The character of a woman is evident through the inside and out. People look at the
external person and from one glance they make judgments. From a single look people make a
story for a stranger. However, the morals and actions of a person define who she is. Through
descriptions, dialogue and overall text, Dickens portrays his characters and invites you through
the doorway to characters’ souls. Nancy becomes reacquainted with readers and as the layers of
her character are unwrapped, the core of who she is slowly shines brighter.
Charles Dickens gives us a first glance at Nancy, similar to briefly looking at a person
crossing the street. In a few short sentences we are given a sliver of her appearance. Nancy meets
her audience as a long-haired, untidy, made-up, hearty lady. First impressions are extremely
varied. Oliver sees this stranger as “very nice” while any knowledgeable reader would shrink
away in scorn. From her outer appearance society automatically labels her as a dirty prostitute
and assumes her soul is dark and her morals lost.
Nancy goes on to befriend Oliver. In the musical Oliver! this is evident through the song
“I’d Do Anything.” Despite the horrible assumptions, she shows her loving side. She gains the
trust of this innocent boy and in his naiveté he admires her. He sees the joviality of Nancy and is
blind to the evident signs of prostitution. Oliver Twist genuinely befriends her and Nancy
recognizes that and gains a soft spot for the boy. Nancy experiences true love in the form of
Oliver in a world that hates her.
Bill enters the story as a ruthless, violent, drunkard. He hates the world and the world
hates him. Nancy lives with this ardent man and seems to be governed by him. Every command
is followed and she plays a good servant. He treats her like a dog and she stays with him still.
She fears the ever-rising anger of Bill and submits to his will. Threatened and abused, she
appears to stay because of her dependence on him. As a single woman and prostitute, she seems
to risk Bill’s ire to keep her safe but the musical reveals the opposite.
“As Long as He Needs Me” is a song in the musical theatre that stars Nancy as her
feelings for Bill are revealed. While previously portrayed as dependent on Bill, this song reverses
the roles. “As long as life is long, I’ll love him right or wrong, and somehow I’ll be strong as
long as he needs me.” This verse shows the inner strength of Nancy. She puts up with beatings
and abuses because of her loyalty to Bill. She goes on to say: “When someone needs you, you
love them so. I won’t betray his trust, though people say I must.” She continues to help Bill
throughout struggles and refuses to listen to peers. This song shows her inner fortitude and
readers get a sense that she is morally stronger than Bill Sikes.
This intense loyalty to Bill does not always reap rewards. When pressured by Fagin and
Sikes, she kidnaps Oliver. This is done for Bill’s safety; however when the boy seems miserable
she starts to doubt. Protesting the enslavement of Oliver she falters in her steadfast loyalty.
Working in the shadows she tries to find a way to help Oliver. Keeping appearances she
continues to do Bill’s bidding and delivers Oliver to Bill.
The news of the robbery crushes her. The two people she had ever cared for were in great
danger. Her soul becomes conflicted. Her love for Bill and the righteousness represented in
Oliver go head to head. She initially finds rest in Oliver’s safety from Fagin, either through death
or other means. However, after realizing the implications and dangers for Bill she adds: “As long
as Bill is safe.” Before that moment her desires for Sikes and Oliver existed separately and, for
the most part, in harmony, but in this instance her loyalty questions her character. She had
reached a fork in the road and it could tear apart her old life and justify her or preserve the old
life and close the door to righteousness.
Nancy is originally perceived by the audience as completely immoral and without a soul.
Her inner battle gives proof to the existence of both: the struggle between sin and merit, wrong
and right; despair and hope. Choosing Bill would degrade her in the eyes of readers but maintain
her safety. Helping Oliver would bring strife and pain but would also justify and redeem her
before readers. The choice she decides to make defines her and changes the readers’
perspectives. This choice forces a lens on the audience’s eyes as they judge her.
The lens she chooses is one of righteousness. Nancy goes behind Bill’s back, comes out
of her former life and seeks help for Oliver. She risks her relationship and health to go to Rose
Maylie. She becomes two-faced and in this instance it was good. Pretending to be faithful to Bill
but in reality exerting her efforts for the boy, she becomes a savior figure for Oliver. The
unworthy prostitute has become a righteous helper.
It is easy to perform good deeds with no opposition. However, when confronted, the true
character of a person is revealed. After being followed by Noah Claypole, the gang knows of
Nancy’s secret. Bill, showing his innate fear, lashes out. He charges into her room and starts to
beat her. Nancy tries to persuade him to change his life. Still clinging to her love for Bill, she
offers him a fresh start. Because Brownlow offered her grace, she extended grace to a man who
would rather kill her than humble himself. Throughout all this, she is faithful to Oliver and
proves her wealth of character.
Upon Nancy’s death, readers can finally see who she is: a woman flung into the abyss of
society who chose to hope and climb towards righteousness. Even after her death Nancy
influenced people. Eventually, Oliver became the adopted son of Mr. Brownlow. However,
above that, Nancy became a figure of high moral character despite her low social status. She
defies the English society by becoming upright. From prostitute to savior, Nancy is uplifted in
the eyes of the audience.