Do you know who you are, and what you are?
Sikes responds to Nancy’s rage at the gang’s cruel and threatening treatment of Oliver after they have captured him from Mr. Brownlow’s home. Sikes reminds Nancy of her life as a criminal. As such, she has little power to boost her defense of Oliver, and Sikes attempts to remind her to return to her “appropriate role” of carrying out his commands.
He’s a thief, a liar, a devil, all that’s bad, from this night forth. Isn’t that enough for the old wretch, without blows?
Almost as soon as Oliver rejoins Fagin’s gang, Nancy tries to protect him. She has come to realize the crucial role she has played in ruining Oliver’s life. Fagin and Sikes will turn Oliver into a criminal, just like themselves. Nancy has her own experience with being adopted by Fagin’s gang as a child and becoming enmeshed in a sordid life. Her defense of Oliver provides the first clue of the goodness in her heart.
“I have saved you from being ill-used once, and I will again, and I do now,” continued the girl aloud; “for those who would have fetched you, if I had not, would have been far more rough than me. I have promised for your being quiet and silent; if you are not, you will only do harm to yourself and me too, and perhaps be my death.”
Before Oliver leaves with Sikes to burgle the country house, Nancy reminds Oliver of all he owes her. She protected him from beatings and abuse at Fagin’s house, but ultimately she can’t prevent him from committing this act of wrongdoing. Further, Nancy threatens and manipulates Oliver to ensure his compliance. While Nancy initially acted out of compassion for Oliver, her connections to the gang and Sikes ensure that she cannot act solely in the boy’s interest.
Nancy, indeed, was not exempt from a failing which was very common among the Jew’s female pupils; and in which, in their tenderer years, they were rather encouraged than checked. Her disordered appearance, and a wholesale perfume of Geneva which pervaded the apartment, afforded strong confirmatory evidence of the justice of the Jew’s supposition; . . . that she was very far gone indeed.
The narrator explains that while waiting for Sikes and Oliver to return from their burglary attempt, Nancy gets drunk, a common habit among the girls in Fagin’s gang. Doubtless, Fagin encourages them to drink alcohol, both as a way of keeping them under his control and a means of allowing them to dull their pain at their bleak lifestyle. Drunk prostitutes are easier to manipulate. Yet despite her inebriation, Nancy still takes active measures against Fagin and his vile plans with Monks.
“Such a number of nights,” said the girl, with a touch of woman’s tenderness, . . . “such a number of nights as I’ve been patient with you, nursing and caring for you, as if you had been a child[.]”
Nancy reveals that she has been nursing Sikes tenderly for several days. This scene shows her compassion, which the reader has thus far mainly seen directed toward Oliver, as well as the depth of her attachment to Sikes. Despite her numerous vices, Nancy continues to emerge as a good-hearted person who deeply cares for others. Clearly, Nancy lives as a victim of poverty and neglect, but with a different background, Nancy’s character would resemble that of Rose.
“Thank Heaven upon your knees, dear lady,” cried the girl, “that you had friends to care for and keep you in your childhood, and that you were never in the midst of cold and hunger, and riot and drunkenness, and—and—something worse than all—as I have been from my cradle. I may use the word, for the alley and the gutter were mine, as they will be my deathbed.”
Nancy presents a frank assessment to Rose of the deprivation of her childhood. This bleak picture of life among the impoverished of London helps explain how Nancy became part of Fagin’s gang when she was a child. Indeed, squalid though his home may be, at least his place offers walls and a roof. Nancy’s speech also reveals her belief that her life will never demonstrably improve. Given this mindset, her continued attachment to Sikes makes sense.
I must go back. Whether it is God’s wrath for the wrong I have done, I do not know; but I am drawn back to him through every suffering and ill usage; and I should be, I believe, if I knew that I was to die by his hand at last.
After Rose urges Nancy to stay with her and seek safety, Nancy refuses and declares she will return to Sikes. On the one hand, Nancy seems to see the suffering she endures through her relationship with Sikes as penance for her own misdeeds. At the same time, however, she truly loves Sikes, an affection that proves her fatal undoing. Indeed, in this speech Nancy foretells her own imminent death.
You can do nothing to help me. I am past all hope, indeed.
After Nancy shares her information about Monks with Mr. Brownlow and Rose, Mr. Brownlow asks how he can help her. Like Rose earlier, he would like to provide Nancy, whom he recognizes as a good person caught in a bad situation, a way out. But she refuses Mr. Brownlow’s offer to start a new life elsewhere, just as she refused Rose’s efforts to help, for Nancy views her future as fixed. Though she claims to hate her old life, she willingly accepts and returns to what feels familiar.
“Home, lady,” rejoined the girl. “To such a home as I have raised for myself with the work of my whole life.”
In conversation with Rose and Mr. Brownlow about her insistence on returning to Sikes, Nancy implies that she deserves nothing better. Nancy has already explained that her entire life has been filled with drunkenness, homelessness, and misdoings. She knows that she has been a willing part of this depraved lifestyle, even if she had little choice in her companions and profession. She cares little for what happens to her own self because she thinks she is worthless.