On The Importance of Being Smike

Nicholas NicklebySometimes 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.

NicholasAt 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.

Smike4
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.

On Heroism: A Letter to my Children

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. How will I explain to them what to do with the deep-seated, grasping longings they have in them and don’t understand? How will they know they aren’t alone with their wants, that all of humanity pulses with the same passions? – passions that can raise the sinking ship from the waves, or drown it utterly? How will they know that I too know the press of their heartache? I will write a letter… ]

Titanic

My Dear Children,

You want to save the world. God bless you.

How it does need saving! How like it is to an overbold ocean liner, broken on the bergs of the deep and going down. How you want to dive under it and uphold it! How you wish your hands were great like those of God, that you could seize the smokestacks of the terrorized Titanic and take her out. How you want to dispense a thousand lifeboats into the cold darkness. How you want to hang on the heavy bell-ropes of the planet and set up a clamor for help that combs the stars.

This ambition to be a hero is one of the grandest things about the kingdom of youth. Never let anyone belittle it in your hearing, as long as you live. You are wise to let it run in your veins and impassion you. You are wise to look beyond your little self and into the great world, and hurt for it. You are wise to nurture your longing to heal the ravaged globe. Young people, never stop.

There is something you need to know, though. You should know it now, while you are still young, for though it will surely dawn on you when you are old and full of days, it may be too late, then, for much good that might have been. Oh, it may be too late.

You need to know that you are not the caped savior but a passenger on the ship that is going down. The world’s only hero has already been here, and you can add nothing to what He has done. The scared crowds lining the decks are not in need of you, but of something else entirely. And you can only offer it to them if you are sure you have got it.

Know your poor self as deeply as you can bear to. Know your own frailty and your own frame. Know how to laugh at the joke that is you. It is a very good joke.

Come more time, and a little age on your shoulders, you will want to die for something. Maybe you already do. God bless you.

I know the feeling. How small and ultimately insignificant is your little life in the scheme of things. How you ache for the picture to be bigger, for the story to be wider, for something to put it all together, and make it all make sense. How you want to go down fighting for a greater cause. How you want your tiny, rather wretched self to be swallowed up in something ineffable and all-consuming. How you want your one, precious life to be spent on the very best thing.

RussianSoldierWWIIFor this cause men leave all that is dear and familiar and hard-won, and fling themselves recklessly into battles that can’t be won. For this cause a boy will put all his hopes into the barrel of a gun and fire it into the nothingness and fall into the dirt with his life ebbing out. For this cause little bands of brothers will break themselves against the impossible fortresses of tyrants. For this cause young women in new bloom and old women with happy memories and strong, able men and small children have endured slow deaths and dismemberment and decades behind iron bars and gone out singing, singing.

All down the ages the world has been going to war. Because a man needs a thing higher than himself to spend himself on.

This is the one essential condition,” says Dostoevsky, “of human existence: that man should always be able to bow down to something infinitely greater. If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair.”

This ambition to be given up entirely to something entirely beyond you is one of the dearest things about you. Never let anyone poison your mind with myths about your own importance, murmurings about your individual rights and your individual grievances. You are wise to know your own poverty and insufficiency. Never stop knowing it.

There are some other things you need to know, though. You need to know them before you spend yourself on what is not worthy of you. For only one thing is.

The first thing you need to know is the way that evil men can take your best and noblest ideals and exploit them to the detriment of everything you honor and admire. Are men filled with a hunger to be sacrificed grandly? The kings of the earth are eager with ideas for grand sacrifice. They are eager to utilize your goodwill and your humility and your willingness to offer unquestioning obedience, and a man who will be guided by them may soon find himself blowing away the brains of toddlers in a pool of blood in a rice paddy, caught in a war that no one wants to win.

You do not owe your unquestioning obedience to that. Be sure you never offer that kind of allegiance to any of the rulers of the earth. A man may be weak and small, but his life, once he has given it up, is of great value, and may bring great ruin.

Nevertheless, you must not become less humble or less loyal because of this. You must not become embittered. The hunger in you is good. You have but to satisfy it with the thing that is right. You must offer your humility and your loyalty to a worthy commander. There is only one.

There is a second thing you need to know. It is the most important thing of all.

Ultimate heroism does not consist in dying for a thing, but in living for it.

Anyone can die. There is hype and adrenaline and suddenness and the strong, present sense of significance. The significance of death is rarely lost on anyone who comes to meet it face to face.

But to live something out, day in, day out, every tedious, monotonous, fearful, dull minute? Every morning to wake to the same alarm clock and fill your mouth with toothpaste and wear clothes you’ve worn a hundred other days and do the same tiresome work, and brush with the same tiresome people and greet all of this wearisome business with the same quiet joy, and seek in it the end that is higher than you?

Oh, that takes a hero. Oh, that takes a truly mighty man, a truly strong woman. Oh, that takes a power that is higher than you.

Yet that is the heroism that is before you, the bleak road through the thick darkness that severs everything from everything else and veils your eyes to what is occurring on every side. Will you go out without knowing? Because this is the satisfaction for the hunger in your heart and the only preparation to make you fit for the kind of dying that you want to one day do.