Fagin erupts into a rage when the Dodger and Charley return without Oliver. Fagin tosses a pot of beer at Charley, but the pot hits Bill Sikes instead. Sikes is a rough, cruel man who makes his living by robbing houses. They resolve to find Oliver before he reveals their operation to the authorities, and persuade Nancy to go to the police station to find out what happened to him.
Nancy dresses in nice clothing, and at the police station she pretends to be Oliver’s distraught sister. She learns that the gentleman from whom the handkerchief was stolen took Oliver home with him to the neighborhood of Pentonville, because the boy had fallen ill during the trial. Fagin sends Charley, Jack, and Nancy to Pentonville to find Oliver. Fagin decides to relocate his operation for the night and fills his pockets with the watches and jewelry from the hidden box after Charley, Nancy, and Jack leave.
When Oliver next enters the housekeeper’s room, he notices that the portrait of the lady whom he resembles is gone. Mrs. Bedwin says that Brownlow removed it because it seemed to worry Oliver. One day, Brownlow sends for Oliver to meet him in his study. Assuming that Brownlow means to send him away, Oliver begs to remain as a servant. Brownlow assures Oliver that he wishes to be Oliver’s friend. He asks Oliver to tell him his history. Before Oliver can begin, Brownlow’s friend, Mr. Grimwig, arrives to visit.
Grimwig, a crotchety old man, hints that Oliver might be a boy of bad habits. Brownlow bears his friend’s eccentricity with good humor. Mrs. Bedwin brings in a parcel of books delivered by the bookstall keeper’s boy. Brownlow wishes to send his payment and some returns back with the boy, but he has already gone. Grimwig suggests that Brownlow send Oliver but hints that Oliver might steal the payment and the books. Wishing to prove Grimwig wrong, Brownlow sends Oliver on the errand. It grows dark and Oliver does not return.
Oliver takes a wrong turn on the way to the bookstall. Suddenly, Nancy appears. She tells everyone on the street that Oliver is her runaway brother who joined a band of thieves, and that she is taking him back home to their parents. Everyone ignores Oliver’s protests. Bill Sikes runs out of a beer shop, and he and Nancy drag Oliver through the dark backstreets.
Nancy, Sikes, and Oliver arrive at a dilapidated house in a squalid neighborhood. Fagin, the Dodger, and Charley laugh hysterically at the fancy clothing Oliver is wearing. Oliver calls for help and flees, but Sikes threatens to set his vicious dog, Bull’s-eye, on him. Nancy leaps to Oliver’s defense, saying that they have ruined all his good prospects. She has worked for Fagin since she was a small child, and she knows that a life of disrepute lies in wait for Oliver. Fagin tries to beat Oliver for his escape attempt, and Nancy flies at Fagin in a rage. Sikes catches Nancy by the wrists, and she faints. They strip Oliver of his clothing, Brownlow’s money, and the books. Fagin returns Oliver’s old clothing to him and sends him to bed. Oliver had given the clothing to Mrs. Bedwin, who sold it to a Jew, and the Jew then delivered the clothing to Fagin and told Fagin where Oliver was.
These chapters establish a relationship between clothing and identity. The disguise that Nancy wears when she enters the police station reveals key differences between the middle and lower classes in Victorian society. The crowning touch to her disguise is a plainly displayed door key, which marks her as a member of a property-owning class. Because she disguises herself as a middle-class woman, the legal system, in the form of the police station, recognizes her as an individual worth hearing. In the attire of the middle class, she gains both a social voice and social visibility. She becomes an individual rather than a member of the penniless mob.
Just as Nancy assumes a middle-class identity by changing her clothing, Oliver sheds his identity as a orphan pickpocket when he leaves behind his pauper’s clothes. Brownlow purchases an expensive new suit for him. Oliver thus assumes the identity of a gentleman’s son by wearing the clothing of a gentleman’s son. After he dons his new clothing, Mr. Brownlow asks him what he might like to be when he grows up. At the workhouse, the authorities never even bother to ask Oliver his opinion on the matter of his apprenticeship. In Victorian England, even more than today, an individual’s profession determined a large part of his or her identity. The fact that no one at the workhouse asks for Oliver’s opinion regarding his apprenticeship shows, once again, how much he is denied the right to define himself. Oliver’s situation symbolically represents the silence of the poor. The poor cannot define their social identity—instead, the empowered classes define the identity of the poor for them. Oliver and Nancy both gain a voice the moment they shed their pauper clothing.
Class identity is correlated not only with clothing, but with history as well. Once Oliver dons his fine clothes, Brownlow asks him to give his own version of his life history. Earlier in the novel, when Oliver wears pauper’s clothing, other people control his history and, therefore, his identity. When he is Sowerberry’s apprentice, Oliver attempts to assume control of his identity by denying Noah’s insults to his mother, but instead he receives a beating for trying to assert the correct version of his past. Once he sheds his pauper status, however, Oliver’s right to explain his past is firmly established. The fact that Oliver is an orphan further underscores his lack of connection to his past. Whereas the upper classes, and particularly members of the aristocracy, are able to establish their identities by tracing their genealogies, Oliver seems to have no genealogy.
Nancy imposes another false identity on Oliver in order to kidnap him: she calls him her “dear brother.” This statement is not entirely a fabrication—those who are denied families in the novel often seek out a family structure or are placed within family structures against their will. While a member of Fagin’s clan, Oliver is a figurative brother to Nancy, since both are subject to the paternal authority of Fagin and are dependent upon him for their food and shelter. Through Nancy’s regret at returning Oliver to Fagin, Dickens suggests that such a family, while providing companionship and a means for survival, is not ultimately nurturing or morally healthy. Nancy knows that for the rest of society, Oliver confirms the worst stereotypes of the poor as a member of Fagin’s pickpocket band. Oliver’s assumption of the identity of a thief comes with his assumption of the very same pauper’s rags he had worn before. Donning his old clothing, the most obvious indicator of his poverty, marks him as a representative of vice for -Victorian society.
Although most major characters in Oliver Twist are either paragons of goodness, like Oliver and Mr. Brownlow, or embodiments of evil, like Mr. Bumble, Fagin, and Sikes, Nancy’s behavior spans moral extremes. Dickens’s description of her manner as “remarkably free and agreeable,” combined with her position as a young, unmarried female pauper, strongly implies that she is a prostitute, a profession for which Dickens’s Victorian readers would have felt little sympathy. In his preface to the 1841 edition of the novel, Dickens confirms this implication, writing that “the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute.” She also spearheads the scheme to bring Oliver back into Fagin’s fold. But her outburst against Sikes and Fagin for seizing and mistreating Oliver demonstrates her deep and passionate sense of morality. Most other “good” characters we meet are good because they have no firsthand experience with vice and degradation. Nancy knows degradation perfectly well, yet she is good. Her character is a forum for the novel to explore whether an individual can be redeemed from the effects of a bad environment.
At the same time, some critics have suggested that Nancy’s speech, in which she announces her regret for having returned Oliver to Fagin’s care, hints that the boys might also be involved in prostitution. Nancy, pointing to Oliver, declares, “I have been in the same trade, and in the same service for twelve years since.” The fact that Nancy points to Oliver even as she speaks about herself implies an absolute identification between the two characters. About this detail, as about Nancy’s own identity as a prostitute, the narrative is purposely vague—Victorian sensibilities mandated that explicit references to sexuality were largely avoided.
This is my favourite ever book!
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Oh, Dickens, I expected much more from you: bad men go to prison or die, and good men live happily ever after with much money? I just... I don't know. I wanted something more.