Nancy’s Womanhood

“The girl’s life had been squandered in the streetsbuthere was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still… (Dickens 225, my emphasis). 

Dickens, at the opening of Chapter XL, enters into an examination of Nancy as she begins her epiphanic meeting with Rose Maylie. He explains that the girl’s [Nancy’s] life had been squandered in the streets…but there was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still…” (225, my emphasis). Dickens’s two major and contrasting portraits of womanhood are in Rose Maylie and Nancy, and here they collide–understanding the significance of having his Eve and Mary in the same room with one another, he opens the chapter immediately onto the heavy implications of “woman’s original nature” (225). His suggestion, in this sentence, is that “the streets” (more specifically “the stews and dens of London”) have worn Nancy’s innate womanly nature down to almost nothing. This “woman’s original nature” is distinct from femininity or sex appeal, from dress or general comportment; rather, “woman’s original nature” must be an impulse towards Dickens’s own ideas of morals, goodness, and doing-good.

He suggests that Nancy is a “girl” but that she retains some degree of “the woman” within her. This is the reverse of the general transition between girlhood and womanhood which comes with age, experience, and identity. To find “the woman’s original nature” in “the girl”, then, is to suggest a fundamental and indelible mark upon the soul and “nature” of women which makes them distinct from men and from their own earthly experience (all of the complex gender and sex implications of that suggestion are beyond the scope of my post). It is something that women are born with and which they carry as far as they can into the world, something that can be “squandered in the streets” via prostitution and coarse manners, male society and crime.  

Notably, Christianity teaches that all human beings are born with Original Sin—the sin of Eve, the first woman, in trusting the snake in the garden of Eden and leading humanity (and, perhaps more importantly to the Church, mankind) to Fall and lose the paradise and everlasting life which they originally possessed. As a result all children are born sinners, and women are additionally punished for this with the pain of childbirth. Dickens would have been intimately familiar with this mythology, yet he suggests that the innate impulse of women is not towards sin and the fall, but towards good-doing and morality. We see this when he suggests that, in giving in to her own ethical imperative of informing Rose Maylie about Oliver’s past and potential future, Nancy is giving into what is “left” of “woman’s original nature” within her. Though she is a “girl” rather than a “woman,” she has the germ of womanhood within her, and it is this womanhood which inspires the good deed which effectively kills her (the implications of the fact that Rose Maylie, unquestionably the pinnacle of the novel’s innate womanly goodness, is the person Nancy reveals her knowledge to, and that she dies after revealing it, is again beyond the scope of my post). Dickens is making a profound argument about gender, about women, and about the potential for redemption in this fragment of a sentence, which informs not only how we should read the femininity (and masculinity!) of this book, but how he intends to influence the moral makeup and religious influence of and over his readers. 

3 thoughts on “Nancy’s Womanhood”

  1. Julia, I enjoyed the connections you made between Nancy’s “original nature” and the biblical concept of the Original Sin, especially because that’s a topic we’ve touched in our Ulysses class and, for my FYS WA gig, I’ve read some papers that compare even Don Juan to Satan, drawing on their shared notoriety as seducers and deceivers. It’s just cool to talk about something in one class and have it apply to another, even if the subject material at hand is different or seemingly unrelated. This sounds immature but reading your post, I couldn’t help but hear, in my head, “she belong to the streets.” Sigh, what is this world coming to?

    You made some great observations. I’m glad that, in your argument, you acknowledged that Dickens’s personal opinions and agenda are likely the reason why he suggested that Nancy, a prostitute, is nonetheless “pure” or “good-intentioned” to some inherent degree, and this better nature of hers, although threatened and degraded by her squalor, perseveres, even if it catalyzes her death. With novels, no event should be taken for granted because the writer is the God of that world, so it’s nice that you assert Dickens’s decision to tell this skewed moral lesson.

  2. It was interesting to read how you connected what was “left” of Nancy’s womanhood to Original Sin. I was similarly trying to analyze what her last bit of womanhood can mean, when she mentioned it to Rose in their first conversation, and I definitely think that your connection here is helpful for understanding why this “love” or devotion to Sikes is presented as the last positive aspect of her womanhood.

    Tying in the concept of Original Sin also could shed light on why the women in the novel “have to die,” like we discussed in class. It seems like it could be an extension of the “innately sinful nature of women,” and women like Nancy and Agnes are continuing to take on the punishment of Eve’s actions. Your post does make the point that Dickens seems to be pointing away from the idea that women are innately drawn evil, and rather to good, but it should seem that this does not detract from the punishments they receive… I can’t say for sure what point that I believe Dickens is trying to make about gender, but I can’t seem to think of any other good reason for Dickens to have Sikes kill Nancy other than not being able to think of a more fitting ending/place in society for a girl who was formerly a prostitute and thief.

  3. Julia, I really enjoyed your post and thought it was well written. I like how you explained the “womanhood” in a girl, not a woman. I also like your point about redemption (or lack thereof) and how once Nancy confesses to Rose her sins, she will die soon after. I’m glad you mentioned the importance of looking at the masculinity in this book as well, because after reading your post it made me consider more how the men in Nancy’s life contributed to her lifestyle choices, like maybe prostitution. This point in your post made me start thinking about how femininity and masculinity are linked in this novel and that they may have more influence on one another than initially realized.

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