Analysis: Chapters 13–16
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.