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Nancy is the sympathetic lover of Bill Sikes in the novel Oliver Twist, in its film versions, and in the stage and film version of the musical Oliver!. She is affectionately known by Fagin's boys and some others as "Nance".

Background

Nancy was corrupted at the age of six by Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods who persuades downtrodden youths to do his bidding. Her exact age is not mentioned in the book, although she has evidently been a prostitute for 12 years, and is visibly in her teens or mid 20s in film versions of the novel. Nancy is one of the members of Fagin's gang that few, if any, know about in London—something referred to by Sikes when he and Fagin, concerned that Oliver might inform on them, are trying to convince her to attend his impending trial after he is mistakenly arrested for pickpocketing ("No one around here knows anything about you"). Her excuse for not attending is that she does not wish anyone to know about her; nevertheless, she winds up attending it, presumably after having been physically threatened by Sikes. In the novel it is alluded to that she is a prostitute and she drinks heavily. She is described thus when she first appears "a couple of young ladies called to see the young gentlemen; one of whom was named Bet, and the other Nancy. They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of color in their faces, and looked quite stout and hearty."

She is beaten to death by Sikes because he mistakenly believes that she has informed on him, when the truth is that she has been trying not to involve Sikes in her efforts in order to insure his safety. Nancy, who is fiercely protective of Oliver and harbors a great deal of motherly affection and pity for him, has been trying to prevent him from being kidnapped a second time, after Oliver has finally managed to find safety in the household of the Maylie family, whom Sikes tried unsuccessfully to rob. She gives Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow, Oliver's benefactor, information about Oliver's evil half-brother Monks, who is in league with Fagin. However, she has managed to keep Bill's name out of it. But Fagin has sent a spy out after her, and when the spy reports on what he has heard and seen, Fagin, furious at what she has done, tells Sikes about her actions. However, he twists the story just enough to make it sound as if she informed on him, knowing that this will probably result in her being murdered and thus silenced. It is her murder and the subsequent search for Sikes, her killer, that helps bring down Fagin's gang.

In the musical Oliver!, Monks does not appear at all, and Oliver is still in the clutches of the gang when Nancy tries to help him. She makes arrangements to return him to Mr. Brownlow on London Bridgemarker at midnight, if Brownlow goes with no police. Sikes discovers that she is up to something, secretly follows her and Oliver to the bridge, and beats her to death on the spot after assuming that she has betrayed him. As in the novel, this is what brings down Fagin's gang, although Fagin is never caught in the musical, nor is he an accomplice to Nancy's murder (in a new scene written for the film version of the musical, the horrified Fagin tells Sikes "You shouldn't have done that!").

Nancy is murdered in her house in the novel, and in all film versions except the 1968 musical and the 1997 made-for-television film of the novel.

Nancy commits one of the most noble acts of kindness in the story when she ultimately risks her life to help Oliver. Her character represented Dickens' view that man, however tainted by society, could still retain a sense of good. One of the main reasons Dickens puts Nancy in Oliver Twist is so that she can be contrasted with the pure, gentle, yet also conniving if needed Rose Maylie.

Dickens was also criticized for using a character that was a "thieving, whoring, slut of the streets." Dickens, however, defended his decision in the Preface to the story when it appeared in novel-form, explaining that it was his intention to show criminals, however petty, in "all their deformity", and that he had thought that dressing Nancy in anything other than "a cheap shawl" would make her seem more fanciful than real as a character.

Nancy is one of literature's earliest examples of the stock character of the “tart with a heart”—the stereotypical character of a tragic or fallen woman who makes her way through life through crime and often earning a wage as a prostitute, but is still a good and compassionate person.

The steps leading up to London Bridgemarker, at the foot of which, in the musical Oliver!, Nancy is murdered, are named "Nancy's Steps". The plaque at the steps incorrectly states that Nancy was murdered there in the novel, in which she was actually murdered in her house.

See also



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