Summary: Chapter 38

During a storm, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble travel to a sordid section of town near a swollen river to meet Monks in a decaying building. While Mr. Bumble shivers in fear, Mrs. Bumble coolly bargains with Monks. They settle on a price of twenty-five pounds for her information. Mrs. Bumble relates how Old Sally robbed Oliver’s mother. Mrs. Bumble says she discovered a ragged pawnbroker’s receipt in Old Sally’s dead hands and that she redeemed it for the gold locket, which she then hands to Monks. Inside, he finds a wedding ring and two locks of hair. The name “Agnes” is engraved on the ring, along with a blank for the surname. Monks ties the locket to a weight and drops it into the river.

Summary: Chapter 39

Bill Sikes is ill with a fever. Nancy nurses him anxiously, despite his surly attitude. Fagin and his friends drop in to deliver wine and food. Sikes demands that Fagin give him money. Nancy and Fagin travel to Fagin’s haunt. He is about to delve into his store of cash when Monks arrives and asks to speak to Fagin alone. The two men leave for a secluded room, but Nancy follows them and eavesdrops. The narrator does not reveal the content of the conversation. After Monks departs, Fagin gives Nancy the money. Perturbed by what she has heard, she dashes into the streets and away from Sikes’s residence before returning to deliver the money. Sikes does not notice her nervousness until a few days later. Sensing something, he demands that she sit by him. After he falls asleep, she hurries to a hotel in a wealthy area. She begs the servants to allow her to speak to Miss Maylie, who is staying there. Disapprovingly, they conduct her upstairs.

Summary: Chapter 40

Pity us, lady—pity us for having only one feeling of the woman left and for having that turned . . . from a comfort and a pride into a new means of violence and suffering.

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Nancy confesses to Rose that she is the one who kidnapped Oliver on his errand for Mr. Brownlow. She relates that she overheard Monks tell Fagin that he is Oliver’s brother. Monks wants Oliver’s identity to remain unknown so that Monks himself can claim their family’s full inheritance. Monks would kill Oliver if he could do so without endangering himself. He has also promised to pay Fagin if Oliver is recaptured. Rose offers to help Nancy leave her life of crime. Nancy replies that she cannot, because she is attached to Sikes despite his abusive ways. She refuses Rose’s money. Before leaving, Nancy informs Rose that she can be found on London Bridge between eleven and twelve every Sunday night in case further testimony is needed.

Summary: Chapter 41

Not long after Nancy and Rose’s meeting, Oliver tells Rose that he saw Mr. Brownlow on the street. Oliver and Mr. Giles have ascertained Brownlow’s address, so Rose immediately takes Oliver there. Mr. Grimwig is visiting when they arrive. Rose tells Brownlow that Oliver wants to thank him. Once Rose and Brownlow are alone, she relates Nancy’s story. Oliver is brought in to see Brownlow and Mrs. Bedwin. After their happy reunion, Brownlow and Rose relay Nancy’s information to Mrs. Maylie and Losberne. Brownlow asks if he can include Grimwig in the matter, and Losberne insists that they include Harry. They agree to keep everything a secret from Oliver and decide to contact Nancy the following Sunday on London Bridge.

Analysis: Chapters 38–41

The title of Oliver Twist is deceptively simple. Although it does nothing more than state the protagonist’s name, the central mystery of the novel is, in fact, the protagonist’s true identity. Oliver’s misfortunes have had much to do with the false or mistaken identities others have thrust upon him. Dickens conceals the solution to the mystery of his true identity, leaving just a clue here and there in order to move the plot forward. Various people seek to conceal Oliver’s identity for their own personal gain. Oliver’s identity is intertwined with Monks’s identity, and the connection between the two of them has shrouded both their identities in mystery. Once it becomes clear that Oliver and Monks are brothers, the novel enters its final stage. We begin to have some idea of who Oliver might be, but the story continues since Oliver himself has yet to find out.

Read more about how the influence of blood ties can be felt even before anyone knows those ties exist.

The meeting of Nancy and Rose represents the clash of two very different worlds. Rose has been raised amid love and plenty, and, as a result, her virtue and kindness are almost unreal. On the other hand, Nancy has struggled for survival in the streets, and instead of conventional virtue, her life is full of crime and violence. Yet both were once penniless, nameless orphans. Rose simply had the good luck to be taken in by Mrs. Maylie, who offered her a road of escape from her unfortunate position. Now, Rose offers Nancy a similar road of escape, but it is already too late for Nancy. Their characters can be seen as part of Dickens’s argument that the environment in which people are raised and the company that they keep have a greater influence on their quality of character than any inborn traits. Rose and Nancy were born in similar circumstances: only the environment in which each was raised has made them so different.

Nancy’s decision to confront Rose with information about Oliver stands in opposition to her earlier decision to drag Oliver back to Fagin. Just as Nancy causes Oliver to become a thief earlier in the novel by sending him to Fagin, her decision to reveal the information she holds regarding his inheritance may cause him to become wealthy. Furthermore, Nancy’s honorable act directly contradicts Victorian stereotypes of the poor as fundamentally immoral and ignoble. It demonstrates that there are different levels of vice and that an individual who partakes of one level does not necessarily partake of the others. Nancy has been a thief since childhood, she drinks to excess, and she is a prostitute. Despite these tainting circumstances, however, she is incredibly virtuous where the most important matters, those of life and death, are concerned. With her character, Dickens suggests that the violation of property laws and sexual mores is not incompatible with deep generosity and morality.

Read more about how Dickens approaches Victorian stereotypes.

In many ways, Nancy, the paragon of vice, appears here as more virtuous than Rose, the paragon of virtue. Rose stands to lose nothing by helping Oliver, but Nancy could lose her life. Fagin’s central threat to keep his associates from acting against his interests is the threat of legal “justice.” He knows in intimate detail the criminal activities of everyone in his social circle. Fagin can send Nancy to the gallows for talking to anyone outside his circle of criminal associates.

Nancy regrets her life of vice, but she refuses Rose’s offer to help her change it. Nancy sees herself, as Rose puts it, as “a woman lost almost beyond redemption.” It seems as if she herself assimilates to the judgments that intolerant characters like Mr. Bumble have passed upon her. Yet Nancy’s love for Sikes is more crucial to her decision to return to her old life than any belief that she has strayed too far from the path of moral goodness. The different light in which society treats Nancy’s and Rose’s romantic attachments reveals the extent of its prejudices against the poor. It is considered a virtue when a woman like Rose is unconditionally faithful to a respectable young man like Harry Maylie. Yet when a woman like Nancy displays the same fidelity to a dreadful fellow like Sikes, it becomes “a new means of violence and suffering.” This contrast demonstrates that socioeconomic status has the power to color all aspects of an individual’s life, even the private emotions of love and sentiment.

Read more about purity in a corrupt city as a theme.