Oliver Twist was written in 1838 by Charles Dickens; his second and one of his most famous novels he ever wrote in his lifetime. It was about a young orphaned boy called Oliver Twist, who becomes part of a pick pocketing crime syndicate under crime bosses Fagin and Bill Sikes. Bill Sikes is said by many to be the stereotypical vision of a villain. A villain is someone who is cruel or malicious and is devoted to evil. Sikes does amount to the definition, however at some points in the story he expresses empathy and compassion towards Nancy, which could sway the decision as to whether Sikes is a villain.
Like most of Dickens’ work, the book was used to outline to the public various contemporary social evils, including the Poor Law which stated that poor people have to work in workhouses, child labour and the recruitment of children as criminals. He may have been inspired by Robert Blincoe, an orphan whose story of his suffering as a child labourer in a cotton mill was widely read in the 1830s. However, it was obvious that Dickens’ passion behind Oliver Twist was fueled from his own personal life experiences. He was brought up in a financially poor environment: when he was 12 his families’ unfortunate circumstances forced him to quit school and work in a shoe polish factory. He had also a temporary experience of being an orphan, as his father was put into prison, where his mother and siblings joined him soon after, making Dickens living and continuing to work in the factory, now on his own for several months. These experiences haunted him for the rest of his life, and the character of Oliver has some resemblance to the calamitous experiences from in his own life.
Fortunately after inheriting some money his life improved, by getting his father out of prison and returning to school. As a young adult, he worked as a law clerk then later as a journalist. As a journalist, Dickens discovered first hand the darker social conditions of the Industrial Revolution- he observed how no proceedings were being undergone by lawmakers to alleviate the dire situation of the living conditions of the poor. In 1837, the first installment of Oliver Twist appeared in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany. His disillusionment and outrage towards this was expressed in his serialised novels, and his outlook touched contemporary fellow readers. Dickens wasn’t afraid to write his honest view of London compared to other writers in the Victorian period; revealing the hypocrisies of the time by mixing it with sarcasm and dark humour.
Dickens expresses his social views by opening Oliver Twist with a bitter passage criticising the English Poor Laws. These laws made England in the 1830’s transform from an agricultural, rural economy to an urban industrial nation. The laws made the Victorian middle class achieve an equal, even greater economic influence than that of the British aristocracy, by distortedly emphasising the virtues of hard work. The middle class promoted work as a moral virtue. The Poor Law of 1834 stated that the poor were allowed to receive public assistance only if they worked in established workhouses. However, workhouses were deliberately made to be as wretched and depressing as possible in order to deter the poor from relying on public assistance. Many poor people chose to die in the streets rather than seek public aid. They thought it would be better to not receive aid than to pay it in suffering and misery. Victorian values stressed that suffering was a moral virtue, and people in the workhouse had to experience it many times over. Instead of making life better, the law punished the most defenceless and helpless members of society.
Dickens demonstrated the inaptness through the character of Oliver, an orphan who was born and raised in a workhouse, whose story shows the hypocrisy of the corrupt middle class bureaucrats, who treat a small child with cruelty then voice their belief in the Christian virtue of giving charity to the less fortunate. Dickens is the champion of the poor: in his novel he shows the realism of the everyday existence of the lowest members of the English society. He gives the poor people of London a voice, establishing a link between politics and fictional literature. The book became so successful that it transformed into a public veiled protest against the Poor Law of 1834, which dictated that all public charity must be channeled through workhouses.
Bill Sikes epitomises the eventual outcome of a brutalising existence. From his initial entrance, the reader has an instantaneous negative notion of the character, as the first thing that Sikes says is only referred to by Dickens as “a deep voice” that “growled”, an immediate dehumanisation of the character, initially associating him to a somewhat animal. Only later does Dickens give Sikes a delayed, seemingly reluctant introduction, describing him as a, “a stoutly- built fellow” dressed in “a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches” with “two scowling eyes”, which further adds to the mysteriousness that is Sikes, with his clothes being sinister and grimy, foreshadowing his evil nature through his image. The way the author describes Sikes’ appearance indicates his ruthless and violent personality; the vicious language Sikes uses, “you covetous, avaricious, in-sa-ti-ble old fence?” demonstrates how he is openly scornful of anything human, completely lacking in any kind of human sensitivity or tenderness. By the clothes he wears, the violent language he expresses frequently, Dickens gives readers a clear indication that Sikes is a lower class citizen, such as “a beard of three days growth” shows his deprived nature. The colloquial language used for Sikes gives readers an insinuation of the way in which the way Sikes speech sounds like, “d’ye hear?” Dickens chose to write in a colloquial way instead of using swearing to show Sikes’ lower class nature, because at the time Oliver Twist was written, middle class citizens would not approve of swearing in books, and as Dickens wanted to target everyone, he chose not to swear- as it would seem too controversial for its time.
