For those of you that don’t know, Nancy is one of the main female characters in Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel, Oliver Twist. The book follows the misadventures of a neglected orphan boy in Victorian London who falls in with a gang of thieves – and Nancy is one of them. A controversial character at the time, Nancy has come to be recognised as one of Dickens’ most tragic – and influential – female characters. The story has been phenomenally successful, and is credited with kick-starting the Victorian social reform movement as well as being adapted into numerous films, plays and musicals.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Nancy’s wider destiny is the result of both her own actions and the circumstances into which she was born. It’s established that she was born into a very poor family, was a member of Fagin’s gang of thieves as a child, and when the story starts, she is a teenage prostitute. It’s very heavily implied that the path she takes through life was, to a certain extent, inevitable – the sheer poverty into which she was born has completely choked off all other opportunities for her. As such, it’s quite easy to read Nancy’s journey through the story as the result of much wider forces that she has no control over.
However, this isn’t the only thing that guides her through the story. Even though she is pretty much stuck in her situation, she does try and change it – mainly through trying to prevent Fagin and Bill Sikes from corrupting Oliver. This doesn’t always work, but it does have a real impact on both her character and her progress through the book, and it’s worth noting that she has a lot more control over Oliver’s life than she does over her own. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t hear a lot about Nancy’s hobbies, but this is very common for Dickens’ portrayal of poor characters – unless he’s trying to make a point about the evils of drink, he very rarely shows his poorer characters as having any interests at all. Part of this may well be a representation of what life was really like for the Victorian poor, as terrible living conditions and fourteen-hour working days weren’t exactly conducive to having a social life.
Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. She wants to get Oliver out of Fagin’s clutches, but she also doesn’t want to do so by betraying him (and her lover, Bill Sikes) to the authorities. As far as her beliefs go, she sets a lot of store by the belief in Oliver’s natural innocence despite the things he is forced to do, but also believes that she herself is completely beyond such redemption. All this shapes a really interesting worldview that has a concrete impact on her character, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Nancy’s character is actually quite complex. She makes her way through life by crime and prostitution, yet she still speaks in a relatively genteel way and lives by her own, many-layered moral code. She’s devoted to the people she loves, even when she knows they are bad people, and even when she admits that they will lead to her own downfall. She’s street-smart, jaded, brash and abrasive, but still remains hopeful and has some strong maternal instincts. She remains this way all throughout the novel, so I’ll give her the full point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A jaded teenage prostitute determined to save a little boy from falling into a life of crime.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Throughout the novel, most of Nancy’s decisions are influenced by loyalty – to Oliver, to Fagin and his gang, and to her lover, Bill Sikes. It’s worth noting that most of her good decisions are influenced by her loyalty to Oliver – most of which stem from her long-buried maternal instincts – and most of her bad decisions are influenced by her loyalty to Fagin and Sikes. I’ll give her half a point, as about half her decisions are influenced by Sikes and her inability to leave him – but more on this later.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Nancy actually develops really well over the course of the story. She starts the story as a drunken, jaded teenage prostitute who has no qualms leading other young people into a life of crime. As the novel progresses, and she realises the extent of Oliver’s innate goodness, she gradually comes to regret her involvement with Fagin and his gang, to the point where she actually helps him escape their clutches. Nancy’s gradual re-alignment of her moral compass also coincides with a growing sense of dissatisfaction with her life, which is really triggered by her meeting with Rose Maylie – but as Nancy firmly believes she cannot escape her own destiny, this dissatisfaction doesn’t really develop as much as it could.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she have a weakness?
Nancy doesn’t really have much of a weakness to speak of. Dickens portrays the bad aspects of her character – such as the life of crime, prostitution and drunkenness – as more of a result of the environment she grew up in than any flaw in her personality. I’m inclined to agree.
What does hold her back is what’s usually portrayed as the ‘good’ side of her personality – her growing sympathy for Oliver. This is actually what leads to her downfall and eventual death, but since this is portrayed as an overwhelmingly positive character trait and crucial to both her development and ‘redemption’, I can’t list this as a flaw. The most I can think of is her belief that she is trapped in her life of poverty and crime, as this actively stops her from trying to escape it. But this, in turn, could just as easily be described as a realistic portrayal of the effects of crushing poverty, as in Victorian England social mobility was almost non-existent. I’m stuck, so I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Nancy is a real influence on the plot – she brings Oliver back to Fagin, and eventually gets him away from him again – but this isn’t always the result of her own decisions. At least fifty per cent of the time she’s sent to influence the plot on behalf of another character, rather than acting of her own accord.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Strap in, kids!
In some ways, Nancy can be seen as quite a progressive character, particularly by Victorian standards. She’s a thief and a prostitute who’s portrayed as a sympathetic and complex character. In the nineteenth century this was so controversial that Dickens had to answer public complaints about why he even included her character in the novel at all. On the one hand, she can be seen as ground-breaking, as she was one of the first sympathetic depictions of a sex worker in modern fiction.
