Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The first chapters of Dickens’s first “true” novel, Oliver Twist, which he began to write concurrently with the picaresque adventures of Mr. Pickwick, form a hard-hitting satire on the inhuman cruelties of the New Poor Laws of 1834. These dictated that society’s jobless and desperate should be virtually imprisoned in harsh institutions known as workhouses. Into one of these a little bastard boy is born—the lowest of the low, christened “Oliver Twist” by a pompous parish official, Mr. Bumble the beadle. Yet Oliver is in fact a gentleman by blood, with a fortune awaiting him, for his story is also a romance of origins, a battered child’s wish fulfillment.
The Parish Boy’s Progress (to use Dickens’s subtitle) really starts when Oliver draws the short straw among a group of starving workhouse boys and must approach the master at dinnertime to utter his famous request: “Please, sir, I want some more.” He is promptly sold to an undertaker, whose wife locks him up among the coffins for punishment. He escapes to London, where he is befriended by a streetwise boy, the Artful Dodger, who initiates him into the all-boy household of an “old gentleman” called Fagin (the name of one of Dickens’s companions at the blacking factory), a criminal mastermind. Innocent as ever, it is not until Oliver is mistakenly arrested that he realizes that his new friends are pickpockets. During his trial at the police court, the...
(The entire section is 470 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Oliver Twist is born in the lying-in room of a parochial workhouse about seventy-five miles north of London. His mother, whose name is unknown, is found later unconscious by the roadside, exhausted by a long journey on foot; she dies leaving a locket and a ring as the only tokens of her child’s identity. These tokens are stolen by old Sally, a pauper present at her death.
Oliver owes his name to Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle and a bullying official of the workhouse, who always names his unknown orphans in the order of an alphabetical system he had devised. Twist is the name between Swubble and Unwin on Bumble’s list. An offered reward of ten pounds fails to discover Oliver’s parentage, and he is sent to a nearby poor farm, where he passes his early childhood in neglect and near starvation. At the age of nine, he is moved back to the workhouse. Always hungry, he asks one day for a second serving of porridge. The scandalized authorities put him in solitary confinement and post a bill offering five pounds to someone who will take him away from the parish.
Oliver is apprenticed to Sowerberry, a casket maker, to learn a trade. Sowerberry employs little Oliver, dressed in miniature mourning clothing, as an attendant at children’s funerals. Another Sowerberry employee, Noah Claypole, often teases Oliver about his parentage. One day, goaded beyond endurance, Oliver fiercely attacks Claypole and is subsequently locked in the cellar by Mrs. Sowerberry. When Sowerberry releases Oliver one night, he bundle up his meager belongings and starts out for London.
In a London suburb, Oliver, worn out from walking and weak from hunger, meets Jack Dawkins, a sharp-witted slum gamin. Known as the Artful Dodger, Dawkins offers Oliver lodgings in the city, and Oliver soon finds himself in the middle of a gang of young thieves led by a miserly old Jew, Fagin. Oliver is trained as a pickpocket. On his first mission, he is caught and taken to the police station. There he is rescued by kindly Mr. Brownlow, the man whose pocket Oliver is accused of having picked. Mr. Brownlow, his gruff friend, Grimwig, and the old housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin, care for the sickly Oliver, marveling at the resemblance of the boy to a portrait of a young lady in Mr. Brownlow’s possession. Once he recuperates, Oliver is given some books and money to take to a bookseller. Grimwig wagers that Oliver will not return. Fagin and his gang had been on constant lookout for the boy’s appearance. Oliver is intercepted by Nancy, a young street girl associated with the gang, and falls into Fagin’s clutches again.
Bumble, in London on parochial business, sees Mr. Brownlow’s advertisement for word leading to Oliver’s recovery. Hoping to profit, Bumble hastens to Mr. Brownlow and reports that Oliver is incorrigible. Mr. Brownlow thereupon refuses to have Oliver’s name mentioned in his presence.
During Oliver’s absence, Fagin’s gang had been studying a house in Chertsey, west of London, in preparation for breaking into it at night. When the time comes, Oliver, much to his horror, is forced to participate. He and Bill Sikes, a brutal young member of the gang, meet the housebreaker, Toby Crackit, and in the dark of early morning they pry open a small window of the house. Oliver, being the smallest, is the first to enter, but he is determined to warn the occupants. The thieves are discovered, and the trio flees; Oliver, however, is wounded by gunshot.
In fleeing, Sikes throws the wounded Oliver into a ditch and covers him with a cape. Toby Crackit returns and reports to Fagin, who, as it turns out, is more interested than ever in Oliver after a conversation he had had with Monks. Nancy overhears them talking about Oliver’s parentage and Monks expressing his wish to have the boy made a felon.
Oliver crawls feebly back to the house into which he had gone the night before, where he is taken in by the owner Mrs. Maylie and Rose, her adopted daughter. Oliver’s story arouses their sympathy, and he is saved from police investigation by Dr. Losberne, a friend of the Maylies. Upon his recovery, the boy goes with the doctor to find Mr. Brownlow, but it is learned that the old gentleman, his friend, Grimwig, and Mrs. Bedwin had gone to the West Indies.
Bumble is meanwhile courting the widow Corney. During one of their conversations, Mrs. Corney had been called out to...
(The entire section is 1800 words.)