One of the only relationships, if any, Sikes has in to some extent positive nature is his relationship with his dog, Bull’s-eye. Sikes shows in some places in the story that he has a dysfunctional attachment with his dog “hastily called upon the white dog, and, putting on his hat, expeditiously departed”, taking him wherever he goes. He shows a good trait of loyalty to Bull’s- eye, until he tries to kill him in ‘Flight of Sikes’, where Bull’s-eye flees away from his master after Sikes tries to drown him. Bill shows in the end that he is essentially mentally and emotionally “rotten” to the core, with his successful murder of the person he was most closest to, Nancy, and is attempted slaughtering of Bull’s- eye. Conversely, Bill’s attempted murders could be the eventual result of a lifetime of poverty, violence, and hardship. He was not born a killer; he was made one. Violence breeds violence. Dickens character choice of Bull’s-eye could have been selected to demonstrate him as a symbol of Sikes, as the dog shows similarities to its master because of his evil brutal nature; and in some lights the dog brings out Sikes’ personality, as in Chapter 13, Bill shows his violent aggressive side when he accompanies a command he gives to his dog “with a kick, which sent the animal to the other side of the room.”
In Chapter 13, it’s the first interaction Sikes has with another main villain in story, Fagin. Fagin is shown as the leader of the pick pocketing group; he is the mastermind of all the criminal activities that take place- being described as “the Jew” or the “merry old gentleman” in Chapter 13. Fagin and Sikes both need each other for their work to operate: Sikes is the thief who burgles houses and completes the valuable missions, Fagin is the one who collects the goods and pays him when the deal is done. Despite their work statuses, Sikes speaks rudely to Fagin in Chapter 13, “for your fit for nothing but keeping as a curiosity of ugliness in a glass bottle,” showing little respect for his supposed superior, also showing no fear towards him. Compared to Sikes, Fagin is the brains behind the brawn. Sikes’ seeming fearlessness could be more idiocy than anything resembling genuine courage. His behaviour is a mixture of low intelligence and brute strength, with his insults towards Fagin being generally pointless, apart from only showing Fagin his dislike towards him. He never cares to show any caution of life concerning the law that Fagin often applies, which causes a problem for “the Jew”.
Fagin seems intimidated on several occasions of Sikes’ angry outbursts, “Hush! Hush! Mr Sikes, don’t speak so loud!” verbally showing that he is afraid of Sikes’ aggressiveness, and replies to Sikes’ eruptions with politeness and humility, “You seem out of humour, Bill.” Fagin is very polite to usually everyone he speaks to face to face, such as Nancy and Oliver, always calling Nancy, “My dear,” but is crafty enough to deal with his evil deeds by manipulation. Sikes murdering Nancy could be observed as Fagin’s fault by the reader as he purposely gave Sikes twisted information about her betraying him, or “peaching” on him, when she actually protected him because she loved Bill despite all his brutal character. Throughout ‘Fatal Consequences,’ Fagin successfully fuels Sikes’ rage to breaking point, asking him what he would do if “that lad” or even himself turned on him, with Sikes’ answers becoming more brutal and destructive, “I’d grind his skull under the iron heel of my boot into as many grains as there are hairs upon his head.” Only at the end Fagin says “Nancy” and with Sikes telling him that he will deal with everyone the same, storms off into the night boiling on wrath. Fagin cleverly conceals his hatred for Sikes, who, true to his nature, fails to see the value of suppressing his contempt for the older criminal. So Sikes prepares his own doom by unnecessarily irritating Fagin and stoking his resentment. Fagin lets Sikes be forceful and belligerent; he knows his intellectual limitations measured up to himself, and knows that Sikes will dig his own downfall.
