The lengthy novel centres around the life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a young man who must support his mother and sister after his father dies. Like nearly all of Dickens' works, the novel has a contemporary setting. Most of the action takes place in London, with the notable exception of several chapters taking place in Dickens' hometown of Portsmouth.
The tone of the work is burlesque, with Dickens taking aim at what he perceives to be social injustices. Many memorable characters are introduced, including Nicholas' malevolent uncle Ralph, and the villainous Wackford Squeers, who operates a squalid boarding school at which Nicholas temporarily serves as a tutor.
While some consider the book to be among the finest works of 19th century comedy, Nicholas Nickleby is often criticized due to its lack of character development.