Summary: Chapter 1

Oliver Twist is born a sickly infant in a workhouse. The parish surgeon and a drunken nurse attend his birth. His mother kisses his forehead and dies, and the nurse announces that Oliver’s mother was found lying in the streets the night before. The surgeon notices that she is not wearing a wedding ring.

Summary: Chapter 2

So they established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative . . . of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.

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Authorities at the workhouse send Oliver to a branch-workhouse for “juvenile offenders against the poor-laws.” The overseer, Mrs. Mann, receives an adequate sum for each child’s upkeep, but she keeps most of the money and lets the children go hungry, sometimes even letting them die.

On Oliver’s ninth birthday, Mr. Bumble, a minor church official known as the parish beadle, informs Mrs. Mann that Oliver is too old to stay at her establishment. Since no one has been able to discover his mother’s or father’s identity, he must return to the workhouse. Mrs. Mann asks how the boy came to have any name at all. Mr. Bumble tells her that he keeps a list of names in alphabetical order, naming the orphans from the list as they are born.

Mrs. Mann fetches Oliver. When Mr. Bumble is not looking, she glowers and shakes her fist at the boy, so he stays silent about the miserable conditions at her establishment. Before Oliver departs, Mrs. Mann gives him some bread and butter so that he will not seem too hungry at the workhouse.

The workhouse offers the poor the opportunity to starve slowly as opposed to quick starvation on the streets. For the workhouse, the undertaker’s bill is a major budget item due to the large number of deaths. Oliver and his young companions suffer the “tortures of slow starvation.” One night at dinner, one child tells the others that if he does not have another bowl of gruel he might eat one of them. Terrified, the children at the workhouse cast lots, determining that whoever loses shall be required to ask for more food for the boy. Oliver loses, and after dinner, the other children insist that Oliver ask for more food at supper. His request so shocks the authorities that they offer five pounds as a reward to anyone who will take Oliver off of their hands.

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Summary: Chapter 3

In the parish, Oliver has been flogged and then locked in a dark room as a public example. Mr. Gamfield, a brutish chimney sweep, offers to take Oliver on as an apprentice. Because several boys have died under his supervision, the board considers five pounds too large a reward, and they settle on just over three pounds. Mr. Bumble, Mr. Gamfield, and Oliver appear before a magistrate to seal the bargain. At the last minute, the magistrate notices Oliver’s pale, alarmed face. He asks the boy why he looks so terrified. Oliver falls on his knees and begs that he be locked in a room, beaten, killed, or any other punishment besides being apprenticed to Mr. Gamfield. The magistrate refuses to approve the apprenticeship, and the workhouse authorities again advertise Oliver’s availability.

Summary: Chapter 4

The workhouse board considers sending Oliver out to sea as a cabin boy, expecting that he would die quickly in such miserable conditions. However, Mr. Sowerberry, the parish undertaker, takes Oliver on as his apprentice. Mr. Bumble informs Oliver that he will suffer dire consequences if he ever complains about his situation. Mrs. Sowerberry remarks that Oliver is rather small. Mr. Bumble assures her that he will grow, but she grumbles that he will only grow by eating their food. Mrs. Sowerberry serves Oliver the leftovers that the dog has declined to eat. Oliver devours the food as though it were a great feast. After he finishes, Mrs. Sowerberry leads him to his bed, worrying that his appetite seems so large.

Summary: Chapter 5

In the morning, Noah Claypole, Mr. Sowerberry’s apprentice, wakes Oliver. Noah and Charlotte, the maid, taunt Oliver during breakfast. Oliver accompanies Sowerberry to prepare for a pauper’s burial. The husband of the deceased delivers a tearful tirade against his wife’s death. She has starved to death, and although he once tried to beg for her, the authorities sent him to prison for the offense. The dead woman’s mother begs for some bread and a cloak to wear for the funeral.

At the graveyard before the funeral, some ragged boys jump back and forth over the coffin to amuse themselves. Mr. Bumble beats a few of the boys. The clergyman performs the service in four minutes. Mr. Bumble quickly ushers the grieving family out of the cemetery, and Mr. Sowerberry takes the cloak away from the dead woman’s mother. Oliver decides that he is not at all fond of the undertaking business.

Summary: Chapter 6

A measles epidemic arrives, and Oliver gains extensive experience in undertaking. His master dresses him well so that he can march in the processions. Oliver notes that the relatives of deceased, wealthy, elderly people quickly overcome their grief after the funeral.

