8 of Air - Nancy
In the black and white world of Oliver Twist, where Fagin, Sikes, and Monks are irredeemably Bad and Oliver, Rose, and Brownlow are Good - perhaps irredeemably Good - Nancy is the one character of some moral ambiguity. Although a prostitute and a thief with a weakness for drink, she chooses to risk her own life in order to save Oliver's. Nancy's sacrifice, then, is the noblest in the novel – greater than Brownlow or Rosa's actions, which may appear in comparison naive, compulsive, or simply unbelievable.
In Oliver Twist's day, criticism was made of Dickens' characterization of Nancy – that he would depict a prostitute at all, let alone one capable of redemption. So unquestioned was the notion that a “fallen” woman was beyond any act of goodness that many found the character of Nancy completely unrealistic. To these people, a fallen woman able to comprehend and evaluate good and evil was both implausible and distasteful. But then, it was for these very people in a certain sense that Nancy was intended, just as they were the reason she had to die. In a novel which concerns itself with the way marginalized children are inveigled into a life of crime and questions if these societal outsiders can be saved, the boy hero Oliver may be plucked from the clutches of evil and placed in a "little society" of loving surrogate family, but Nancy - at 17, still a child herself - must pay with her life for daring to act above the constraints of her station. Nancy's death, then, is a concession to the mores of the era for both of her transgressions: her sinfulness and her heroic deed.
The Victorian era, where at its height the sight of a table leg was considered obscene, saw an unprecedented proliferation of prostitution. European visitors from more openly permissive cultures were frankly appalled at the number of London's teaming sex trade. Prostitution was not only legal but a tacitly understood necessity, since “the Angel of the House” was meant to minister to the domestic needs of her home and the emotional and spiritual needs of her husband rather than to his sexual needs - or her own, for that matter. The age of consent was 13, although many children younger than this were sold by their families, as evinced in Nancy who fell in with Fagin at age 5. Tellingly, prostitution and acting were the only professions open to women of the Victorian era that paid a living wage, the few others such as shop girl or mistress demanded supplementation – usually from a husband. Needless to say, the demand for actresses in Victorian England was small, whereas estimates put the number of prostitutes at the time at 80, 000. It is fitting then that we are never given Nancy's surname, representative as she is of the many nameless girls in her same position.
As with many victims, Nancy feels an intimate bond with her victimizer, Bill Sikes. In a pointed twist, a woman's subjugation to her man, prescribed and applauded by Victorian society, is revealed here through Nancy and Bill as little more than indenture and a license for cruelty. Nancy's attempted rebellion from this subjugation – subjugation sustained by a male network including Fagin, Monks, and Noah Claypool – leads to her violent beating death at the hands of her lover Bill Sikes, despite her careful refusal to name him directly. Nancy's actions do, nevertheless, lead to the dissolution of Sike's gang, his demise, Fagin's arrest, and Oliver's salvation.
Shorthand : Bondage - isolation enforced - severe difficulties - outward physical force vs. internal strength of Will - resolute apperception - right despite repeated coercion - indoctrination to the contrary - demoralization systematic - chance alignment -menace overcome - dastardly cunning - evil vanquished from within - a sacrifice here, the result: a salvation over there - assumption of villainy itself be villainous - the cycle of adversity, broken - wondrous Truth, revealed – for better and/or for worse – no anodyne process - rather forfeit, exacting cost - grasping at opportunity - ideas brooded and hatched - renunciations effaced - greater good - deep despair - certain fear - loyalties torn asunder - depending on vantage - betrayal - incredulous - furtiveness - forborne - self denied - possible martyrdom - altruism in all likelihood - self-righteousness now and again - violent submission - a life, in short, owed to another's sufferance.