of character.  By working in the negative space left beyond the brightness of the Nicholas plot, Dickens is making a “read between the lines” statement on the moral character of Ralph. The less than cheerful ending  seems to be making a bigger statement than just “this novel is about a hero and a villain.” While cleverly constructing a corresponding continuity among the main characters, Dickens creates a subtle and deep reading that intertwines the main characters in order to shine the light on one. One may read for the rewarding plot of Nicholas, utterly ignoring Ralph’s development outside that of a villain, or one may delve into a closer reading for the tormented and tragic story of Ralph: a man who is awakened to his capacity for change, but cannot reckon with his transgressions as he resolves that death is better than living a penniless and powerless existence.

Dickens, Charles. Nicholas Nickleby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.