‘Suppose that lad that’s laying there—’ Fagin began. […]
‘Suppose that lad,’ pursued Fagin, ‘was to peach—to blow upon us all—first seeking out the right folks for the purpose, and then having a meeting with ’em in the street to paint our likenesses, describe every mark that they might know us by, and the crib where we might be most easily taken. Suppose he was to do all this, and besides to blow upon a plant we’ve all been in, more or less—of his own fancy; not grabbed, trapped, tried, earwigged by the parson and brought to it on bread and water,—but of his own fancy; to please his own taste; stealing out at nights to find those most interested against us, and peaching to them. Do you hear me?’ cried the Jew, his eyes flashing with rage. ‘Suppose he did all this, what then?’ (Dickens 403-04).
Fagin begins suspecting Nancy’s disloyalty to their merry band of thieves because of her erratic (rebellious) behavior and anxiousness to escape Sikes’s home one Sunday night. Fagin charges Noah Claypole to follow Nancy the next Sunday night when she attends a covert rendez-vous with Mr. Brownlow and Rose. Nancy tells them of Monks’ sinister plot to deprive Oliver of his inheritance while also alluding to the roles of Fagin, Sikes, and co. in the plot. However, she refuses to implicate her associates with concrete details. Nonetheless, Noah snitches on Nancy to Fagin, who is enraged by this news.
Fagin is manipulative, possessive, and selfish throughout the novel. However, this is him at his most wicked. He wants Nancy dead but rather than kill her himself, he manipulates someone else into doing the work—similar to his employment of children to steal for him. Through his repeated use of the word “suppose,” Fagin conditions Sikes into accepting an ugly truth that he would’ve rejected had the former told him outright. Fagin gauges the barbarian’s temperament and provokes his rage by rubbing in Sikes’s face that the impeacher might’ve condemned them all while preserving his/her own freedom. Once assured that Sikes would kill the culprit, whether it be “Charley, or the Dodger, or Bet,” (Dickens 404) or even Fagin himself, Fagin reveals it to be Nancy, and unleashes Bill Sikes and his violent fury in her direction. Sikes confronts Nancy and beats her to death with a club, then flees the scene.
In this passage, Dickens places Fagin’s cunning and cruelty on full display. Fagin commits indirect murder by convincing Bill Sikes, a violent and reckless criminal, that his girlfriend betrayed him and their crew. Ironically, Fagin’s deceit betrays them all; after murdering Nancy, Sikes is captured by the authorities and the rest of the thieves go soon afterwards. Even with this plausible risk looming ahead, Fagin provoked Sikes. This shows Fagin’s willingness to do whatever it takes to preserve himself and, by extension of the gang, his wealth.
As a commentary of contemporary society, Dickens not only depicts Fagin as a racial-caricature and a criminal mastermind, but as peer to the industrialists and avaricious leaders of the Victorian Era who, like Fagin, were responsible for atrocities they themselves didn’t commit.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2003.