Dickens’ family had been quite comfortable when he was born in Portsmouth in 1812, but his parents weren’t very skilled at managing money. When he was about twelve years old, his family was confined to debtor’s prison, in London. Poverty had personally scarred Dickens. One reason why Oliver Twist was so popular was that Dickens understood what his audience wanted to read and was willing to write it. Even though Dickens was young and hungry for fame, he wanted to do more than just entertain. He challenged people to consider things they would rather have ignored.
Dickens’ descriptions of London’s slums were shocking in their realism. Victorian authors were not supposed to acknowledge the existence of drunkards and prostitutes, they were not supposed to use street language, even in dialogue, but Dickens did. As a court reporter and journalist, Dickens had met hardened criminals like Bill Sikes, and women like Nancy, both of whom appear in Oliver Twist. He had little sympathy for the criminals like Sikes. But Dickens knew there were others like Nancy who were forced into crime by their environment, and might still be reformed. Dickens wanted to do just that.
As a public personality and popular writer, Dickens had a power to reach a vast middle-class audience, shocking them into action by his dramatic stories. In this essay, I study the character and presentation of Bill Sikes in the Charles Dickens’ book, Oliver Twist. I have tried to understand his role in the book and reasons for his actions. Referring to the author’s point of view and the language used. I also try to refer to the social and historical context of the book and study how the scenes are structured. Bill Sikes is portrayed in Oliver Twist as the epitome of evil. Bill Sikes is the violent criminal.
A bully, a robber, and a murderer, Sikes uses his brute violence to bully, intimidate, and injure others. His evil is frightening in its physicality. Bill Sikes can be compared to an animal, and is, consistently throughout the book. Sikes’ behavior could be a result of the brutalizing conditions of the slums in which he lives, or his weakness for drinking. But he progresses throughout the book to become a monster, where he brings himself to his own demise. Just after we first encounter Bill Sikes in the book, he starts to come across as an angry, disconcerted, abusive, and dangerous criminal.
In the story, after escaping to London from an undertaker’s shop, Oliver Twist meets Fagin, believing him to be a respectable old man. In truth, Fagin ran a gang of boy criminals and introduced Oliver to the art of thieving. Just before Sikes enters the story, Fagin sends Oliver out with two other thieves to pick pockets. When the two boys return without Oliver, Fagin loses his temper with the two boys, and throws beer at one of them. The beer inadvertently goes all over Sikes as he enters the room, where we first meet him. This is also where we meet Bull’s-eye, Bill Sikes, constant companion throughout the book.
The first impression that I got when I first read the book was that Bill Sikes seemed a cheery, if somewhat disheveled man, disgruntled at having beer poured all over him. But when he kicks Bull’s-eye because he doesn’t get into the room quick enough, we start to see Sikes as he really is. Bill Sikes is first described by Dickens as: ‘a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings, which enclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves… He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck,’
Bill Sikes is a low class crook, and they way Dickens plays this across is through Sikes’ use of language. ‘Come in, you sneaking warmint; wot are you stopping outside for, as if you was ashamed of your master. ‘ Sikes’ tends to swear more often than not and doesn’t pronounce words correctly. He tends to come of as uneducated and illiterate, which was Dickens’ intention. Sikes doesn’t care whom he offends and always acts without thinking, paying the consequences later. This almost animal-like instinct of reaction, and reacting to his environment, further emphasizes Sikes’ primitiveness.
What are you up to? Ill-treating the boys, you covetous, avaricious, in-sa-ti-a-ble old fence? ‘ Bull’s-eye has ‘faults of temper in common with his owner’, in later chapters of the book we see the dog’s viciousness, which reflects and represents Sikes’ own animal-like brutality. Bull’s-eye is a symbolic emblem of his owner’s brutality. Throughout the book, we see the dog change roles to symbolize other things about Bill Sikes. After being sentenced to three months hard labour and then acquitted on the account of an eye-witness proving him innocent, Oliver was taken in by Mr.
Brownlow, the man who had been robbed. Fagin told Bill Sikes that he was worried that Oliver would give information about their activities. They decided to send Bill’s girlfriend Nancy to find Oliver. In the meantime, Mr. Brownlow and his housekeeper were looking after Oliver. Mr. Brownlow sent him out on an errand, only to have him snatched by Nancy. Nancy and Bill took Oliver back to Fagin. On his return, Oliver pleads with Fagin to let him finish his errand, else Mr. Brownlow would think him a thief. Oliver makes a run for it, and Sikes almost sets Bull’s-eye on him when Nancy prevents him.
