When assessing women's original nature and how it is manifested and displayed in Oliver Twist, it becomes clear that the three main female characters all portray a different version of how women can be perceived and render themselves. Rose, Agnes and Nancy. However, the exploration of women's nature and how it was defined in the Victorian age need not be limited to those three. It is illuminating and revealing how Dickens poses and presents the women of Oliver Twist and the reactions that tend to be elicited by those that read and review this work. On the whole, it is obvious and clear that Dickens levied a full-frontal assault against the system and regimentation that were held against women, the poor and the ruffians of society. As it pertains to women, this obviously included the concept and idea that woman that keep themselves virginal, prim and proper as defined by the constructs and frameworks of that day (Dickens).
One quote found within the passages of Oliver Twist makes it quite clear where women sit on the proverbial totem pole when it is said "(t)hey made a great many other wise and humane regulations having reference to the ladies, which is not necessary to repeat" (Dickens, 1866, p. 11). The use of the words "wise" and "humane" belie the fact that the referenced regulations are neither of the two. Further, the concept that sex itself, how much it is engaged in and who it is enjoyed with has a bearing on the measure of a woman's worth and purity is laughable. It is not beyond the pale to suggest that having affairs and children out of marriage is a good thing. However, the Victorian ideas on the subject were an over-correction to put it lightly but this is not the self-perceived performance and adeptness that the arbiters of that belief system held themselves as having (Dickens).
Nonetheless, it is clear that taking such a black and white view of which people are moral and which are not is unwise. Nancy's moral code proves this in spades. Many would point to the company that Nancy keeps or the fact that she is a prostitute. However, her amalgamation of morals is far more complex and worthy of drilling down. because Nancy clearly has some positive moral components within her psyche. Even so, many would take note of her friends Sikes and Fagin or her status as a lady of the night and would not take seriously anything else that is later revealed. Indeed, one can look at the quote by Nancy where she says "I may use the word, for the ally and the gutter were mine, as they will be my deathbed" (Dickens, 1866, p. 318). These are the words of a woman who knows that she is fallible and among the worst in life in major ways. However, that admission as well as her actions towards Rose and Oliver proves that her soul was not truly lost. Surely, she was a very flawed person and was certainly not anywhere near the Victorian definition of a woman's proper true nature. Nonetheless, even if the Puritanical/Victorian ideals on display in Oliver Twist would not normally be ascribed to Nancy, they really should be. Dickens was masterful in how Nancy was portrayed in that while Nancy was clearly a lady of the night, so to speak, Dickens never actually refers to her as a prostitute. Nancy also offers perhaps the most damning statement about how the Victorian culture treated women and the poor when she said "when such as me, who have no certain roof but the coffin-lid, and no friend in sickness or death but the hospital nurse, set our rotten hearts on any man, and let him fill that place that parents, home and friends filled once, or that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us?." Another quote within Oliver Twist that dovetails with this statement is stated when it is printed "my dear young lade, crime, like death, is not confined to the old and withered alone. The youngest and fairest are too often its chosen victims" (Dickens, 1866, p. 227).
When it comes to the Victorian ideal, it is clear that Nancy never had it and Rose did. However, Agnes was hybrid in that she was of noble birth but fell from grace, as defined the Victorian ideal, in a major way. She had an affair with her father's friend at the young age of nineteen and had a child before marriage. While that is certainly not the best thing a woman can do in this age or in the Victorian age, what she did in reaction to this chain of events is a product of the Victorian Age. She ran away from home to avoid being shamed. The parallels to gay people in the modern age who commit suicide or hide their sexuality for much the same reason are blisteringly apparent. Another dimension and concept to cover would be the guilt and despair that Sikes cannot escape when he murders the aforementioned Nancy. Despite the clear second-tier status that women had even in the best of situations and examples, Sikes was tortured and guilt-stricken for what he did to Nancy and he suffered greatly, as noted in the passage "there were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that agony and fear" (Dickens, 1866, p. 387).
The genesis of the derision and maltreatment of women is largely rooted in the church and religion and Dickens makes a concerted effort to lambaste and condemn such behavior. One such example was stated by Dickens when it was stated "(w)ithin the altar of the old village church there stands a white marble tablet that bears as yet but one word: Agnes" (Dickens, 1866, p. 437). This is a clear attack by Dickens on the Victorian practice and habit of treating some sinners differently than others. However, the fact remains that all people are sinners and this include the men and women who treat people like Agnes or Nancy with disdain but yet somehow give a least a modicum of respect towards women like Rose. This uneven and ham-handed way of thinking and treating women proves another quote in the Oliver Twist treatise, that being "some people are nobody's enemies but their own" (Dickens, 1866, p. 344). Perhaps the strongest statement against the contrived piety of the church comes in the form of the phrase "Your haughty religious people would have held their heads up to see me as I am tonight, and preached of flames and vengeance,' cried the girl. 'Oh, dear lady, why aren't those who claim to be God's own folks as gentle and as kind to us poor wretches as you, who, having youth, and beauty, and all that they have lost, might be a little proud instead of so much humbler?" (Dickens, 1866, p. 368).
However, there were glimmers of hope in the work of Dickens as it relates to women and how they were perceived. One example of this was found in the quote "my heart is set, as firmly as ever heart of man was set on woman. I have no thought, no view, no hope, in life beyond her; and if you oppose me in this great stake, you take my peace and happiness in your hands, and cast them to the wind" (Dickens, 1866, p. 265). Nonetheless, the common theme of hypocrisy and judgment against women in the vilest form pervades the play. When it comes to women in particular, perhaps the most basic and point-laded quote is stated when it is said "But struggling with these better feelings was pride, -- the vice of the lowest…