The contemporary literary paradigm regards the novel Oliver Twist written by Charles Dickens as one of the most significant works of the nineteenth century, which contribute largely to English literary heritage. Although the plotline evolves around controversial and misfortunate life of an orphan boy, who attempts to act against the demands the society imposes on him and find a decent place in life, equally pivotal issue is the role and image of women that Dickens tries to convey to readers. The three main female characters in Oliver Twist – Nancy, Rose Maylie, and Agnes Fleming – are depicted as fallen women and described as both victims of exploitation and betrayal.
Dickens’ position about all female representatives becomes clear from the very beginning of Oliver Twist where he urges readers to focus only on the sincerity of women while overlooking all other drawbacks (Dickens, 1985, p. 36). No exception are Dicken’s three female characters (Salter, 1983). Despite the variety of differences, one of the strongest features that unite them is sincerity. Such sincerity in the novel is realized through the enormous sacrifice that each woman is ready to make. For instance, Nancy gives her life for Oliver although they hardly know each other. Agnes decides to release her family from the shame, created by her notorious life. In addition, Rose Maylie rejects marrying Harry for his own sake. Another more vivid point at which the three women bear much resemblance is the fact that all of them are engaged in notorious sexual relations. In the novel, Agnes Fleming has dubious pregnancy from Mr. Leeford, which could ruin the reputation of her family.
Nancy is a prostitute with miserable life and without hope for a better future. Rose Mayle is described as having sexual relationship with her own nephew – a fact that the Victorian society would strongly frown upon. Despite the fact that these female characters are revealed in the negative light of social judgments for their actions, Dickens develops an effective method of justifying their rejection by society. In an attempt to convey the priority of the inner world over social image, Dickens tries to appeal more to the emotional level of readers than to the logical or rational.
While the similarities between Nancy, Rose and Agnes are implicit, the discrepancies between these women are intentionally explicit. Dickens builds dissimilarities on the basis of notorious facts and social judgments that follow. As a matter of fact, different social and life conditions that those women had to undergo shape their characters in various ways. In other words, Dickens shows that in their souls the three characters are the same; the only thing that makes them different is our perception. When Nancy and Rose meet for the first time, a stark contrast between their social images is vividly observed. Rose is from a reputable family, with good manners, a model for Victorian women. Nancy leads a street life; she is a prostitute without having any family or relatives. These two women exist in two opposite worlds between personal happiness and family well-being and brutality and poverty:
‘Thank Heaven upon your knees, dear lady,’ cried the girl, ‘that you and friends to care for and keep you in 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’ (Dickens, 1985, p. 362).
At first even Dickens describes Nancy as an “infamous creature” (Dickens, 1985, p. 362). However, when Nancy is on her deathbed, Rose passes to hera white handkerchief, with which Rose’s purity, innocence and redemption are also passed. Therefore, because of sincere and true soul, Nancy is able to transform from a socially perceived prostitute into a pure girl. Finally, Agnes is also from a well-known family but commits a sin. If Rose and Nancy are contradictory different, then Agnes is the middle between both of them. Through the use of three different characters Dickens tries to include all social strata, where Rose is a symbol of high class, Nancy shows the lower class and Agnes the middle (Salter, 1983). This method assists Dickens in debunking social misconception that social position of a woman defines her character. All three women in the novel have different social positions, but committed similar mistakes and behaved in the same honorable way when needed (Dickens, 1974). Thus, it can be admitted that Dickens focused on justification of fallen women – those who were rejected by the society.
Although Nancy, Rose and Agnes may seem extremely different because of different social strata and conditions that they grew in and lived, their inner part, soul, remains the same. First of all, the three women have notorious sexual experience. Such fact is applied to create the image of a fallen woman regardless of her social status. Secondly, each woman realizes her mistakes and sacrifices herself for the sake of saving others. By creating such characters, Dickens showed that his perception of women is made not according to social prejudices or conditions but according to the sincerity and inner intentions.
Dickens, C. (1985). Oliver Twist. London: Penguin Books.
Dickens, C.(1974). The Letters of Charles Dickens. N. C. Peyroutonl (Ed). (Vol. 3). Oxford: Clarendon Press,.
Slater, M.(1983). Dickens and Women. London: Dent…
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