Sikes’ relationship with Nancy is the closest bond he has with any of the characters in the story. Nancy shows she cares for Sikes throughout the chapters, and whilst Sikes wishes to be in control of Nancy similar to his relationship with Bull’s-eye, he does show appreciation to her, “She’s an honour to her sex, here’s her health, and wishing they was all like her!” He does in some places show sparks of compassion towards her, such as when Nancy’s passionate argument with him about his treatment of Oliver causes her to faint. Bill picks her up and tenderly lays her down on a pile of rags in the corner, with great care. On the other hand, he still caused her to faint by his evil actions. In the argument they share he even threatens to kill her, “Stand off from me, or I’ll split your head against the wall,” Sikes’ true nature shining through. Nancy shows in ‘Relates what became of Oliver Twist, after he had been claimed by Nancy,’ that she truly cares for Oliver with almost maternal instincts, protecting him with essentially her life, standing up for Oliver against Sikes and Fagin, “The child shan’t be torn down by the dog, unless you kill me first.” There is a strange relation between Oliver and Nancy which reveals different sides to her ambiguous character.
On the other hand, Nancy did help with the capture of Oliver in the first place. Unlike other characters throughout Oliver Twist, Nancy is not entirely good like those of Oliver Twist himself, or entirely bad like those of Bill Sikes. She has conflicts between her inner conscience and her devotion to Sikes. Nancy is also an important figure in Oliver Twist because she is the only character who fluctuates between good and evil. Several characters have obvious personalities in the novel; this is noticeable in their first appearances such as the way Sikes was described in Chapter 13. However Nancy’s characters personality is not always clear. She is introduced into the story when she meets Oliver at Fagin’s house. In that scene Nancy’s character is ambiguous to the reader’s point of view; she does nothing to sway the decision as to whether she is good or evil. Also, she doesn’t utter any word but she keeps silent and she doesn’t express any interest or disinterest in the newest member of the gang. Dickens may have used Nancy to show how evil Sikes is compared to her, and fundamentally Nancy associating with him does become her death- in many ways Sikes dragged Nancy down his dark destiny.
Bill’s relationship with Nancy is based on far more than just handiness. They do both share a common background, they understand one another, and they offer each other some degree of security and stability. Nancy doesn’t seem to be scared of Sikes, in places where Sikes threatens her and loses his temper, she always retains her calmness. Maybe this is the attraction Sikes has to her. However in spite of her closeness, Sikes is singularly uncommitted in his relations with Nancy. First of all, he has no care or love for his own self to realise that he’s even in love with someone else. He is violently aggressive towards her on many occasions; he always wants to be the one in control over their relationship. He doesn’t realise mistreating Nancy could be a dangerous practise, something which Fagin does comprehend.
In Chapter 48, Sikes crosses the true line by murdering Nancy. The author describes it as a messy kill, with “the body- mere flesh and blood, no more- but such flesh, and so much blood!” It shows that the murder wasn’t really planned out, and Nancy was brutally murdered with her body practically being mutilated by Sikes’ club hits and pistol fire. The language used shows how graphic and harrowing the murder was, it was really was a brutality of a kill. It showed that Sikes acted without any thought and no remorse, showing irrational evil, close to being the embodiment of evil and meanness for its own sake. Sikes is panicking, he is haunted: He is scared about things over nothing, such as the weather for example, “God, how the Sun poured on the very spot!” It says he is also scared of Nancy’s eyes, “Those widely staring eyes, so lustreless and so glassy.” From being so ruthless and aggressive, he’s become a very frightful, scared and haunted man. “The body was in its place, and its eyes were as he saw them when he stole away.” Dickens refers to Sikes now as “the murderer”, the ultimate dehumanisation.
In The Pursuit and Escape, Sikes’ crimes had been realised by the police and they pursue him to Jacob’s Island, a place of poverty. In this chapter, Sikes became completely haunted and maddened by the idea of Nancy not being buried, “Is-it-the-body-is it buried?” He had been rejected by all of his associates, with Charley Bates classing the “murderer” as a “monster.” Sikes truly had lost everything, even his sanity, and when trying to escape across the rooftops with the crowd surrounding him he receives another disturbing apparition of Nancy’s eyes, “The eyes again!” He accidentally hangs himself by the rope being around his neck when he fell off the parapet, “a terrific convulsion of the limbs, and there he hung.” As soon as Sikes had killed Nancy, he was destined to die, as the thought of killing his only chance pushed him over the edge; it’s the guilt and the grief he experiences at Nancy’s loss that kills him.
In my opinion, Sikes represents the ultimate villain, a house burglar turned murderer, capable of almost no decency of goodness; with the emotion of hatred fuelling him predominantly throughout the story. However, he is also a victim of circumstance: his upbringing played a part in the villain he became, and maybe if he could have been a good man if he didn’t suffer a lifetime of violence and poverty.
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