Nancy’s Death: Religion, Class, and Responsibility

“‘The gentleman, and that dear lady, told me to-night of a home in some foreign country where I could end my days in solitude and peace. Let me see them again, and beg them, on my knees, to show the same mercy and goodness to you; and let us both leave this dreadful place, and far apart lead better lives and forget how we have lived, except in prayers, and never see each other more. It is never too late to repent. They told me so – I feel it now – but we must have time – a little, little time!’” 

“She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief – Rose Maylie’s own – and holding it up, in her folded hands as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.” 

(p. 271, end of ch. 48)

 

Upon reading this passage, I was struck by the Christian religious imagery associated with Rose Maylie and Nancy’s last moments. Rose is presented almost as a religious figure who can offer mercy and salvation to Nancy. Rose is described elsewhere in the text as angelic and heavenly (158), and she could be read as an allegory for the Virgin Mary – she is young, pure, kind, and a mother figure to Oliver. Looking closely at the language in these paragraphs, Nancy’s proposition of asking Rose and Mr. Brownlow for help has several religious connotations. The phrase “let me see them again, and beg them, on my knees, to show the same mercy and goodness to you” presents Nancy as a repentant sinner, and Rose and Mr. Brownlow as her kind and merciful saviors. “It is never too late to repent” could be taken verbatim from a sermon or a biblical passage. Nancy’s prayer as she dies parallels her desire for help from Rose. It also cements Rose in a religious context: Nancy falls to her knees and raises Rose’s handkerchief as she prays, as if asking Rose to intercede on her behalf. There is also specific language repeated in the two passages: notably, “‘on my knees’/on her knees” in supplication as Nancy asks Rose/“her Maker” for mercy. The word “mercy” is repeated in both passages as well, drawing a further connection between Rose and a merciful savior. 

Placing Rose Maylie in a religious context raises questions about the upper class as the saviors of the lower working class. What is the effect of this association? Are readers supposed to view the upper class, who have the power to help those less fortunate, as holy and superior? If taken out of context, that might be the message one takes from this passage. However, Dickens demonstrates that power and authority do not necessarily make someone a good person. Throughout the novel, corruption and cruelty run rampant amongst the middle and upper class, and Rose Maylie appears to be a kind outlier. So perhaps it is not a question of class and authoritative positions as religious allegory, but a question of responsibility. What should people do with the power that has been given to them? Who is able to save whom, and are they expected or willing to do so? There is also a point to make about goodness, cruelty, and the class divide. Nancy, despite everything about her life and her circumstances, is kind to Oliver and makes an effort to help him, even though this puts her at great risk and eventually leads to her death. Meanwhile, characters in more fortunate circumstances are often cruel, self-centered, and cynical: consider Mrs. Mann, who spends the money provided for the orphans on herself; or Mr. Grimwig, judgemental and confident that Oliver is a thief. 

In the preface, Dickens claims that “I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral” (ix). One might expect these “dregs of life” to be people like Fagin, Sikes, and Nancy; however, people of power and authority are often just as rough and cruel as those within the lower class. Dickens presents the idea that the lower class is full of vice and the upper class is virtuous, then flips that idea on its head and shows goodness in “paupers” and cruelty in authority. However, neither Oliver Twist nor the real world is quite so black and white, and Rose Maylie and Nancy both demonstrate that caring for and helping others is the most admirable choice one can make. 

3 thoughts on “Nancy’s Death: Religion, Class, and Responsibility”

  1. I really enjoyed this analysis of Rose Maylie as a religious figure, and I agree– Dickens seems intent on painting an image for us of the ideal woman of the day: motherly without being matronly, kind without being condescending, and merciful without being arrogant. We see a number of portraits of other women who fail, by one standard or another, to achieve the purity and goodness of Rose. The association of Rose Maylie with the Virgin Mary becomes religiously tense during the passage where Nancy all but prays to her.
    Catholics believe in the necessity of praying to Mary for her intercession on man’s behalf and the facilitation of one’s prayers/desires and God. Protestants do not believe in praying to Mary, but to the one true God and consider Christ the sole mediator between man and God. If Nancy, a sinner, believes in the religious ability of Rose (Mary) to intercede for her and forgive her sins (or facilitate, in effect, the forgiveness of God), then she is displaying decidedly Catholic sentiments. Because Catholicism was at a remarkable lull in 1837 when Oliver Twist was published (see citation below), it seems odd that Dickens, a popular English author, would invoke such Catholic feeling and action. I think there’s a lot more to be said (read: researched) about Dickens’s own religious leanings and the degree of influence they had on his works, but I think you’ve grabbed onto a really interesting and socially fraught religious undercurrent!

    “The years from 1688 to the early 19th century were in some respects the lowest point for Catholicism in England. Deprived of their dioceses, four Apostolic Vicariates were set up throughout England until the re-establishment of the diocesan episcopacy in 1850. Although the persecution was not violent as in the past, Catholic numbers, influence and visibility in English society reached their lowest point. The percentage of the population that was Catholic may have declined from 4% in 1700 (population 5.2 millions) to 1% 1800 (population of 7.25 million) with absolute numbers halved.”

    Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_in_England_and_Wales#cite_note-74 which is referencing: Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673–1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

  2. Something that stood out to me in your post was your mention of Nancy’s kindness to Oliver. I think that this characteristic is the reason readers sympathize with Nancy so much. Amidst all the corruption and crime of London, Nancy remains kind-hearted. I often saw her as a foil to Rose Maylie. Rose was also an orphan, and if circumstances had been different, she could have ended up like Nancy. It’s interesting to think about how Rose was mentioned just before Nancy’s death as these two women seemed to be intrinsically linked all throughout the novel. As we talked about in class, the reason Nancy doesn’t receive salvation and mercy could be that she has had premarital sex and Rose has not. This could be another critique of religion as some religious people may seem this punishment as fitting for Nancy because of her actions.

  3. I like the provocative question: “what should people do with the power that has been given to them?” Starting in one of the very first scenes with the “gentleman in the white waistcoat” or with the police magistrate we are given images of those in authority abusing their power or exercising their power to harm the innocent. I think Dickins may be making a statement about the political influence and governing oversight of the institutions of the day to criticize the manner in which justice was decided.

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