On Oliver’s forced return to the room with Fagin and the other thieves, Fagin starts to beat Oliver with a club. Nancy loses her temper with Fagin for this and throws the club in the fire. Nancy then continues to maintain her anger and threatens the thieves. The whole time during this encounter, we see the way Bill Sikes treats Nancy. Sikes’ shows us again how inconsiderate he is to others. ‘Stand off from me; or I’ll split your head against the wall’ This statement to Nancy hints at what Bill could do, and later does to Nancy in the book. Sikes doesn’t care about Nancy whatsoever.
Sikes’ relationship with Nancy makes them seem like they have been forced together. The relationship they have is completely negative, like they detest each other. Yet they are together, which could possibly be described as honour among thieves. Yet, Nancy abandons this code of honour when Oliver is in need, almost as if she was an older sister looking out for him. Socially, this is important because it signifies how important the family is. It also shows the compassion in people, thieves or not. This is something which Dickens got the public to understand.
Most criminals can be reformed, most criminals want to be reformed. Most of them have been forced into crime by poverty or ill fate. Dickens wanted to help. The way Nancy cares for others, whilst Sikes completely disregards them, is like a battle between good and evil. ‘You’ve got the boy, what more would you have? -Let him be -let him be -or I shall put that mark on some of you, that will bring me to the gallows before my time. ‘ This statement is quite significant. It talks about a crossing between good and evil. Nancy, representing good swears against Bill and Fagin who signify evil.
Like the statement made by Sikes before, this statement also hints at that clash in the original battle between good and evil, which occurs later in the book when Nancy is killed. After the clash between Nancy and the others, Nancy looked after Oliver. One night he was sent to rob a house with Sikes, but upon entering through a window, Oliver is shot by the frightened owner. He is nursed back to health by a young lady named Rose Maylie and her mother. In the meantime, Nancy overheard a man called Monks talking to Fagin. He said that Oliver was his young brother and offered Fagin money to get Oliver back and turn him into a thief.
Nancy tells Mr. Brownlow, but is followed and Fagin tells Sikes what she has done. In a manipulative fashion, Fagin persuades Sikes to kill Nancy. When Fagin told Bill of Nancy’s betrayal, he tricked Sikes into loosing all reasoning, stoking him into a fit of absolute rage. In this way, we see that Fagin is the smart, cunning schemer, always fixing things for himself. Fagin plans the crimes, Bill carries them out. ‘Without one pause, or moments consideration; without once turning his head to the right or left… Sikes came to Nancy’s apartment’ The actual murder in Nancy’s apartment was described in great detail.
The grisly way in which Nancy dies shocked the Victorian readers who had never read anything so descriptive. This ‘shock tactic’ caught the attention of everyone and pressed the need of salvation for the poor. After Sikes kills Nancy, he is guilt ridden. When he leaves, he doesn’t take his eyes off her still form under the window. Bull’s-eye walks in Nancy’s blood and leaves bloody prints all over the floor. Here, the dog comes to represent Sikes’ guilt. Not long after, Sikes becomes desperate to get rid of the dog, convinced that the dog’s presence would give him away.
Bill becomes a wanted man, and in a chase across London’s rooftops, Sikes tries to escape the police down the side of a building on a coil of rope. The rope gets caught around his neck and Sikes’ guilt leads him to see Nancy’s cold, dead eyes staring at him. Sikes slips and accidentally hangs himself. In a twist of fate, Bull’s-eye follows Sikes to the grave when he jumps for his master, symbolic of Bill’s guilt following him everywhere. The ultimate dishonor is hanging, and Sikes brings that dishonor apon himself at the end for killing Nancy.
Bull’s-eye has to die in the end to close the legacy of damage Bill Sikes left behind him. Dickens chose to kill the dog to get rid of Sikes’ presence completely. Bill Sikes plays a part in this story as the epitome of evil. Dickens included Bill in the story to play the role of the captor, criminal, murderer, and devil. When Bill kills Nancy, good still prevails when Sikes accidentally kills himself and Oliver is found and saved. Again we can see how Dickens wants people to change, in the way that he makes good prevail. Dickens gives the reader hope, just as he had hope that the world would change.
Dickens tries to make people see that they should be good, and help improve the desperate areas of poverty. Dickens personal scars lead him to want for this, and page 145 in the book, he reveals a glimpse of life for him on the streets through Nancy. ‘I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this! … I have been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since… It is my living; and the cold, wet, dirty streets are my home; and you’re the wretch that drove me to them long ago, and that’ll keep me there, day and night, day and night, till I die!
‘ Dickens wants Nancy to be saved from poverty, just like he wanted to be saved from poverty. Dickens and his family were eventually saved from poverty when his grandmother died and they received her inheritance, just like Oliver was saved when Sikes died. Dickens wants to confront poverty, he once wrote that poverty could ‘blacken the soul and change its hue forever’. Charles Dickens just wanted to help make the world a better place. Dickens wrote this novel to make everybody aware of the problems in society, and did the best he could to get people to fix them.