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....
(The entire section is 1800 words.)
Dickens, like Shakespeare, is one of those rare writers who has always appealed to a wide variety of readers. Many of Dickens's books were published, one part at a time, in popular magazines of the day. Whenever a new installment of a Dickens novel appeared, people of all social and economic classes rushed out to discover what had happened to their favorite characters. Scholars estimate that for every book or magazine copy sold, ten people read or heard the story. Dickens's novels are still amazingly popular among both casual readers and scholars. Academic articles and books on Dickens appear at a rate surpassed only by Shakespearean criticism.
Oliver Twist offers typical Dickensian pleasures. The author creates situations and incidents that are incredibly funny, delightfully touching, and feverishly exciting. His language amazes with its aptness and honesty. Dickens's realistic descriptions of loathsome places and evil characters brought criticism from his fellow Victorians, many of whom preferred to avoid any knowledge of their society's imperfections. Despite his unforgettable portraits of the underside of Victorian England, Dickens presents a world governed by morality, in which both honest and dishonest characters receive their due. In Oliver Twist and all of his works, Dickens deals realistically and profoundly with social and moral issues that remain relevant today.
(The entire section is 212 words.)
Chapter 1-9 Summary
The book opens with Oliver's birth in a work-house, as his unmarried and nameless mother dies. He is soon transferred to an "infant farm," run by Mrs. Mann, who starves the children under her care and pockets the money given to her for their food. Although many of the children die, investigations always determine that the death was "accidental." Oliver lives with her until he is nine, when the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble, arrives to tell her that Oliver is supposed to return to the workhouse. At the workhouse, he gets in trouble for asking for more food. For this audacious behavior, he is locked up, and the workhouse board decides to give five pounds to anyone who will take Oliver as an apprentice and thus relieve the parish of his care.
A chimney sweep, Gamfield, offers to take Oliver but is rejected when a kindly magistrate finds that Oliver is terrified of Gamfield. He goes back to the workhouse until an undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, agrees to take him. At Sowerberry's house he must sleep among the halfbuilt coffins and eat leftovers even the dog won't touch. In addition, he is bullied by Noah Claypole, another charity boy who works for Sowerberry, and by Charlotte, Sowerberry's servant.
Sowerberry decides to have Oliver work as a hired mourner at children's funerals, because he looks so unhappy all the time. This promotion makes Claypole furiously jealous, and he attacks Oliver, who violently defends himself, hitting the much bigger Claypole...
(The entire section is 424 words.)
Chapter 10-19 Summary
Oliver sometimes takes part in this game, but he doesn't realize yet that it is practice for stealing. He thinks Fagin is respectable and is simply teaching the boys good work ethics. He begs to be allowed to go out with Charley and the Dodger and gets into trouble when they pick a man's pocket and then run away. Oliver doesn't run, and he's immediately grabbed as the thief. He is shocked, having finally realized that his "friends" are all thieves.
He is taken to the police station, and the man who accused him, Mr. Brownlow, follows. This man has second thoughts about the accusation because Oliver doesn't look like a thief. Oliver also looks familiar to him, although he doesn't know why. In the courtroom, an evil magistrate, Mr. Fang, sentences him to three months of hard labor. Oliver faints. Another witness shoves into the courtroom and reports that he saw the whole crime and that Oliver is innocent. Oliver is released, but he is weak and disoriented. Mr. Brownlow takes Oliver home with him.
Oliver remains unconscious for several days. Mrs. Bedwin, Brownlow's housekeeper, takes care of him. At Brownlow's house, he is fascinated by a portrait of a kind-looking woman on the wall. Brownlow notices that Oliver resembles the woman.
Meanwhile, Dawkins and the Dodger have gone back to Fagin's and reported that they have lost Oliver to the police. Fagin is enraged.
More thieves show up: Bill Sikes and his dog; Nancy, Sikes's...
(The entire section is 751 words.)
Chapter 21-31 Summary
Nancy shows up to take Oliver to Sikes's place and confesses to him that she wants to help him but can't do anything right now. She tells him it will be good for them both if he keeps quiet about her being on his side.
Sikes and Oliver set out on the long journey to the house the gang will rob. At a deserted old house, they meet Barney, who is occasionally a waiter in a seedy bar in Saffron Hill, and Toby Crackit, the well-known burglar. In the middle of the night, they head out. Oliver is petrified and doesn't want to participate in the crime, but Sikes tells him he will kill him if he doesn't. Sikes opens a tiny window and tells Oliver to enter and open the door for the rest of the gang. Oliver goes in, planning to wake up the people inside and warn them, but they have already heard the break-in, and they shoot at Oliver and the other burglars. Toby and Sikes run off, with Oliver, who is bleeding.
