The Ambiguity of Nancy’s Character in Oliver Twist

June 29, 2009

The Ambiguity of Nancy’s Character in Oliver Twist

By Hiba A. Al. Ansari

“Jekyll and Hyde” is an idiom referring to someone with both an evil and a good personality. It is known that the personality of any one is known by his behavior and his interaction with others. It is also known by his reaction in special situations. Some people have very kind personalities but others have vicious kinds. In addition, some people have obvious characters, while others have the most complicated characters and it is difficult to deal with them. Oliver Twist is one of the most famous novels in the 19th century. This novel reflects the Victorian age which describes the relationship between the high class and the low class and the relations amongst the members of low class. Also, it describes the harshness and ruthlessness towards the poor people. The novel discusses an orphan boy who lives in the workhouse and who is treated badly by officials in charge. After that he escapes and becomes one of Fagin’s gang members. Throughout the events of the novel different characters appear, Nancy is one of them. In this novel there is a strange relation between Oliver and Nancy which reveals different sides to her character. Nancy and Oliver play very important roles in the novel. There is a similarity between these two characters. Oliver is the protagonist of the novel. He is born in the workhouse in an un-named town. His mother dies soon after his birth, so he “[is] left to the tender mercies of churchwardens and overseers” (Ch. 1, 3). When he is ten years old the undertaker, Sowerberry, takes him to work for him. After that, he fights with Noah Claypole who insults his dead mother and the undertaker’s wife punishes him for fighting. That’s why he escapes and runs away to London. There he meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, who offers him a place to stay and that’s where he meets Fagin, who is a chief in a gang. It also consists of other young thieves and two prostitute women ,Nancy and Bet. Nancy is one of the few female characters in the novel. She has a very important role to play which is the source of the information plot between Monk and Fagin who want to make Oliver a criminal. She was corrupted by Fagin at the age of six. Unlike other characters throughout Oliver Twist, Nancy is not entirely good like those of (Oliver Twist himself, Rose, Mr. Brownlow) or entirely bad like those of (Monks, Bill Sikes). She has conflicts between her inner conscience and her devotion to Sikes. Nancy is also an important figure in Oliver Twist because she is the only character who fluctuates between the world of good and evil (“Background of Nancy”). Several characters have obvious personalities in the novel, some of them are good, but others are not. This is noticeable in their first appearances during the story except for Nancy’s character, who’s personality is not always clear. Her first appearance is when she meets Oliver at Fagin’s house. In that scene Nancy’s reaction isn’t clear because it doesn’t reflect her real character whether it’s good or bad. Also, she doesn’t utter any word but she keeps silent and she doesn’t express any interest or disinterest in the newest member of the gang. The character of Mrs. Sowerberry, in her first appearance, reveals signs of coldness and ruthlessness in the way she receives Oliver and says of him “He’s very small” and orders her housemaid ” Here, Charlotte, give this boy some of the cold bits that were put by for Trip[the dog]”(Ch. 4, 24). This indicates what this woman thinks of Oliver and how he will suffer under her harsh treatment. Miss, Rose’s character on the other hand, in her first appearance, reveals signs of kindness and consideration when she orders her servants to take Oliver to the room and call- up the doctor to see Oliver, because he was injured by a gunshot on the day of the robbery with Bill Sikes and Toby Crackit. This reaction of Miss. Rose towards Oliver indicates how very kind she is. She holds a good heart and conveys compassion to someone she doesn’t even know. As the novel progresses, the differences in Nancy’s behavior towards Oliver gets more interesting. Sometimes she does nice things to Oliver and helps him while at the same time she does bad things that hurts him. What gives a bad impression of her is the fact that she is one of the bad characters in the story, so it is natural to expect bad deeds and intentions from her. After two boys tell Fagin that Oliver has been taken by the police, because a man accused the boy of stealing his handkerchief, Fagin orders Nancy to ask around about Oliver in the police centre and to pretend to be as Oliver’s sister. She refuses at the beginning but when Sikes talks to her she agrees and goes to the police centre. There she cries “Oh, my brother! My poor, dear, sweet, innocent little brother!” exclaims Nancy “What has become of him! Where have they taken him to! Oh, do have pity, and tell me what’s been done with the dear boy, gentlemen; do, gentlemen, if you please, gentlemen!”(Ch. 13, 79). Nancy in this situation seems as an obedient character. She does everything that Fagin or Sikes order her to do, whether she likes it or not, without any attempt to disobey their demands . After the gang members find out Oliver’s place from Nancy, through an officer who told her that the person who accused Oliver took him to his house. The chief of the gang ,Fagin, then orders Nancy to “skulk about” (Ch. 13, 80). She obeys him again and doesn’t shows any objection although she knows Fagin’s bad intentions . One day, Mr. Brownlow gives Oliver five-pound and sent him to the bookstore to return some books and pay the money that he owe them. On his way to the bookstore he accidentally walks into the wrong road. At this moment, Nancy sees him in the street carrying Mr. Brownlow’s books and money. She grabs Oliver from the back and screaming out very loud ” Oh, my dear brother” and then she calls to Sikes with his dog and together they take him to Fagin’s house (Ch. 15, 93). Her actions here is very confusing but it shows clearly that Nancy is responsible for kidnapping Oliver and returning him to the gang. In Fagin’s house when they all see Oliver wearing a neat suit and carrying the books and money, everyone tries to take something from him. One of them wants to take his suit and the other wants to take the money, while Oliver begs them to return the money and the books and let him return back to Mr. Brownlow. Then he suddenly jumps up and tries to run, so Sikes wants to let the dog chase