Charles Dickens's Bill Sikes – A Complex Villain
Bill Sikes is Charles Dickens's darkest villain, and critics often say that he is a two-dimensional character with no depth or finer feeling.
But this is to do a disservice to Dickens's writing. He did often write his characters as stereotypes and caricatures, but his portrayals are always more shifting and complex than a cursory first reading suggests.
Bill Sikes is fascinating. He almost pulsates with evil and malevolence, and his sinister, dull stupidity adds a creepy and terrifying undercurrent to the underworld of Oliver's London.
Page references are to Oliver Twist, Oxford World Classics 1999 edition
Bill's First Appearance
Sikes's first appears in Twist is when Fagin throws a pitcher of beer, aimed at one of his young charges but catching Bill as he walks into Fagin's apartment. His reaction is knee-jerk and shows him as rough-spoken and verbally aggressive, and to underline his villainy, he kicks his dog across the room in a seething temper because the dog follows him not immediately but a few moments after Sikes himself enters the room.
But underneath his near-sociopathic temper is evidence of a more sensitive man – evidence, indeed of how he has come to be such an unspeakable wretch. Before he kicks the dog, he says to it:
'Wot are you stopping outside for, as if you was ashamed of your master!’ (p.95)
Which betrays how Sikes thinks that the world looks at him: ashamed of him, avoiding him. The underclass of the Victorian era lived in appalling poverty and filth, and were often shunted to live in overcrowded slums, away from respectable middle- and merchant-class areas. Sikes's opinion that his dog is ashamed of him is a reflection of how real people - the poor and unlucky - of the time might well have felt: that they had been pushed aside as unworthy of civilised society.
Other threads of Sikes's character are revealed in this scene. He has a rough, underdeveloped empathy and is able to identify with Fagin's urchins:
‘I wonder they don’t murder you; I would if I was them.’ (p.95)
Oliver Twist at the Theatre, 1912
Bill Sikes as 'Foreboding'
Sikes is not simply a villainous character, but serves to strengthen and underline a plot theme: foreboding. Although Dickens's works have 'fairy tale' endings in many ways – that is to say that events work out in a more-or-less satisfactory manner for the main protagonist, there is also a high 'body count' in his novels, and a sinister atmosphere.
Bill's first appearance comes immediately Oliver's brief and blissful hiatus at Brownlow's house, and he has the last word in the discussion between Fagin, Nancy and himself on how they will get Oliver back into their clutches – he affirms that Nancy will go and get the boy, against her wishes. Fagin and Nancy alone could not bring such darkness to the novel, but Sikes has qualities that rumble almost unseen in the book's dark heart. He is a leader, albeit one that leads with force and threats of violence, and there are glimpses of how he came to be such a despicable man: few readers would identify with him, but with his twisted morality, we might shudder to recognise that any person might become him given the pressure-cooker circumstances of his existence in the brutal underworld of Victorian London.
Bill Sikes and his Luckless Dog
Sikes's Moral Code and Fagin the Serpent
In his first words, we see that Bill understands Fagin, and sees him as an 'infernal' and 'avaricious' thief who treats his gang of street urchins badly.
This understanding and recognition goes both ways between Bill and Fagin. The latter knows that Bill has a strong, if twisted, moral code, and knows how to manipulate it:
‘Suppose that lad […] was to peach […] of his own fancy. (p.379)
In this way, Fagin turns Sikes against Nancy. Bill's evil deeds always have a motive of self-preservation: he sees his own reprehensible actions as justifiable since he lives in a dangerous world where people fight tooth and claw for existence. Fagin presents Nancy's actions as unjustifiable – as pure evil – by suggesting that she 'peached' (betrayed or informed) on him for no other reason than her own capricious gratification. Whereas self-preservation is justifiable and a part of life for Bill, her actions are anathema to him when he believes they were for her own entertainment.
Expressing Bill Sikes's Deepest Thoughts
The narration in the chapter, ‘The Flight of Sikes’ is in the voice, and style of, Dickens’s ‘God’s eye’ observer. The opening paragraph seems like an outside judgement on Bill, but in the next paragraph there is a shift,
He tried to shut it out, but it would stream in. (p. 384.)
This puts the emotions of the narration almost into the voice of Bill. These are the thoughts of Bill that he cannot express. He is the one who recognises that this crime is ‘foulest and most cruel’; he sees the inequality of the richness of the cathedral and the rotten crevices of London.
Superficially he is most concerned in his flight with self-preservation – but he feels everywhere Nancy’s ghost following him. His world has come to an end, as the darkness and solitude close in on him and he finds himself alone.
It is not just self-preservation that drives and haunts Bill on his flight. He needs Dickens’s narrator to articulate it for him, but he feels and fears the depths of his crime and his punishment:
He felt a dread and awe creeping upon him which shook him to the core. (p.388)
He sees that all normality and interaction are over for him, and it’s the solitude that shakes him to the core. Trollope wrote that the situation Bill finds himself in is of a ‘type’ that everyone can recognise – although we are not murderers, we have all felt trapped and alone at some point in our lives - and Bill becomes an identifiable everyman, and there is a complex interaction between the reader and Bill.
Bill’s solitariness on his flight highlights the importance of interaction between the characters – not a split between heroes and villains but a recognition that the darkest events are as terrifyingly hopeless for an 'evil' man as they are for a 'good' one; and that the line between the two may not be as clear cut as it seems.