Chapters 1–5 Summary
Oliver Twist is born in a workhouse in an unnamed English town to an unnamed mother. When he is a newborn, it is unclear whether he will live or die, as he is having trouble breathing. The nurse is apparently a poor alcoholic and the surgeon a mercenary, making Oliver’s entrance into the world less than promising. Once Oliver begins breathing, his mother holds him once and then dies, leaving him an orphan. The nurse explains that the woman—Oliver’s mother—was found in the street and had worn her shoes out from walking; the surgeon notices that she wears no wedding-ring. The narrator comments that Oliver’s initial blanket makes him look equal to babies of any other class, but once he is wrapped “in the old calico robes, which had grown yellow,” he “fell into his place at once.” The narrator suggests that a baby like Oliver will be seen as a burden, not a blessing.
Oliver grows up in poverty and is starved and abused. The parish workhouse has no female attendants, so he is transferred to another parish where “an elderly female” is tasked with rearing many orphans. She gives them as little food as she can manage and pockets some of the allowance for herself. The narrator mentions that those who take charge of these parish orphans make sure to clean up and present neat and orderly children to the parish officials when they visit.
By the time Oliver reaches the age of nine, he is small and malnourished but possesses “a good sturdy spirit.” On his birthday, Oliver and two other children are beaten and locked in a coal cellar for complaining of hunger. At this point, Mr. Bumble, the town beadle, arrives, unannounced. He reveals that no indication that Oliver’s family has ever been located. Because Oliver is nine years old, he will be moved to the workhouse where Bumble presides. When Oliver is asked if he’d like to go with Bumble, he has to contain his excitement because he is happy to leave the poor conditions and treatment he’s endured with Mrs. Mann. Oliver does feel some sadness simply because this is the only “home” he’s known, where his only “friends” have resided.
Oliver is asked to appear before a board of gentlemen, who ask him whether he knows he is an orphan who has been reared by the parish. Oliver does not know what “orphan” means and cries because he is intimidated by the rude gentlemen, who call him a fool. Oliver is told he will be educated and given a trade—picking oakum. The narrator describes the board’s attitude toward the poor and the workhouse. The board “discovered” that the poor enjoy the workhouse because they receive free entertainment and food, a place of “all play and no work.” This attitude leads the board to impose strict rules on the workhouse which have resulted in deaths and malnutrition amongst the workers. The workers get very little food and make sure to lick their spoons clean to get every drop of gruel. One day, the boys draw lots and Oliver is tasked with asking for more gruel. He is beaten and put into solitary imprisonment. The next morning, an advertisement is posted encouraging someone to take Oliver off the workhouse’s hands for five pounds.
Oliver is imprisoned for a week after his request for more food. He is miserable, crying all day, and is abused both privately and publicly. Oliver is made into an example so that the other boys can be “be guarded from the sins and vices of” the orphan. Meanwhile, a chimney sweeper named Mr. Gamfield sees the advertisement and happens to owe his landlord five pounds, making the prospect of taking Oliver and the accompanying payment appealing.
Gamfield says he will train Oliver to be a chimney sweeper. The job is very dangerous; in fact, Mr. Gamfield has already lost several apprentices. The board thinks Gamfield should take less money than the five pounds originally offered due to the dangers of the profession Oliver would be entering. When Oliver goes to meet...
(The entire section is 1,305 words.)