In Oliver Twist, Rose is described as the ideal woman, in sharp contrast to the low-class women in the novel. Her beauty, kindness, and virtue are emphasized in almost every passage she appears, which positions her as one of the few moral characters in the novel. In chapter 40, Rose and Nancy are presented as foils in respect to femininity, character, and class. This contrast highlights the novel’s theme of poverty leading to moral degradation, perhaps serving as a warning of Oliver’s future if he remains lower-class.
When Rose and Nancy meet for the first time, Rose is presented as a potential “savior” of Nancy’s abandonment of virtue and traditional womanhood. Rose’s kindness is explicitly connected to her femininity; Nancy is embarrassed when meeting her, as she has abandoned this softness and gentleness. Nancy is described as “the miserable companion of thieves and ruffians…even this degraded being felt too proud to betray a feeble gleam of the womanly feeling which she thought a weakness, but alone connected her with that humanity, of which her wasting life had obliterated so many, many traces when a very child” (225). This connects Nancy’s criminality and roughness to both her lower class and abandonment of her femininity. Her “wasting life,” or her suffering and desperation as a lifelong member of the lower class, “obliterated” her “womanly feeling,” which can be interpreted as her empathy and gentleness. Her life as a criminal, which originates in her childhood, makes her “degraded,” as she cannot express her deeply repressed softness.
Rose is the antithesis of Nancy’s class, femininity, and morality issues. Her willingness to be kind to a woman like Nancy is touted as an example of her unparalleled compassion. However, she goes further by attempting to rescue Nancy from her loss of virtue. Rose begs to Nancy, “do not turn a deaf ear to the entreaties of one of your own sex; the first, I do believe, that ever appealed to you in the voice of pity and compassion…It is never too late…for penitence and atonement” (238). As the ideal woman, Rose wants to return Nancy to her intrinsic virtue, or womanhood. Rose attempts to appeal to Nancy as “one of [her] own sex” in order to make her remember her innate goodness. Despite Nancy’s attempts to explain to Rose that her class status has trapped her in this life, Rose believes Nancy can express “penitence and atonement” and escape. This emphasizes Rose’s flawless empathy and belief in the goodness of others. However, as their conversation continues, it becomes clear that class is the ultimate division between Rose’s upmost morality and Nancy’s depravity.
The comparison between Rose and Nancy emphasizes the novel’s message of lower-class life leading to moral corruption. Nancy is just one of many women in the novel described as unattractive and unfeminine. These two women are symbolic of Oliver Twists’ two potential routes in life, as Rose and Nancy are each potential mother figures. Rose reflects and encourages Oliver’s innate goodness, while Nancy would lead him down a path of destruction, despite her attempts to save Oliver. Nancy’s death later in the novel emphasizes that she was unable to escape her life as a degenerate. Therefore, if Oliver is trapped in a lower-class life, he may also be forced to be corrupted.