Father of Fire - Ralph Nickleby

Character:

Ralph Nickleby

Book:

Nicholas Nickleby

      Ralph Nickleby is Nicholas and Kate Nickleby's paternal uncle. Uncaring for anyone but himself, he is a man of means and a mean man. Pretending to help his newly widowed sister-in-law, he sets Nicholas up as teacher in a Yorkshire boarding school and shows the beautiful young Kate some unwanted - and unsavoury – attention. When Nicholas whips the brutish headmaster Wackford Squeers, and departs Dotheboy's Hall with the mistreated boy Smike, Ralph is enraged at his nephew's insolence.

 

 Meanwhile, Ralph has invited Kate to a dinner party where it turns out she is the only female. Her uncle is using her as bait to entice business dealings with an insipid nobleman, Lord Frederick Verisopht. Kate is accosted at the party by Sir Mulberry Hawk, Verisopht's mentor and so-called friend. Ralph intercedes, but threatens to withdraw his financial help if she doesn't play along with his machinations. Nicholas confronts his uncle and he, threatening again to withdraw financial help, compels his nephew to break off relations with his family.

 

 Incensed by Nicholas' brazenness, and by the rebuffs his sister shows his advances, Ralph vows “to wound” Nicholas “through his own affections and fancies.” Intending to strike Nicholas through his affections for Smike, Ralph concocts a plot wherein Smike will be taken from Nicholas by Squeers, claiming to be the poor boy's father. According to Ralph's scheme, the factitious father believed the boy to be dead because the man's estranged wife, on her deathbed, claimed their son had died – an invention intended to wound the husband. This view of marriage as warfare and internecine attrition - echoing the previous Mother of Fire card - Ralph euphemistically describes as “a system of annoyance”. On the point of carrying out his plot, Ralph, the formulator of the system, discovers that Smike is in fact his own son and that his own estranged wife lied to him - an invention of hers to wound him. The sickly Smike, in the meantime, has died, and Ralph – having wounded his own affections through his own cruel fancies – ascends to the attic in which Smike spent his childhood and hangs himself.

 

 But this suicide is not born of remorse or a surfeit of feelings. Rather, Ralph Nickleby, respectable man of trade and enterprise, has been defeated, beat at his own game; taking his own life is an act of fury and spite. His wilful death is merely the final step in the fatal system of annoyance.

 

 Another theme in Nicholas Nickleby, represented by Ralph Nickleby, is on the nature of what constitutes a true gentleman. Wackford Squeers is a headmaster and monster, Verisopht and Hawk are aristocracy but pusillanimous and predatory respectively, and Newman Noggs - once a wealthy businessman like Ralph – is now a penniless drunk, yet he remains a man of probity. Whereas Ralph Nickleby, despite all his outward trappings of strength and stability – or indeed because of them – is in fact little more than an enervated and empty shell of a man; a failure as a father, and a failed gentleman.

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Shorthandspiteful man - unlikable - would smote 'em if he had 'em - upright seeming - estimable - may be treacherous - or lecherous - strong-willed - virile - classic creepy uncle - defender of family - tradition - all ways proper - virtuous according to his own code - acts the patron - ethical in a narrow, intolerant fashion - will not countenance effrontery - wears a mask - little more than a name - a name meaning "counsel" and "wolf".