‘O, full of scorpions is my mind…’
If each man kills the thing he loves, then Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan propels him into terminal nightmare. The haunting of the Macbeth is one of the best things in literature and Dickens knew the value of a good nightmare being a life long insomniac and city walker.
When Sikes kills Nancy in Oliver Twist the sordid criminal demi-monde of early Victorian London rises up and allies itself with self-righteousness and denunciation. I doubt that Dickens wrote anything more compelling or arresting than Bill Sikes’s terror strewn ‘flight’ from Victorian propriety and retribution. But it is not the ‘mob’ who capture his soul and dash its brains out – Dickens was far too knowing for that. Bill Sikes flees from his final crime against Nancy and finds that he is fleeing himself and that there can be no escape only nightmarish visions without respite.
‘He went on doggedly; but as he left the town behind him, and plunged into the solitude and darkness of the road, he felt a dread and awe creeeping upon him which shook him to the core. Every object before him, substance or shadow, still or or moving. took the semblance of some fearful thing; but these fears were nothing compared to the sense that haunted him of that morning’s ghastly figure following at his heels. ‘
Vengeance is mine and I shall repay!
Sikes’s conscience renders him all too human, almost makes him a lost pilgrim, and like Sikes we find ourselves looking over our shoulder, aware only of the relentless ghost of Nancy’s Banquo …
Sikes’s suffering reveals his victimhood as abjectly as his slaughter of his lover Nancy. And once again Dickens’s shows us the humanity lurking in even the most monstruous corners of the human soul;
‘he wandered on again, irresolute and undecided, and oppressed with the fear of another solitary night.
Suddenly, he took the desperate resolution of going back to London.
‘There’s somebody to speak to there, at all events…’
Sikes chooses sociality over possible freedom, recognising that any freedom enjoyed beyond communality is illusory.
So he turns back to the city and dies for the sake of any residue of conversation, for a ‘last syllable of recorded time’..his soul’s desperate and only choice.
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