Born in a workhouse to a dying mother, Oliver Twist is named by an uncaring official and plunged into a cruel system of state care designed to consign him to a life of poverty. Through the novel’s complicated plot, Oliver must resist malign environmental influences and refuse stereotypes about his character. His essentially moral nature reveals itself to allies who rescue him from those who would use and harm him. Oliver’s story suggests that regardless of a person’s circumstances, moral choices are possible and that class does not determine morality. Dickens uses Oliver’s trials to critique the Victorian assumption that morality and class are coupled: heroic behavior occurs among both the poor and the well-off, as does exploitative behavior. 

The inciting incident occurs when Oliver, nine years old, returns to the workhouse. Hungry boys compel him to ask an official for more food. Branded as a malcontent, Oliver is whipped, confined, and sold off as a child laborer. This entry into the world of the working poor begins the rising action. Escaping mistreatment in several jobs, Oliver walks to London, only to be targeted by Fagin, who exploits children as thieves. In Fagin’s home, Oliver is fed and has a sort of family, but his place there depends on how well he can steal. He suffers moral qualms, but he is poor and orphaned, so both Fagin and people representing the law assume that he is naturally criminal. Only by chance, when kind Mr. Brownlow pities him and takes him to his home to recover, does Oliver glimpse another way of living.

Oliver’s escape from exploitation is jeopardized when Fagin, worried that Oliver will alert the law to his operation, exploits Nancy. She is assumed to be immoral because she is poor. She drinks, steals, and is likely a prostitute, yet it becomes clear that she is deeply moral and behaves as she does to survive. Out of fear of Fagin and Bill Sikes, Nancy helps return Oliver to Fagin, but she regrets her actions and attempts to defend him from a beating. Cowed by isolation, Oliver is dragged deeper into Fagin and Sikes’ criminal activities. Still, his moral core asserts itself. Under threat of death, he helps Sikes break into a house but hopes to warn its owners.

Events happening far from Oliver also shape the rising action as choices by people in authority affect him. When Mrs. Corney conceals Sally’s deathbed confession, she does so for personal gain. Despite belonging to the respectable middle class, she and Mr. Bumble, like Fagin and Bill, take a mercenary interest in other people. Yet Oliver, wounded and abandoned during the theft, finds kind helpers in the Maylies, who shelter him for months, giving him a family for the first time. Rose Maylie in particular respects Oliver’s personhood. She does not use him or impose her ideas of who he should be, and he flourishes in her care. Rose’s privilege as Mrs. Maylie’s ward enables her to be his benefactor, and her situation contrasts starkly with Nancy’s. Yet Nancy, too, cares for Oliver as far as her limited agency and resources allow.

Not even in the Maylies’ country home, however, is Oliver safe from the Bumbles’ meddling or from Fagin’s conniving, and these greedy people now have help from the shadowy Monks. Nancy, again, demonstrates her essentially moral nature, which Sikes and Fagin have not corrupted, by risking her safety to let Rose know that Monks plans to steal Oliver’s inheritance. Again, greed underlies the actions of those who would harm Oliver, regardless of class. Monks, a so-called gentleman, will get Oliver’s money, and Fagin, a known criminal, will be paid to silence Oliver. And again, compassion motivates those who help Oliver, whether they are people of social standing, like Mrs. Maylie and Mr. Brownlow, or people of outcast classes, like Nancy.

Both groups are in full action as the novel approaches its climax. Oliver’s allies in the Maylie and Brownlow households unite, draw on their resources, and solve the mystery of his identity. Meanwhile, Monks, Fagin, and Sikes, joined by Oliver’s childhood bully, Noah, collaborate to get Oliver under their control.

As the novel’s tension builds, Nancy’s selfless support of Oliver turns the plot and redeems her despite her life of crime. She risks her life to tell Mr. Brownlow where he can find Monks, while also stating that her associates must not come to trouble. When Fagin pays Noah to follow Nancy, the information Noah gains allows Fagin to manipulate Sikes into fury. Believing that Nancy, who loves the brutal Sikes, has betrayed him, he kills her and flees London, tormented by visions of Nancy’s pleading eyes. Her violent death marks the novel’s climax and its highest point of risk for Oliver because those who work for and against him now know enough to either save him or doom him.

The falling action reveals who will prevail in Oliver’s life—compassionate and just people who want the best for this orphaned, abused child, or greedy and selfish people who want to exploit him. Identities are revealed—those of Monks, Oliver’s mother, and Oliver himself—and unknown relationships come to light, especially that Oliver’s mother, Agnes, and Rose are sisters. Justice is done, too. Fagan is arrested, and the Bumbles’ meddling is exposed. Sikes dies by an act of fate, escaping the angry people—all belonging to that lower class that supposedly has no heart—who loved Nancy. Even those who skirt the law, like Monks, do not escape consequences. Monks takes his inheritance to the United States, wastes it, and dies in prison.

For those whose moral core guides them to compassionate action, the novel ends well. Charley turns away from the life Fagin taught him, and Rose and Harry, free of past embarrassments, marry. Oliver suddenly has a large, loving family. Adopted by Mr. Brownlow, he is also Rose’s nephew, and the interrelated clans move to the peaceful countryside. The novel’s resolution reiterates its point that moral character is a human attribute, not determined by class. Each person decides how to act, and though environment plays a role, each person is morally responsible for their own decisions.