^The actual line that Oliver says when asking for more gruel to eat.
Young Oliver never really has much control over his life, but with the little control he does have, he tries to live the best life he can. For example, when he is forced at gun point to participate in a house robbery, he complies—until the moment when he steps away to perform his role in the house robbery and determines to wake the house instead. Unfortunately, he is shot in the arm before he can make his move and is then left for dead in a field by his captors.
He never really had an ideal childhood.
While I still find it hard to connect with the character of Oliver, I do appreciate how the other characters are all connected because of him—and the “good” characters rally around him to love, support, and protect him. It’s heartwarming, but I do think that the character development in this novel takes a back seat to the plot. Dickens is very good at convincing you to keep reading because he surrounds Oliver’s history with mystery and intrigue. He’s constantly switching between story lines, too—moving from the events happening to Oliver to what the beadle Mr. Bumble is involved in to the adventures of Fagin and the thieves—which drags the suspense out even longer.
Throughout all this suspense and mystery, though, the characters are pretty much set in their ways. Oliver never gives in to the evil he is tempted with and is always grateful and loving to those who treat him well and respectful and earnest to those who don’t. Fagin and Sikes are both selfish scoundrels who only really care about money. Rose Maylie is humble, honest, and beautiful and someone who everyone loves to please (especially Oliver). If a character changes an opinion about something, it’s only because events changed his mind—such as Mr. Brownlow’s opinion of Oliver.
The only character who really changes is Nancy. I’d read this novel once before, and all I remembered when I began it this time was that things do not end well for Nancy. As I near the end of the novel now, I’ve realized that she is the most complex character in the story. She hasn’t had an easy life and perhaps had one that began similarly to Oliver’s. All we really know is that Fagin turned her into a thief and a prostitute as a young child, and, when we first meet her, she lives with Sikes and does small things to help the group of thieves.
She feels sorry for Oliver and helps him in little ways—but when she overhears a plot to corrupt and ruin Oliver’s life forever, she risks her life and all she’s ever known to help him. She could have had a happier end—Rose Maylie begs her to leave Sikes—but she loves Sikes, and she cannot make herself leave the only life she has ever known. It reminded me of the recent discussion on Twitter of why women stay in abusive relationships (#WhyIStayed). We want to be mad at Dickens for making Nancy stay with Sikes, but Dickens was portraying reality—a sad truth. Nancy says:
“You can do nothing to help me. I am past all hope, indeed…I am chained to my old life. I loathe and hate it now, but I cannot leave it. I must have gone too far to turn back—and yet I don’t know, for if you had spoken to me so, some time ago, I should have laughed it off. But, I must go home…to such a home as I have raised for myself with the work of my whole life” (Chapter 47).
She admits that she has changed, but still—no person can release her from the chains of her life. I believe that only God could cut those chains. Earlier, when she first met Rose, she told her about Sikes:
“‘I cannot leave him now! I could not be his death.’
‘Why should you be?’ asked Rose.
‘Nothing could save him,’ cried the girl. ‘If I told others what I have told you, and led to their being taken, he would be sure to die. He is the boldest, and has been so cruel!’
‘Is it possible,’ cried Rose, ‘that for such a man as this, you can resign every future hope, and the certainty of immediate rescue? It is madness.’
‘I don’t know what it is,’ answered the girl; ‘I only know that it is so, and not with me alone, but with hundreds of others as bad and wretched as myself. 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’ (Chapter 40).”
Prophetic words from a heartbreaking character. I also think that Charlie’s decision to have Nancy die could have something to do with the fact that his wife’s sister, Mary, died while he was writing Oliver Twist. Mary was only seventeen and lived with the Dickens at the time of her death. She obviously meant a lot to them as they named their first daughter after her. Nancy’s age is never given in the book, but I imagine her to be around the same age as Mary was. So perhaps a bit of Charlie’s heartache leaked into this otherwise heartwarming story.
I only have a few more chapters of Oliver Twist, but I should be finishing it tonight. And then on to my third novel!