Noah becomes increasingly jealous of Oliver’s speedy advancement. One day, he insults Oliver’s dead mother. Oliver attacks him in a fit of rage. Charlotte and Mrs. Sowerberry rush to Noah’s aid, and the three of them beat Oliver and lock him in the cellar.

Summary: Chapter 7

Noah rushes to fetch Mr. Bumble, sobbing so that his injuries from his confrontation with Oliver appear much worse than they are. Mr. Bumble informs Mrs. Sowerberry that feeding meat to Oliver gives him more spirit than is appropriate to his station in life. Still enraged, Oliver kicks at the cellar door. Sowerberry returns home, beats Oliver, and locks him up again. Oliver’s rage dissolves into tears. Early the next morning, Oliver runs away. On his way out of town, he passes the workhouse where he used to live and sees an old friend, Dick, in the yard. Dick vows not to tell anyone about Oliver’s flight and bids him a warm farewell.

Summary: Chapter 8

Oliver decides to walk the seventy miles to London. Hunger, cold, and fatigue weaken him over the next seven days. In one village, signs warn that beggars will be thrown in jail. Finally, Oliver limps into a small town just outside London and collapses in a doorway. He is approached by a boy about his own age named Jack Dawkins, who dresses and acts like a grown man. Jack purchases a large lunch for Oliver and informs him that he knows a “genelman” in London who will let Oliver stay in his home for free. Oliver learns that Jack’s nickname is “the Artful Dodger.” He guesses from the Dodger’s appearance that his way of life is immoral. He plans to ingratiate himself with the gentleman in London and then end all association with Jack.

That night, the Dodger takes Oliver to a squalid London neighborhood. At a dilapidated house, the Dodger calls out a password, and a man allows them to enter. The Dodger conducts Oliver into a filthy, black back room where an “old shrivelled Jew” named Fagin and some boys are having supper. Silk handkerchiefs hang everywhere. The boys smoke pipes and drink liquor although none appear older than the Dodger. Oliver takes a share of the dinner and sinks into a deep sleep.

Analysis: Chapters 1–4

Oliver Twist is an extreme criticism of Victorian society’s treatment of the poor. The workhouses that figure prominently in the first few chapters of the novel were institutions that the Victorian middle class established to raise poor children. Since it was believed that certain vices were inherent to the poor and that poor families fostered rather than discouraged such vices, poor husbands and wives were separated in order to prevent them from having children and expanding the lower class. Poor children were taken away from their parents in order to allow the state and the church to raise them in the manner they believed most appropriate.

Read more about how Dickens treats Victorian stereotypes about poverty and vice.

In the narrative, the workhouse functions as a sign of the moral hypocrisy of the working class. Mrs. Mann steals from the children in her care, feeding and clothing them inadequately. The Victorian middle class saw cleanliness as a moral virtue, and the workhouse was supposed to rescue the poor from the immoral condition of filth. However, the workhouse in Dickens’s novel is a filthy place—Mrs. Mann never ensures that the children practice good hygiene except during an inspection. Workhouses were established to save the poor from starvation, disease, and filth, but in fact they end up visiting precisely those hardships on the poor. Furthermore, Mr. Bumble’s actions underscore middle-class hypocrisy, especially when he criticizes Oliver for not gratefully accepting his dire conditions. Bumble himself, however, is fat and well-dressed, and the entire workhouse board is full of fat gentlemen who preach the value of a meager diet for workhouse residents.

The assumption on the part of the middle-class characters that the lower classes are naturally base, criminal, and filthy serves to support their vision of themselves as a clean and morally upright social group. The gentlemen on the workhouse board call Oliver a “savage” who is destined for the gallows. After Oliver’s outrageous request for more food, the board schemes to apprentice him to a brutal master, hoping that he will soon die. Even when the upper classes claim to be alleviating the lower-class predicament, they only end up aggravating it. In order to save Oliver from what they believe to be his certain fate as a criminal, the board essentially ensures his early death by apprenticing him to a brutal employer.

The workhouse reproduces the vices it is supposed to erase. One workhouse boy, with a “wild, hungry” look, threatens in jest to eat another boy. The suggestion is that workhouses force their residents to become cannibals. The workhouse also mimics the institution of slavery: the residents are fed and clothed as little as possible and required to work at tasks assigned by the board, and they are required to put on a face of cheery, grateful acceptance of the miserable conditions that have been forced on them. When Oliver does not, he is sold rather than sent away freely.

Read more about the failure of charity as a theme.

