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 gentleman, Mr. Brownlow, whom he is supposed to have robbed, recognizes Oliver’s innate goodness and takes him into his home.
All seems safe—but Oliver knows too much about wily, demonic Fagin and his companion-in-crime, Bill Sikes. Sikes’s woman, Nancy, a prostitute, is employed to steal Oliver back—an act that she immediately regrets and tries to repair. Sikes tries to seal Oliver’s degradation and his power over him by employing him on a housebreaking expedition. The plan misfires when Oliver is shot crawling through the window of a country house and is taken in by the gentle people he is supposed to be robbing—an old lady and her ward, who eventually turns out to be Oliver’s aunt.
As this excess of coincidences indicates, the second half of the novel is inferior to the first. Good eventually defeats evil, and Oliver inherits the heaven of respectable middle-classness, hardly a radical solution to a novel that trumpets its social criticism. Creative energy dissipates, however, when the action leaves the nightmare underworld of London, which seems almost a projection or map of Dickens’s own childhood terrors. The real climax of the novel is Sikes’s brutal murder of Nancy—one of the scenes that led some commentators to worry that the novel belied its author’s fascination with the criminality that it denounced.