Nancy (Oliver Twist)
Ellie Wilkinson in the role of Nancy in 1910
|Created by||Charles Dickens|
|Portrayed by||Ellie Wilkinson
Elita Proctor Otis
Nancy is a fictional character in the novel Oliver Twist and its numerous theatre, television and motion picture adaptations. She is a member of Fagin's gang and the lover, and eventual victim, of Bill Sikes.
Though it is never explicitly stated in the novel, it is strongly implied that Nancy is a prostitute as well as a thief. Dickens expressly asserted this in his preface to the novel's 1841 edition ("the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute").
Despite her criminality, Nancy is portrayed as a sympathetic figure, whose concern for Oliver overcomes her loyalty to Sikes and Fagin. By the climax of the novel she is emaciated with sickness and worry, and filled with guilt about the life she is leading.
Nancy was tainted and played at a young age by Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods who persuades downtrodden youths to do his bidding. Her exact age is not mentioned in the book, although she says she has been a thief for 12 years (and began working for Fagin when she was half Oliver's age). From this it can be deduced that she is probably around seventeen. She is typically depicted in her teens or mid 20s in film versions of the novel. She apparently looks older than her years, as she tells Rose Maylie "I am younger than you would think, to look at me, but I am well used to it."
Nancy is one of the members of Fagin's gang that few, if any, know about in central London, since she has recently moved from the suburbs — something referred to by Sikes when he and Fagin, concerned that Oliver might inform on them, are trying to convince her to attend his impending trial after he is mistakenly arrested for pickpocketing ("No one around here knows anything about you"). Her excuse for not attending is that she does not wish anyone to know about her; nevertheless, she winds up attending it, presumably after having been physically threatened by Sikes.
In the novel she drinks heavily. She is described thus when she first appears:
|“||A couple of young ladies called to see the young gentlemen; one of whom was named Bet, and the other Nancy. They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and hearty."||”|
By the end of the novel Nancy has dramatically lost weight through anxiety. She is described as "so pale and reduced with watching and privation, that there would have been considerable difficulty in recognising her as the same Nancy who has already figured in this tale."
In the preface Dickens says in writing dialogue for Nancy, he deliberately avoided using the crude language that would have been used by a real person like Nancy:
|“||No less consulting my own taste, than the manners of the age, I endeavoured, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspect, to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could by possibility offend; and rather to lead to the unavoidable inference that its existence was of the most debased and vicious kind, than to prove it elaborately by words and deeds. In the case of the girl, in particular, I kept this intention constantly in view.||”|
Instead Nancy and her friend Bet are introduced using faux-genteel terminology, portrayed as if seen though Oliver's innocent eyes, but recognisably ironic to the reader. Bet's brash refusal to get something for Fagin is described as "a polite and delicate evasion of the request" showing "the young lady to have been possessed of natural good-breeding." Nancy's visit to the magistrates is described in similar language. Only later, when Nancy speaks to Rose, does she explicitly describe herself as degraded and corrupted. Their criminal enterprises are spoken of in euphemisms, creating for the reader a "game of guessing the crime".
Relationship to Oliver
Nancy, who is fiercely protective of Oliver and harbors a great deal of motherly affection and pity for him, tries to prevent him from being kidnapped a second time, after Oliver has finally managed to find safety in the household of the Maylie family, whom Sikes tried unsuccessfully to rob. She gives Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow, Oliver's benefactor, information about Oliver's evil half-brother Monks, who is in league with Fagin. However, she has managed to keep Bill's name out of it. But Fagin has sent a spy (Noah) out after her, and when the spy reports on what he has heard and seen, Fagin, furious at what she has done, tells Sikes about her actions. However, he twists the story just enough to make it sound as if she informed on him, knowing that this will probably result in her being murdered and thus silenced. It is her murder and the subsequent search for Sikes, her killer, that helps bring down Fagin's gang.
Nancy commits one of the most noble acts of kindness in the story when she ultimately defies Bill, in order to help Oliver to a better life, and she is subsequently martyred for it . Her character represented Dickens' view that a person, however tainted by society, could still retain a sense of good and redeem for past crimes. One of the main reasons Dickens puts Nancy in Oliver Twist is so that she can be contrasted with the pure, gentle Rose Maylie.
Role of the character
Dickens was criticized for using a character that was a thief. Dickens, however, defended his decision in the Preface to the story when it appeared in novel-form, explaining that it was his intention to show criminals, however petty, in "all their deformity", and that he had thought that dressing Nancy in anything other than "a cheap shawl" would make her seem more fanciful than real as a character.
Nancy is one of literature's earliest examples of the stock character of the “tart with a heart”—the stereotypical character of a tragic or fallen woman who makes her way through life through crime but is still a good and compassionate person.
- Stated by Charles Dickens in the preface of the 1841 edition of "Oliver Twist"
- Kitten, F., Dickens and his Illustrators, Redway, 1899, pp.10-11.
- Dickens, C., Oliver Twist, Chapter 39.
- Wolff, Larry, 'The Boys Are Pickpockets, and the Girl Is a Prostitute': Gender and Juvenile Criminality in Early Victorian England from Oliver Twist to London Labour", New Literary History, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp.227-249.
- Dickens, C., Oliver Twist, Chapter 13.