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 attend the death of old Sally, who had attended the death of Oliver’s mother. After old Sally died, Mrs. Corney removed a pawn ticket from her hand. In Mrs. Corney’s absence, Bumble appraised her property to his satisfaction, and when she returned, he proposed marriage.
The Maylies move to the country, where Oliver reads and takes long walks. During this holiday, Rose Maylie falls sick and nearly dies. Harry Maylie, Mrs. Maylie’s son, who is in love with Rose, joins the group. Harry asks Rose to marry him, but Rose refuses on the grounds that she cannot marry him unless she discovers who she is and unless he mends his ways. One night, Oliver is frightened when he sees Fagin and Monks peering through the study window.
Bumble discovers that married life with the former Mrs. Corney is not all happiness, for she dominates him completely. When Monks goes to the workhouse seeking information about Oliver, he meets with Mr. and Mrs. Bumble and learns that Mrs. Bumble redeemed a locket and a wedding ring with the pawn ticket she had recovered from old Sally. Monks buys the trinkets from Mrs. Bumble and throws them into the river. Nancy overhears Monks telling Fagin that he had disposed of the proofs of Oliver’s parentage. After drugging Bill Sikes, whom she had been nursing to recovery from gunshot wounds received in the ill-fated venture at Chertsey, she goes to see Rose Maylie, whose name and address she had overheard in the conversation between Fagin and Monks.
Nancy tells Rose everything she had heard concerning Oliver. Rose is unable to understand fully the various connections of the plot nor can she see Monks’s connection with Oliver. She offers the miserable girl the protection of her own home, but Nancy refuses; she knows that she could never leave Bill Sikes. The two young women agree on a time and place for a later meeting. Rose and Oliver call on Mr. Brownlow, whom Oliver had glimpsed in the street. The reunion of the boy, Mr. Brownlow, and Mrs. Bedwin is a joyous one. Even old Grimwig gruffly expresses his pleasure at seeing Oliver again. Rose tells Mr. Brownlow Nancy’s story.
Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the Sowerberrys’ maidservant, run away from the casket maker and arrive in London. They then go to the public house where Fagin and his gang frequently meet. Fagin flatters Noah into his employ; his job is to steal small coins from children on household errands.
At the time agreed upon for her appointment with Rose Maylie, Nancy is unable to leave the demanding Bill Sikes. Fagin notices Nancy’s impatience and decides that she has tired of Sikes and has another lover. Fagin hates Sikes because of the younger man’s power over the gang, and he sees this situation as an opportunity to rid himself of Sikes. Fagin sets Noah on Nancy’s trail.
The following week, Nancy is freed with the aid of Fagin. She goes to Rose and Mr. Brownlow and reveals to them the haunts of all the gang except Sikes. Noah overhears all this and secretly tells Fagin, who in turn tells Sikes. In his rage, Sikes brutally murders Nancy, never knowing that the girl had been faithful to him. He flees, pursued by the vision of Nancy’s staring dead eyes. Frantic with fear, he even tries to kill his dog, whose presence could betray him. The dog runs away.
Monks is apprehended and confesses to Mr. Brownlow the plot against Oliver. Oliver’s father, Edward Leeford, had married a woman older than himself. Their son, Edward Leeford, is the man now known as Monks. After several years of unhappiness, the couple had separated; Monks and his mother remained on the Continent and Mr. Leeford returned to England. Later, Leeford met a retired naval officer with two daughters, one three years old, the other seventeen. Leeford fell in love with the older daughter and contracted to marry the girl, but before the marriage could be performed, he was called to Rome, where an old friend had died. On the way to Rome, he stopped at the house of Mr. Brownlow, his best friend, and left a portrait of his betrothed. He himself fell sick in Rome and died, and his first wife seized his papers. Leeford’s young wife-to-be was pregnant; when she heard of Leeford’s death, she ran away to hide her pregnancy. Her father died soon afterward, and the younger sister was eventually adopted by Mrs. Maylie.
Rose was consequently Oliver’s aunt. Monks had gone on to live a dissolute life, going to the West Indies when his mother died. Mr. Brownlow had gone in search of him there, but by then Monks had already returned to England to track down his young half brother, whose part of his father’s settlement he wishes to keep for himself. It was Monks who had offered the reward at the workhouse for information about Oliver’s parentage, and it was Monks who had paid Fagin to see that the boy remained with the gang as a common thief.
After Fagin and the Artful Dodger are seized, Bill Sikes and the remainder of the gang meet on Jacob’s Island in the Thames River. They intend to stay there in a deserted house until the hunt dies down. Sikes’s dog, however, leads their pursuers to the hideout. Sikes hangs himself accidentally with the rope he was using as a means of escape. The other thieves are captured. Fagin is hanged publicly at Newgate after he had revealed to Oliver the location of papers concerning his heritage, which Monks had entrusted to him for safekeeping.
Harry Maylie becomes a minister and marries Rose Maylie. Mr. Brownlow adopts Oliver and takes up residence near the church of the Reverend Harry Maylie. Mr. and Mrs. Bumble lose their parochial positions and become inmates of the workhouse that once had been their domain. Monks is allowed to retain his share of his father’s property, and he moves to the United States; eventually he dies in prison. Oliver’s years of hardship and unhappiness are at an end.