Violence and the Moral Order

Sikes's killing of Nancy is one of the most violent scenes that Dickens ever wrote. Calling her a 'she- devil', illustrating the same moral inversion that earlier caused him to curse Bullseye as 'an out and out Christian', he bludgeons her 'twice with all the force he could summon'. As a result she is 'nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead', an extraordinarily lurid image given the tragedy of the situation. Nancy raises herself 'with difficulty' and plucks from her bosom (reminding us of her fleshly sins) Rose's virgin-white handkerchief, a final symbol of her moral regeneration. Sikes cannot bear this apparition, so, 'shutting out the sight with his hand, [he] seized a heavy club and struck her down'. The inescapability of this crime, also experienced by Jonas Chuzzlewit (Martin Chuzzlewit) and Bradley Headstone (Our Mutual Friend), asserts itself immediately. Burning the club, a hair of Nancy's on its end 'blazed and shrunk into a light cinder, and, caught by the air, whirled up the chimney' and into the open, symbolising Sykes's doom. Fleeing London as dawn breaks, the burning hair magnifies in his mind until 'the broad sky seemed on fire'.

From now on we experience life through Sikes's eyes. Fear, cowardice, uncertainty, paranoia, arrogance and guilt converge in him as he takes flight. The fire image appears again as he tries to purge himself by throwing his energy into helping to put out a blaze, mirroring externally his inner turmoil (reminiscent of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations), but to no avail. He is reduced to the friendless wandering experienced by Oliver at the book's opening- but without the promise of rebirth. Instead, his crime attracts disproportionate outcry, representative of the affront that it is to the absolute goodness of the Maylie- Brownlow world that Nancy leaned towards. Even Bullseye abandons him, and when he returns to London his criminal confederates spurn him. He has so far exceeded Dickens' moral standards that he cannot even be lynched, let alone have the luxury of trial and execution at the government's expense accorded to Fagin. Instead he is the unwitting agent of his own death. As Dickens writes earlier, 'let no man talk of murderers escaping justice'.

At the end of Oliver Twist the moral order is crudely reasserted, but we are left with a nagging sense of injustice. Loose ends are tied, but little is resolved beyond a blandly Christian reassertion of Oliver's perfection and his enemies' evil. Fagin, Nancy, Sikes and others are dead, effectively victims of the same cruel realities that Oliver has escaped through arbitrary accident. Dickens has failed in his attempt to demonstrate the inherent goodness and evil of his various characters. The pendulum has swung back and a cosy, if uneasy, veil has been drawn over the novel's events. Such a conclusion has no place in reality, but considerable impact in fantastical terms - those in which Oliver Twist is best considered.

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