Nancy and the Slums

In chapter 40, Nancy confesses to Rose about Oliver’s true identity and the danger Monks wishes to put him in. At the end of the chapter, Rose begs Nancy to stay away from the people who put her in a danger and Nancy’s reply to her was deeply complicated. Dickens uses Nancy to talk about the social and physical environment people live in and how it affects their actions. 

Both Rose and Nancy have positive qualities, such as being loyal, but the response to these traits is treated differently. Nancy states, “Set our rotten hearts on any man, and let him fill the place that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us?… for having that turned, by a heavy judgment, from a comfort and a pride, into a new means of violence and suffering.’’(229).  Nancy because of the circumstances of her situation, reached out and formed connections to people who surround her such as Fagin. She has loyalty for men who would not treat her the same. Nancy’s loyalty is treated with ungratefulness and becomes the source of her pain and struggle. In turn, these characters helped shape her behavior and actions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Rose, who was surrounded by a good family, shows love and kindness and it seems to only bring those feelings back to her. 

People in the streets who have a conscience like Nancy feel like they can never atone for their sins and view themselves as tainted and tied to their past. Nancy explicitly states to Rose that she is too far beyond redemption. She states, “if you could take my life at once; for I have felt more grief to think of what I am, to-night, than I ever did before, and it would be something not to die in the hell in which I have lived”(229). Nancy’s horrible life circumstances are something she feels responsible for. She even believes that she is so fundamentally tainted that she prays she won’t be tortured the same way in hell. She won’t atone for sins because she feels guilty for and tied to her past. Dickins is using her as a metaphor for how people who want to become better have a very hard time being able to change because of both their past and the people they are surrounded by.

Nancy believes that her positive traits and morals, which led her to do the right thing by Oliver, will become another source of her suffering. By telling Rose, Nancy has a lot to lose from the consequences of her kind of actions and in the end, it leads to her death.

2 thoughts on “Nancy and the Slums”

  1. I love the idea you mentioned that Nancy feels deeply responsible and ashamed about her past when it is the people around her, the social hierarchy in the 19th century England, that are responsible for the crimes and poverty. Nancy, and even Fagin and Sikes, are victims of their time which I think is an implied theme throughout the novel. Nancy is only one amongst countless people who resort to crimes and undignified occupations under the pressure of living.

  2. There is so much that could be said about Nancy, and I think the term “complicated” can apply not just to her response to Rose, but to her character at large. She is inescapably tied up in issues of class and gender, and finds herself too entwined in criminal matters to even attempt changing her ways. She is also a fascinating character through which to consider gender roles, especially when thinking about the traits of loyalty and responsibility. As others have noted, Nancy’s loyalty to Sikes is the last bit of femininity she is able to hold on to. One might expect this feminine trait to be rewarded, especially in a character so distanced from traditional expectations of women; however, her deep feelings of loyalty and reluctance to break away from her circumstances ultimately have devastating consequences.

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