Nancy is a drab (prostitute) working for Fagin’s gang. Although this fact is mentioned anywhere in the novel, it is taken for granted and almost all the characters accept her as a drab and treat her accordingly. It is quite a different matter that her conduct in the novel is raised to tragic heights and her pathetic death sublimates her.
Nancy first enters with Bet who is a similar character but who does not play any active role in the novel. Their appearance is described from Oliver’s point of view: they wore a great deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and the stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and hearty. Most probably the colour in their face was an evidence of their habitual gin drinking. “Oliver thought them very nice girls indeed. As there is no doubt they were.”
Although Nancy plays a very prominent role in the novel, she is not drawn with the same exactitude as the other criminal characters. Only two aspects of her nature are given prominence her tender heart and her courage. She agrees to recapture Oliver and bring him back to Fagin’s den, but when she witnesses the cruel treatment meted out to him by all the members of the gang, she gets furious; she is particularly angry when Sikes tries to set her dog after the child. It is only she who has the courage to defy both Sikes and Fagin and save Oliver. Later when she overhears the conspiracy being hatched by Fagin and Monks, she decides to restore Oliver to the genteel world from where she had captured him.
Nancy’s courage is revealed in several important episodes. Her defence of Oliver against Fagin and Sikes has already been mentioned. Her decision to contact Rose Maylie even at the risk of her own life also reveals her courage.She has to drug Sikes when she goes to meet Rose the first time and next when she meets her on the London Bridge. She has some strange premonition of death, but still she goes. Soon after she is murdered by Sikes.
Another prominent quality of Nancy’s character is her extremely sincere love for Sikes. Sikes is a monster and he does not treat Nancy any better than he treats his dog. The poor girl is willing to sacrifice her life for his sake. She is offered material reward as well as asylum anywhere she likes whether in England or outside, but she says that she loves someone, for whose sake she must go back to the ignominious world to which she belongs. She discloses only as much as is barely necessary to rescue Oliver but she takes care that neither Sikes nor Fagin gets implicated. Her intention is to atone for her earlier sin of having captured Oliver for Fagin but she can never dream of betraying her group. This aspect of her character raises her in our esteem as it lends her complexity and depth.
In depicting Nancy more than any other character, Dickens tries to show what she might have been if she had grown up in a different environment.She has great potentiality of goodness in her; simply this goodness remains smothered for a very long time. She is herself quite aware of this and she feels herself doomed by her past. She says to Rose, “thanks heavens upon your knees, dear lady, 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… …something worse than all…as I have been from my cradle, I may use the word, for the alley and gutter were mine, as they will be my death bed.” She blames Fagin for having trapped her into a life of crime; “it is my living; and the cold, wet, dirty streets are my home; and you’re the wretch that drove me to them long ago, and that’ll keep me there,day and night, day and night, till I die.”
Towards the end of the novel, Dickens has sentimentalised Nancy’s character.In particular when she meets Rose and Mr Brownlow on the London Bridge with Noah Claypole overhearing them, she behaves in a very sentimental manner. Her refusal to accept either money or any other kind of help is quite acceptable, for she is not the type of lady who would behave in an undignified manner. But when she insists on having some personal trifle of Rose andaccepts a white hand-kerchief, she behaves in a sentimental way. This is repeated when she is being murdered by Sikes. When she is almost on the verge of death, she takes out the handkerchief from her bosom, struggles to her knees and raises her hands in prayer to God. This is a little too much and this makes her character slightly unrealistic.
However, Dickens himself thought that he had not exaggerated Nancy’s character in any way. He wrote, “It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable,right or wrong. It is true. Everyone who was watched these melancholy shades of life, must know it to be so from the first introduction of that poor wretch, to her laying her bloodstained head upon the robber’s breast, there is not a word exaggerated or overwrought. It is emphatically God’s truth, for it is the truth”.