Dickens achieves his biting criticism of social conditions through deep satire and hyperbolic statements. Throughout the novel, absurd characters and situations are presented as normal, and Dickens often says the opposite of what he really means. For example, in describing the men of the parish board, Dickens writes that “they were very sage, deep, philosophical men” who discover about the workhouse that “the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay. . . .” Of course, we know that Oliver’s experience with the workhouse is anything but entertaining and that the men of the parish board are anything but “sage, deep,” or “philosophical.” But by making statements such as these, Dickens highlights the comical extent to which the upper classes are willfully ignorant of the plight of the lower classes. Since paupers like Oliver stand no chance of defeating their tormenters, Dickens takes it upon himself to defeat them with sly humor that reveals their faults more sharply than a serious tone might have. Though Oliver himself will never have much of a sense of humor, we will eventually meet other boys in his situation who will join Dickens in using humor as a weapon in their woefully unequal struggle with the society that oppresses them.

Read more about Dickens and the background of the novel.

Analysis: Chapters 5–8

Noah Claypole’s relationship with Oliver illustrates Victorian England’s obsession with class distinctions. The son of destitute parents, Noah is accustomed to the disdain of those who are better off than he. Thus, he is relieved to have Oliver nearby, since, as an orphan, Oliver is even worse off than he is. Dickens characterizes Noah’s cowardice and bullying as “the same amiable qualities” that are “developed in the finest lord.” Dickens shows that class snobbery is a universal quality, characteristic of the lowest as well as the highest strata of society. Moreover, snobbish behavior seems a component of class insecurity. The poor mercilessly taunt those who are poorer than they, out of anxious desire to distinguish themselves from those who are even worse off in life.

Read an in-depth analysis of Oliver Twist.

In protesting the parish’s treatment of Oliver, Dickens criticizes the Victorian characterization of the poor as naturally immoral, criminal, and filthy. His principal character, Oliver, after all, is virtuous, good, and innocent. Although we might expect a criticism of the popular conception of the lower classes to describe many lower-class characters who are essentially good, honest, and hardworking, Dickens does not paint such a simplistic picture. The character of Noah, for example, exhibits the same stereotypes that Dickens satirizes in the first several chapters. Noah, the son of a drunkard, seems to have inherited all of the unpleasant traits that his father presumably has. Big, greedy, cowardly, ugly, and dirty, Noah is the quintessential Victorian stereotype of the good-for-nothing poor man.

Part of Dickens’s motivation for writing Oliver Twist was to expose the horrid conditions in which the lower classes were expected to live, and, as a result, much of the narrative focuses on the sensationally disgusting settings in which the poor live their lives. At one point, Oliver and Sowerberry travel to a squalid section of town to retrieve a dead pauper’s body. The neighborhood is full of shop fronts that are “fast closed and mouldering away.” The people of this neighborhood have apparently been left behind by the economic expansion of the Industrial Revolution, which was in full force at the time of Oliver Twist’s publication. The bereaved husband’s wife does not starve to death as a result of her “natural” laziness—she starves to death because of the economic realities of the society in which she lives.

Oliver’s attack on Noah is an important moment in the development of his character. Most of the time, he is portrayed as sweet, -docile, innocent, and naïve—sometimes to the point of seeming somewhat dim. Indeed, it might seem that Dickens, in his fervent desire to exact his Victorian audience’s sympathy for the poor orphan, exaggerates by making Oliver angelic. Oliver’s fit of rage, however, makes him seem more passionate and human, like an ordinary child. Oliver, raised in the workhouse, has never seen a functioning family except for the Sowerberrys, who are childless. His sense of familial love and duty is strong enough to compel him to violently come to his mother’s defense. Dickens implies that loyalty to kin, and the desire for the love of a family, is an impulse with which children are born, not one that needs to be learned and nurtured.

Oliver’s trip to London parallels the migration of the poor to the urban centers of England during the Industrial Revolution. His hungry, exhausted condition is a result of the laws forbidding begging, and it leaves him vulnerable enough to accept the questionable charity of a band of thieves. Dickens clearly blames the crimes committed by the poor on the people who passed the draconian Poor Laws. Thus, in order to survive, Oliver must accept the aid of Fagin’s band. Oliver’s stay with Fagin’s band represents the first truly domestic experience in his life. Although Fagin’s house is filthy and derelict, it contains a relatively idyllic dinner scene, with plenty of food laid out in pewter dishes and no one to begrudge Oliver his full share of the food.

Read an in-depth analysis of Fagin.