“‘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.