I didn’t get a great grade for this, but I hope to improve.
According to Carey, Dickens ‘encouraged the belief that criminals constitute a separate species, fit only for extermination’ (Carey 38); and yet when considering the motley crew that constitutes the younger members of Fagin’s gang in Oliver Twist, there is evidence of loyalty, and we are led to believe in redemption for those operating outside the law. This ‘allegiance’ is manifest in three ways; that of loyalty, forced allegiance, and psychologically engrained loyalty – though this only applies to Nancy’s character.
Straight forward examples of heartwarming loyalty in Fagin’s gang are difficult to find in this text which deals greatly in contrasts of good and bad, but there are moments when Dickens endows a ‘bad’ character with a subtle consideration for others that points to loyalty. When Oliver confronts Dodger and Bates for allowing his arrest, Dodger replies with, ‘that was all out of consideration for Fagin, ‘cause the traps know that we work together’ (Dickens 170). Although this response is clearly Dodger’s attempt to avoid blame, there is a logically believable basis: that they will do almost anything to preserve the safety of the gang. Whilst this hardly promotes the idea of loyalty in the common sense, which is usually to specific people, it does display a definite loyalty to the continuation of the gang which is their best defence from the rest of the world. In naming Fagin, Dodger reveals that to lose Fagin is to allow the gang to fall apart, and lose their defence. Dodger’s own trial is telling when considering loyalty. The jailer says that Dodger ‘ought to have been a many times’ (421) in court for his past offences – clearly Dodger is well known by the force. If we use this as a basis to credit Dodger’s earlier claim of the whole gang being known to ‘work together’ by the police, we can understand how loyal Dodger is, because at no point during the interview does he refer to his exploits, which may be self-preservation, but also means that he hasn’t endangered his friends’ safety. However, for a boy so proud of his thievery this must seem like a strange decision. James Kincaid draws attention to the ‘self-approval’ (423) with which Dodger conducts himself in his boisterous performance, suggesting that the ‘self-consciousness’ connotes that ‘his defiance was not, after all, so easy and that his own wit was not so much a mechanical reaction as a rather desperate defence’ (Kincaid 69). I would argue this further and say that Dodger is sacrificing any chance at a lesser sentence by not exposing his friends, which in itself can be seen as a redemptive action that rivals his illegal ones.
In a gang such as this, when loyalty to the gang is in effect a loyalty to oneself, it is hard to see why any duty may be seen as forced obligation. Fagin’s insidious explanation to Bolter is insightful when considering this: ‘The more you value your number one, the more careful you must be of mine; so we come at last to what I told you at first – that a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so unless we would all go to pieces in company’ (Dickens 414). The emphasis on pronouns, ‘you’, ‘your’, ‘I’, ‘mine’ suggest that the two of them are standing at opposing sides of a balance, and that any unwise actions will affect the other party as well as oneself. However, the balance is in fact rigged in Fagin’s favour, because in using the word ‘value’ to describe Bolter’s self-preservation, he hints that he has the power to do his newest associate good or evil as the mood takes him. Dickens further vilifies Fagin by beginning this exchange with, ‘You’ve done what’s a very pretty thing, and what I love you for doing; but what at the same time would put the cravat round your throat that’s so very easily tied, and so very difficult to unloosen, – in plain English, the halter’ (414). Dickens endows Fagin with a very subtle way to threaten those he employs. Again, he repeats pronouns, ‘you’ve’, ‘you’, ‘your’, but only mentions ‘I’ once, as though to suggest that any and all consequences will fall squarely on Bolter’s shoulders rather than his own – there is no indication that like Dodger, Fagin is willing to face the law on his own for the sake of anyone else. Dickens also cleverly uses the word ‘halter’. This could refer to the sudden drop when being hanged as Fagin here threatens Bolter, but Dickens could be using it to liken Fagin’s gang of youths as bound animals, under his control and at his mercy should they prove troublesome. Their complicity, which Dickens does nothing to hide, leads them further and further into Fagin’s grasp. But their complicity is also their redemption, as although they cite their loyalty to Fagin, neither Dodger, Bates, or Crackit complain about his power over them, and so their private suffering can be admired.
