Summary: Chapter 17

Mr. Brownlow publishes an advertisement offering a reward of five guineas for information about Oliver’s whereabouts or his past. Mr. Bumble notices it in the paper while traveling to London. He quickly goes to Brownlow’s home. Mr. Bumble states that, since birth, Oliver has displayed nothing but “treachery, ingratitude, and malice.” Bumble tells Brownlow that Oliver attacked Noah Claypole without provocation, and Brownlow decides Oliver is nothing but an impostor. Mrs. Bedwin refuses to believe Mr. Bumble.

Summary: Chapter 18

Fagin leaves Oliver locked up in the house for days. During the daytime, Oliver has no human company. The Dodger and Charley ask him why he does not just give himself over to Fagin, since the money comes quickly and easily in their “jolly life.” Fagin gradually allows Oliver to spend more time in the other boys’ company. Sometimes, Fagin himself regales his crew with funny stories of robberies he committed in his youth. Oliver often laughs at the stories despite himself. Fagin’s plan has been to isolate Oliver until he comes to be so grateful for any human contact that he will do whatever Fagin asks.

Summary: Chapter 19

Sikes plans to rob a house, but he needs a small boy for the job. Fagin offers Oliver’s services. Sikes warns Oliver that he will kill him if he shows any signs of hesitation during the robbery. Sikes arranges to have Nancy deliver Oliver to the scene. Fagin watches Nancy for any signs of hesitation. Despite her earlier protests against trapping Oliver in a life of crime, she betrays no further misgivings.

Summary: Chapter 20

Fagin informs Oliver that he will be taken to Sikes’s residence that night. He gives Oliver a book to read. Oliver waits, shivering in horror at the book’s bloody tales of famous criminals and murderers. Nancy arrives to take him away. Oliver considers calling for help on the streets. Reading his thoughts on his face, Nancy warns him that he could get both of them into deep trouble. They arrive at Sikes’s residence, and Sikes shows Oliver a pistol. He warns Oliver that if he causes any trouble, he will kill him. At five in the morning, they prepare to leave for the job.

Summary: Chapter 21

Sikes takes Oliver on a long journey to the town of Shepperton. They arrive after dark.

Summary: Chapter 22

Sikes leads Oliver to a ruinous house where his partners in crime, Toby Crackit and Barney, are waiting. At half past one, Sikes and Crackit set out with Oliver. They arrive at the targeted house and climb over the wall surrounding it. Only then does Oliver realize that he will be made to participate in a robbery. Horrified, he begs Sikes to let him go. Sikes curses and prepares to shoot him, but Crackit knocks the pistol away, saying that gunfire will draw attention.

Crackit clasps his hand over Oliver’s mouth while Sikes pries open a tiny window. Sikes instructs Oliver to enter through the window and open the street door to let them inside, reminding him that he is within shooting range all the while. Oliver plans to dash for the stairs and warn the family. Sikes lowers him through the window. However, the residents of the house awake, and one shoots Oliver’s arm. Sikes pulls Oliver back through the window. He and Crackit flee with the bleeding Oliver.

Analysis: Chapters 17–22

Oliver’s domestic relationship with Fagin and his gang contributes to the novel’s argument that that the environment in which one is raised is a greater determining factor on one’s character than biological nature. The need for companionship, Dickens suggests, drives people to accept whichever community accepts them in return. As Oliver begins to find humor and joy in the companionship of the thieves, it becomes evident how easy it is for Fagin to corrupt Oliver. With the institution of the oppressive Poor Laws, it is no wonder that penniless, friendless children will adopt as family any person who is generous to them and will readily adopt that person’s values. The Artful Dodger and Charley Bates are, aside from their crimes, quite likeable characters. As his name implies, the Dodger is highly intelligent, and Charley is given to bursts of uncontrollable laughter at little provocation. Both, one imagines, could have thrived in legitimate society, were that society willing to admit them to its ranks.

Read more about the motif of surrogate families.

The fact that Oliver speaks and carries himself with a demeanor that is much more sophisticated than that of the rest of Fagin’s boys suggests that Dickens is using Oliver to show that even when people are born into squalid conditions, they can appreciate goodness and morality. When the Dodger and Charley pick Brownlow’s pocket, and again when Sikes and Crackit order Oliver into the house, Oliver reacts with shock and horror at the idea of stealing. It is unclear where he has acquired such moral fastidiousness. He could not have learned it amid the life or death struggles of the workhouse. The Dodger and Charley speak in the slang of street children, using expressions like “scragged,” “rum dog,” “peaching,” and “fogles and tickers.” But Oliver does not understand what such expressions mean. He himself speaks in proper King’s English: “I would rather go,” “you’re one, are you not?” Because even Mr. Bumble speaks with a comical vulgar accent, Oliver could not have picked up his refined speech patterns from him. It seems that Oliver’s careful speech is a symptom of his innate moral goodness.

Yet the suggestion that Oliver is innately good complicates Dickens’s argument that corruption is bred by the horrible living conditions of the lower classes, rather than inherently born into their characters. Descriptions of Oliver’s face, in fact, seem to suggest that morality can be born into character. Mr. Sowerberry enlists Oliver to serve in funerals on account of the “expression of melancholy in his face.” The usually unperceptive Toby Crackit notes that Oliver’s “mug is a fortun’ to him,” meaning that his innocent-looking face is worth money to the thieves. Mr. Brownlow sees clearly the resemblance between Oliver and the woman in the portrait, thus providing both himself and us with the first hint that the workhouse-born Oliver has an identity that is worth discovering. Dickens clearly protests against the idea propounded by Mr. Bumble, that the poor are born with an affinity for vice and crime. Yet it sometimes seems as if Oliver has been born with an affinity for virtue and love, just as he was born with his angelic face.

Read more about Oliver’s face as a motif.

But even Oliver’s captivating face does not give him immunity against irrational malice, embodied by characters such as Bumble. Bumble names Oliver as a child born of “low and vicious” parents, reproducing the stereotype that the poor inherit a criminal nature. Moreover, Bumble narrates the incident of Oliver’s attack on Noah Claypole in the same light. Oliver was “low and vicious” for trying to define his identity on his own terms. Mr. Bumble shows Brownlow his own identification papers to prove his statement. His status as the middle-class beadle for a workhouse gives him the right to speak for Oliver and therefore to define Oliver’s identity as he sees fit. With his identification papers, Bumble has the power of the state to back up his word. Oliver only has his own word to back him up. Outside of the workhouse, Oliver has no legal existence unless he commits a crime and enters the courtroom. The poor are thus reduced to a public existence as criminals, corpses, and “idle, lazy” paupers living on state charity. The state chooses to recognize their existence only when they commit crimes, die, or enter the workhouses.

Read more about the symbolism behind characters’ names.