April 09, 2012

What Nancy did

Oliver Twist is remembered for a number of things- Fagin and antisemitism, Sikes and his dog, the Artful Dodger, Master Bates and much more. Nancy is one of the characters that everyone remembers- mainly because of her death. Ferociously bludgeoned to death by Sikes after she is suspected of betraying the gang, Nancy dies in a peculiarly horrific way- so horrific that her friend Bet who identifies the body, is led away to Bedlam straight afterwards. The press have ever since concentrated on the melodrama of Nancy's end. There is an interesting question that has to be answered about why Dickens killed Nancy in this horrific way- some have argued for a feminist interpretation of Nancy's death or an interpretation about Dickens's rejection of his own working class past. Others might argue that Dickens was thinking as a novelist, trying to design a shocking end for Nancy and finally undermine any sympathy that we might have for Sikes and Fagin.

Attending too much to Nancy's end though misses I think the way that contemporaries read the novel- they had to wait weeks between segments- and therefore something crucial about Nancy's character. If one interesting question about Nancy is why was she killed so horrifically (in a way that no film maker save for (to his credit) David Lean has ever tried to convey)- then another is why did she sympathise so much for Oliver and therefore why does she come to Rose Maylie. Again its worth thinking about when she does this- she is sympathetic to Oliver when he comes back to the gang after his kidnap (by her and Sikes) on the street. She is sympathetic before the house breaking that Oliver goes to with Sikes. By the time that she goes to Rose Maylie, Oliver is actually safe in the Maylie household: again this is an important absense from most of the film versions. Most of the film versions have Nancy directly saving Oliver from Fagin and Sikes by revealing his place of concealment: but that is not what she does. Instead she is the person who reveals the deception by Monks to conceal Oliver's true birth.

Most of the film versions change this I think because it renders Nancy more sympathetic- its less convoluted. Dickens doesn't do it though. The answer I think to the question about Nancy's 'betrayel' reveals why she does what she does regarding Monks. Nancy we are told throughout is a strong willed girl- her own declared age is probably in her late teens or early twenties, what she says about Oliver is interesting. She tells Fagin when she first fears he will enter the trade, that he like her might learn to live with a home on the streets. She tells Rose that she will in the end end up in the Thames, her body floating down river. She doesn't envisage living beyond forty. She says to Fagin and Sikes that they will ruin Oliver's life. So what she does in the exchange with Rose is not merely try and rescue Oliver directly, she does something more noble- she tries to rescue Oliver's future and she succeeds. Nancy's strength is not just her sympathy for Oliver's immediate plight but her sympathy for Oliver as a human being with a future of his own that cannot and should not be betrayed. I think its that that the Monks declaration reveals and that's the quality that leads her to betray Sikes.

That also places Nancy on the other side of Dickens's philosophy (to say the Bumbles)- philosophy leads people to evaluate others directly on their immediate circumstances- it leads people to evaluate others as objects or numbers. What Nancy does is in direct contravention to that principle- obeyed by Fagin as much as anyone else- because she takes an irrational sympathy to Oliver and eventually acts on that principle and dies. That's why Nancy is such a key character in Oliver Twist- she embodies empathy.