Nancy is arguably the most loyal and admirable character in the entire novel, because whilst she acknowledges that Fagin has been worse that a ‘devil’ to her, and that the rest of the gang is ‘bad’, she adamantly will not ‘turn upon them’ (441). Frances Power Cobbe in 1881 asserted that ‘neither the unchaste person, nor the drunkard, nor the liar, nor the coward, nor the voluntary slave, can be fulfilling the purpose of his existence, or ascending toward the divine ideal’ (Cobbe 54-5). It could be argued that Nancy is all of these things, and yet Dickens’ portrayal of a drunken, lying prostitute battling against an engrained allegiance to her tormentors in order to demonstrate her moral loyalty towards Oliver, must surely disprove this statement. Garnett asserts that ‘self-denying loyalty, though not its sexual source (in Nancy’s case), was very much a part of the feminine ideal he [Dickens] reverenced’ (Garnett 508). That she is self-denying is unquestionable. Nancy declares that she couldn’t leave Sikes ‘even to be saved’ because ‘he would be sure to die’ (Dickens 386) as a result. That she relates the juxtaposition of her salvation and his destruction suggests that Sikes’ doom would be a form of death for her as well. Although Nancy displays symptoms of what a modern reader would identify as Stockholm Syndrome, it is important to note that she is well aware that her feelings are illogical. She tells Mr Brownlow that ‘some time ago, I should have laughed it [her old life] off’ (444). She can clearly perceive that the change in her emotions occurred recently, and we can interpret this as when she moved in with Bill and was subjected to his abusive treatment – however this has nothing to do with her loyalty to Fagin, whom she also sacrifices a new life for. Garnett is right to believe that Dickens allows his admiration for Nancy to seep into the novel. She constantly calls Rose, ‘sweet lady’ and refuses to be helped: ‘I have not done this for money. Let me have that to think of’ (445). This courteous pet name for Rose is endearing and heart-wrenching when compared to Nancy’s own perception of herself in comparison. The reader is treated to a sad image of Nancy remembering her lost chance to save herself as she falls further into degradation and depression due to her position in society and Sikes’ abuse. Yet Garnett’s assumption that Nancy’s loyalty is sexual in its source seems wrong. Her relationship with Sikes is clearly a psychological condition, and each step of Stockholm Syndrome has been written into her narrative from fear of abuse, relief and gratification when not abused, refusal to accept help, and fear of leaving. Whilst I don’t believe that Dickens had this particular condition in mind when writing, it is clear that he meant for it to dissuade any notion that Nancy is truly in love with Sikes. And there has been no indication whatsoever of Nancy being attracted to any other member of the gang. Therefore, Nancy’s loyalty to her gang can be the only explanation for her denying herself the chance to live a better life, and this would be tragically admirable to a reader, especially a contemporary one used only to associating prostitutes and fallen women with people who cannot ascend toward ‘the divine ideal’.
When considering the redemptive power of loyalty in the eyes of outsiders, we must consider it in contrast with the other, ‘good’ characters in the novel. This may mean pitting Nancy against Rose and Dodger against Oliver. But in doing so it is unavoidable to see just how much more difficult loyalty is to those on the shadowy side of the law, especially with a powerful puppet master like Fagin around. And so the young ‘bad’ characters of Nancy and Dodger in particular are far more admirable than their counterparts with easier, happier lives who barely seem to have to choose between right and wrong.
Carey, John. The Violent Effigy. London: Faber and Faber, 1973. Print
Cobbe, Frances Power. “Lecture II. Personal Duty.” The Duties of Women: A Course of Lectures Given in 1881. London: S. Sonnenschein. 1905. The Gerritsen Collection. Web. 29 January 2014.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. England: Penguin English Library, 2012. Print.
Garnett, Robert R. “Oliver Twist’s Nancy: The Angel in Chains.” Religion and the Arts. Vol 4. 2000. Brill Online Journals. Web. 28 Januray 2014.
Kincaid, James R. “Laughter and Oliver Twist.” Modern Language Association. PMLA. Vol 83, No 1. 1968. JSTOR. Web. 28 January 2014.