Back in the workhouse, Mrs. Corney, the matron, is making tea. Mr. Bumble visits her and notices that she's doing very well from defrauding the poor; she has good food, silver teaspoons, and nice furniture. He decides it would be in his best interest to marry the widow, so he flirts with her.
They are interrupted by a pauper who says that another pauper, old Sally, is dying and wants to speak to Mrs. Corney. Sally tells Mrs. Corney that many years ago she nursed a poor unmarried woman who had a child and then died. Before she died, she...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
Chapter 32-41 Summary
Oliver's broken arm heals under the care of Rose Maylie, Mrs. Maylie, and Mr. Losberne. They take a trip to London so that Oliver can see Mr. Brownlow, and Oliver points out the ruined house where the robber gang met. The doctor jumps out of the carriage and goes into the building, where he finds an ugly, deformed man who says he has lived alone there for twenty-five years.
At Brownlow's house, they find a "For Rent" sign in the window, and neighbors tell them Brownlow has gone to the West Indies with Mrs. Bedlow and Mr. Grimwig. Oliver is deeply disappointed because he knows that Brownlow must have decided that he really was a thief when he did not return when Brownlow sent him out on his errand to the bookseller's.
The group goes on to a rural cottage, where they spend the summer, and Oliver is healed and enchanted by the beautiful countryside.
During this peaceful time, Rose Maylie becomes ill with a dangerous fever. Mrs. Maylie writes to Mr. Losberne and to "Harry Maylie, Esquire." Oliver takes the letters to the nearest village to deliver them, and he runs into a tall man wearing a cloak, who swears at him and then falls down in a fit of convulsions.
Harry Maylie, who is Mrs. Maylie's son, arrives. He is deeply in love with Rose, but Mrs. Maylie tells him that Rose will probably refuse to marry him because there is some sort of scandal attached to her and that if she becomes his wife, she will ruin his future...
(The entire section is 864 words.)
Chapter 42-51 Summary
On the same night that Rose and Nancy meet, Noah Claypole and Charlotte come to London. They have stolen a twenty-pound note, and, by chance, they stop at the Three Cripples, the thieves' pub. Fagin overhears them talking about their crime and the difficulty of cashing such a big note without arousing suspicion, and he offers to take them in and teach them. He tells them that one of his best thieves, the Artful Dodger, has been arrested and could end up a "lifer."
Charley Bates arrives and explains that there are witnesses to the crime, so the Dodger's fate is sealed. Shamefully enough, the stolen item was a small snuffbox, not even anything expensive or daring. Fagin tells him that Dawkins will perform well at the trial and will uphold his dignity as a daring thief. Claypole is sent to the police station to see how the hearing goes; the Dodger mocks everyone there.
The following Sunday night, Nancy tries to leave to go to London Bridge, in case the Maylies are there to meet her. Sikes senses something amiss and refuses to let her go. Fagin assumes she has another boyfriend and plots to convince her to turn against Sikes and perhaps poison him. This will be convenient for Fagin, who thinks Sikes knows too much. He decides to have her followed so he can find out where her real affections lie. Then he can use the information against her and convince her to do Sikes in. He assigns Claypole to this job.
A week later, Nancy goes to...
(The entire section is 1162 words.)
Chapter 52-53 Summary
Fagin is in court, and the verdict is "Guilty." He is sentenced to death by hanging. He realizes that, of all the people in the courtroom, none care about him and all are glad he will die. Brownlow and Oliver visit him in his cell, and Brownlow asks about some papers that Monks gave to Fagin. Fagin tells him where the papers are. Oliver is so upset by this visit that he is unable to walk for some time afterward.
A few months later, Rose and Harry are married, and Harry gives up his plans for a political career in favor of life as a clergyman. Mrs. Maylie comes to live with them in their country parsonage. Oliver generously allows Monks to keep half of the inheritance, and Monks goes to the New World and eventually dies in prison. The rest of Fagin's gang are transported far from England and die overseas. Mr. Brownlow adopts Oliver as his son, and they live with Mrs. Bedwin, close to Rose and Harry's parsonage. Mr. Losberne and Mr. Grimwig also settle close by. Noah and Charlotte Claypole become police informers; they buy drinks on Sundays and then report on the pubs for being open, which is against the law on Sunday. The Bumbles lose their jobs and become so poverty-stricken that they must live in the workhouse they once ran. Charley Bates repents of his life of crime and becomes a wholesome farmer.
(The entire section is 240 words.)