Reading Dickens always, at some point in whatever novel I'm focused on, provokes a visceral response in me, usually a painful one. With A Tale of Two Cities, I thought I might go mad with grief and anxiety as Sydney was being carted off to the gallows. It felt so real as to be almost unbearable, but in that pleasurable way that really good novels can be.
In Nicholas Nickleby, I had some visceral responses as well but they were less enjoyable for me because they were tempered by some un-ignorable critical dis-satisfaction.
First, Smike's decline and death. I know that Smike's death is a necessary step in Ralph Nickleby's downfall; I also know that it's integral to readerly comprehension of just how corrupt and poisoned our usurer is. In the face of discovering that Smike is his son and has died in part because of his treatment of him, Ralph remains unrepentant about his hatred for and persecution of Nicholas - this is the ultimate proof that he can't be saved, an interpretation of Ralph's life which is given ultimate sanction in Dickens' decision to have him take his own life.
But Smike didn't die only to facilitate the downfall of the novel's villain. No, he would have had to die anyway, because his love for Kate was so impossible and not, I think, primarily because he turns out to be her cousin. Rather, it's impossible because he's so broken by his life under the loving tutelage of Wackford Squeers that he can't possibly recover enough humanity to be a proper man, and in this surprisingly Comic (in the Shakespearean sense) novel, there is only room in the end for an even number of young lovers who are equally matched both emotionally and socially.
What I'm trying to get at with how Dickens treated Smike is that his function in the text - to show what good eggs Nicholas and Kate are, especially to the Brothers Cheeryble, and to represent both the extent of Ralph's evil and the retributive justice he must therefore suffer for it - were too clearly defining Smike's role in the narrative.
Dickens' purpose for him was just too obvious and therefore the significance and resonance of Smike's life were, for me, too often reduced to that of literary devices. This is a real shame, because initially, Smike seems to represent something quite beautiful in the face of the horrible situation he experiences at Squeers' Yorkshire school: a real ability to love when love has never been afforded to him.
My critical dissatisfaction with this novel was not, unfortunately, confined to Smike. While reading Nicholas Nickleby I frequently felt the urge to punch Ralph Nickleby in the face. You would think that this would reflect favourably on Dickens for having created a character so convincing that I frequently found myself imagining treating him as though he were real (a real asshole that is). But that's not really it. You see, I also wanted VERY (indeed, much more) frequently to punch Mrs. Nickleby (Nicholas and Kate's mother) dead in the face (to borrow Raych's phrase re: Philip Pullman).
Mrs. Nickleby was, to me, if it's possible, even more annoying than either Austen's Mrs. Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) or Emma herself. She was such a horrible cliche of the idiotic mother reflecting badly on her perfect children that I felt like throttling her; but really, I felt like throttling Dickens for having created such a one-dimensional harpy that annoyed me so much I wanted to stop reading at points.
All this said, you may be surprised to learn that I still really enjoyed this novel. Dickens' writing, for me, is always a joy to immerse myself in; as well, I liked many of the characters and wasn't always irritated by how un-subtly Dickens employed them. It's just that Nicholas Nickleby is so obviously the work of a writer much younger and perhaps less thoughtful than the writer who, 20-25 years later, produced A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend. But it's still brilliant because it's still Dickens. That isn't really a tautology; I'm willing to read something by Dickens and discover I think it's terrible and not feel the need to justify it in any way; it just hasn't happened yet.
I don't think I'm being very articulate here, and I often feel as though when I try to discuss why I like Dickens, language begins to fail me. Instead of worrying about it, I'll just conclude that perhaps it's best that I didn't try to focus on Victorian literature in graduate school as I seriously considered doing; my thesis would have ended up being just one big, lame love-fest, e.g., "Chapter One: Why Dickens is totally awesome," "Chapter Two: More on how Dickens is so kick-ass," and "Chapter Three: Why Dickens would be my boyfriend if he were alive today."