One the other hand, so much of her character is informed by stereotypes that it’s difficult to say if this still holds up. Nancy is a stereotypical ‘Tart with a Heart’ – a sex worker who, despite their general dissatisfaction with both their life and their work, remains an essentially ‘good’ character. This problematic belief stigmatises sex work as corrupting and degrading, and something from which sex workers need to be saved, rather than acknowledging the many different attitudes that the many different kinds of sex workers can have towards their trade.
Nancy also falls under the ‘maternal instincts’ branch of female stereotypes. Her sympathy for Oliver – a very young, innocent and sweet-looking child – is directly attributed to the awakening of her maternal instincts. She barely knows this child – and has already been surrounded by other, less cute children in exactly the same position that Oliver is in – and yet suddenly, she starts reconsidering her entire life simply because she starts feeling protective of him. This is pretty problematic too, as it reinforces the belief that all women want to be mothers. This is something that pops up in Dickens’ wider body of work quite frequently: he frequently uses a lack of maternal instincts as a quick way of characterising an ‘unnatural’, and therefore bad, woman.
But the most significant way in which Nancy relates to gender stereotypes is in her relationship with Bill Sikes. Bill Sikes is an amoral, violent, drunken sociopath, and Nancy just loves him to bits. She’s half-frightened of him through most of the novel, he doesn’t appreciate the efforts she makes on his behalf (when she nurses him back to health, he complains about how tired she looks), and it’s made very clear to the reader that he physically beats her. And yet, she never once entertains the idea of leaving him, or even turning him over to the authorities. This ultimately leads to her downfall, as she turns down an offer to leave the country in order to stay with him – just before he beats her to death.
I’m in two minds about this relationship. On the one hand, it’s a pretty realistic depiction of how abusive relationships work in real life. Nancy doesn’t want Bill to beat her, she knows that he doesn’t love her as much as she loves him, and she’s almost constantly afraid of him. Yet she still keeps going back to him – mainly because she’s had such a loveless life that she jumps at any scraps of affection he throws her way. This is an extremely realistic depiction of how some abusive relationships can work in real life, and the novel outright acknowledges it as unhealthy.
But on the other hand, it’s also pretty clear that this relationship is being played up for the readers’ titillation. The scene where Bill Sikes beats her to death – which may have actually been based on a real murder – is described in such gory detail that it seems almost lurid. When you compare this scene to the other death scenes in the novel it sticks out like a sore thumb. Most other death scenes in the book treat their subject with a certain amount of dignity, allow the other characters to mourn them, and the last we see of that character usually reinforces their humanity. Nancy is afforded no such gentle treatment: no-one mourns her, she dies pleading for her life, and the last we see of her is a bloody corpse on the floor.
It’s pretty easy to draw some extremely unfortunate conclusions here. There are numerous contemporary accounts of Dickens performing this scene at public readings and working himself into a frenzy, and despite all the Victorian condemnation, this seems to be a certain amount of sordid fascination with this scene. What’s more, there’s no getting away from the fact that Nancy is a sex worker – a profession the Victorians associated with moral degradation and sin – and in some ways, the violent manner of her death seems a little bit like a punishment. If we look at the rest of his work, it seems extremely unlikely that Dickens would have killed off a female character from any other section of society in such a violent manner.
In short, Nancy’s violent death is loaded with unfortunate implications about the social aspect of female purity and their worth as human beings. It’s easy to argue that her death is realistic for someone of her position in that era, but I think that when you compare it to Dickens’s wider body of work, it’s pretty clear that there’s something more at work here. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Nancy doesn’t really relate to many other female characters at all. We know she’s friends with her fellow prostitute, Bet, but this isn’t explored in any significant amount of detail. The most significant relationship she has is with Rose Maylie, a young society lady. This relationship is really use to illustrate Rose’s goodness and to set up a contrast between the two of them, and while Rose does offer Nancy some genuine sympathy, Nancy becomes so snivellingly deferential that the whole thing just reeks of classism. There are moments where a much more complex relationship can be glimpsed, but it’s not enough to redeem it entirely. I’m withholding the point.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
Nancy is a consistent character with clearly defined goals and beliefs who goes on a complex journey throughout the story, but she still hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t really have any significant relationships with other female characters, she doesn’t really have a weakness and her character is overloaded with unfortunate implications about sex, class and gender.
But I think she’s still a worthwhile character. Dickens’s female characters are often overshadowed by their male counterparts, and tend to fall into the ‘demure little angel’ bracket more often than not. Nancy is a much more complex and well-developed character than any of the other female characters in Oliver Twist, and certainly stands head and shoulders over many of Dickens’s other female characters. She may have her flaws, but she’s still a very valuable character.
The next post in this series will be the fiftieth character I’ve looked at on this blog! How time flies. I’m planning something special for you guys – which might take me a little bit longer to put together, so it might not go up next weekend. I’ll be doing an extremely detailed analysis of a character who’s shaped modern fiction as we know it. She’s generated billions of dollars, has had her face slapped on everything from perfume bottles to bedsheets, and has altered the layouts of millions of bookshops just to suit her needs.
And I’m going to hate every minute of it.
Ladies and gentlemen:
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.