Perhaps Dickens' second-best-known story, Oliver Twist tells the story of the eponymous orphan and his various trials and tribulations living with thieves and vagabonds on the streets of Victorian England. Included in this less-than-distinguished company are some literature's most notorious baddies--Fagin, the wicked ringleader; the Artful Dodger, the charming-but-debauched child; Bill Skies, violent killer; and Nancy, the good-hearted vagabond quoted in my excerpt above.
The basic plot of Oliver Twist seems to me to be something most people have absorbed by some sort of cultural osmosis, but here it is, in abbreviated form: a) Oliver's mother dies during his birth, b)he is placed in an orphanage under the care of a careless woman and a corrupt beadle, c) he escapes and is taken under the wing of Fagin who d) turns out to be worse than the Beadle. This being Dickens, there is a happy ending and several unlikely coincidences, but that doesn't impair Twist--it's a good story whether you already know it or not.
Until I got near the end, I wasn't sure I would have much to say about it besides summarizing the plot, but once Nancy determines to help Oliver, risking her own life to share with Oliver's benefactors secrets she could be killed for disclosing, a theme emerges which repaints the whole story in richer colors. Nancy puts her life on the line to save Oliver, an innocent who she still sees as redeemable. She does not, however, extend the same courtesy to herself. Here, she shares with Rose, a friend of Oliver, how she feels about her condition:
"When ladies as young, and good, and beautiful as you are," replied the girl steadily, "give away your hearts, love will carry you all length -- even such as you, who have home, friends, other admirers, everything to fill them. When such as I, 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 the place that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us? Pity us, lady -- pity us for having only one feeling of the woman left, and for having that turned, by a heavy judgment, from a comfort and a pride, into a new means of violence and suffering."
It's a heartbreaking moment, and forces reflection on the other characters throughout the work. Even Bill Sikes, the most vile person in a novel full of them, has his chance for partial redemption. No one, Dickens seems to say, is truly beyond hope, but that doesn't mean everyone will have a happy ending.