Oliver but Nancy stops him and cries “Keep back the dog; he’ll tear the boy to pieces” (Ch. 16, 98). She then says “the child shan’t be torn down by the dog, unless you kill me first” (Ch. 16, 98). Also , Fagin said “So you wanted to get away, my dear, did you?” taking up a heavy short stick which is in a corner of the fireplace (Ch. 16, 99). He beats Oliver on his shoulders and when he wants to beat him a second time Nancy suddenly stands in front of Fagin, takes the stick and flings it into the fire place saying “I won’t stand by and see it done, Fagin,” cried the girl “You’ve got the boy, and what more would you have? Let him be- let him be, or I shall put that mark on some of you, that will bring me to the gallows before my time”(Ch. 16, 99). Nancy’s attitude here, reveals her guilty conscience, mainly because of her role in bringing Oliver back to the gang. That’s why Nancy does a good thing for Oliver and defend him from Fagin and Sikes. After this Oliver makes his attempt to escape from Fagin and his gang, but he is caught and Fagin punishes and imprisons him in a dark room. During the arrangements for the robbery of Chertsey’s house, Fagin and Sikes decide to choose Nancy to take Oliver to Sikes’ house because the boy “would be more willing to accompany the girl who had so recently interfered in his behalf, than anybody else”(Ch. 19, 121). In this case Nancy agrees without any objection or attempt to prevent this order, although she knows the difficulties that Oliver will face either with Sikes or in the stealing process itself. This again shows us that Nancy sometimes does bad things that hurt Oliver. In the contrary to those hurtful deeds, “Nancy commits one of the most noble acts of kindness in the story when she ultimately risks her life to help Oliver” ( “Background of Nancy”). That is clear when she goes to meet Miss. Rose and Mr. Brownlow on the bridge after she overhears a conversation between Monks and Fagin about Oliver. She tells them about what she heard and gives them the descriptions of Monks, so that they can find out who he is and why he wants to hurt Oliver. She also asks them not to use this information to have Fagin, Sikes, or any other member of the gang arrested. This example indicates that “Nancy is still kind ,although she was forced to be a thief when she was only six years old ,she did not lose her natural goodness” (“Nancy in Oliver Twist”). She helped Oliver although she knows that it might be a risk she has to take. Moreover, she didn’t accept Miss. Rose’s offer to stay with her and not to return to Sikes again, mostly because she was worried about Oliver and couldn’t leave him to the mercy of Sikes or Fagin. It is obvious that Nancy’s feelings throughout the novel towards Fagin or Sikes isn’t clear. Sometimes her feeling reflects her love for them because she benefits from them and they benefit from her, while other times it reflects the opposite . She thinks that Fagin and Sikes are responsible for making her life miserable and letting her suffer. They also make the girl prostitute out of her and she becomes one of the criminals. Throughout the events of the novel there are many incidents indicating this. In some of them Nancy reveals her love and loyalty towards Fagin and Sikes. It is clear when she obeys them and does every things they want. Also, she nurses Sikes after he is injured on the robbery of Chertsey’s house. In addition to that, although she goes against them when she tells about what they want to do with Oliver , she asks Miss. Rose not to use the information to have Fagin or Sikes arrested “Will you promise me that you will have my secret strictly kept, and come alone, or with the only other person that knows it; and that I shall not be watched or followed?”(Ch. 40, 258). Moreover, She loves Bill Sikes, a brutal thief although he treats her badly. Actually, Miss. Rose has given her a good plan for her future but she refuses it. She cannot give up Sikes, her lover, “I cannot leave him now! I could not be his death”(Ch. 40, 257). She also cries “if I told others what I have told you, and led to their being taken, he would be sure to die”(Ch. 40, 257- 8). On the other hand, Nancy’s love to Sikes becomes a struggle for her. She seems to hate Sikes and wants to get rid of him and her terrible life. That is indicated after Nancy considers the words from Miss. Rose to stay with her and not to return to Fagin’s gang and Sikes again. She responds “dear, sweet, angel lady, you (r)are¯ the first that ever blessed me with such words as these, and if I had heard them years ago, they might have turned me from a life of sin and sorrow; but it is too late, it is too late!” (Ch. 40, 257). This is evidence that Nancy feels regretful of being with Fagin and Sikes and if she had a chance she might choose to leave them. Indeed, there are many reasons behind Nancy’s different behavior. Sometimes she finds herself forced to obey anything that Sikes or Fagin tell her to do, because she feels afraid of them. On the other hand, they protect her and care for her. She also knows Fagin since she was six years old when she became one of the members of the gang and that was at a very early age. That’s why, should she choose to leave them, she doesn’t have any where else to go and she doesn’t know any other people. Nancy‘s changeable character and some of her attitude towards Oliver, might just have had something to do with the fact that she lives a life of shame, hardships, suffering and misery. Seeing young ,innocent Oliver, she sees a reflection of herself at that age and that very thought is something frightful. She does not wish the young boy to endure what she went through and that’s the main reason of her defending Oliver whenever she could. She also holds on to this thought until her tragic end. Last but not least, in displaying Nancy as an ambiguous character, Dickens provides suspense in the story. The reader is hereby anticipated to extract what Nancy’s reaction to the events will be like. Even then it’s not sure if her reaction will be good or bad or what effect her actions will have on little Oliver. Her character is also balanced between evil and good and this is what Dickens finds important in providing interest and mystery to the story and to make it more exciting and appealing to the readers.

Works Cited

“Background of Nancy.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 8 May. 2009. <> [24May. 2009]

Dickens ,Charles. Oliver Twist. York Classics, Place Riad Soth, Beirut,1994.

“Nancy in Oliver Twist.” 14 Jan. 2008. <; [ 24 May.2009]


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