Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1305
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 his new master, he is horrified and begs to be let back into the workhouse. The old gentleman from the board, who had previously not noticed the “ugly leer” of Mr. Gamfield or Oliver’s distress, now realizes that Oliver should not be sent away with the chimney sweep. The workhouse once again advertises Oliver and the accompanying five pounds.
The narrator muses upon young men who have no real place in the world, commenting that the default is then to send them to sea. This may have been Oliver’s fate if Mr. Sowerberry, the local undertaker, had not come in to see Bumble that day about a coffin order. The two converse about how Sowerberry is making less profit because less wood is needed for the small coffins that house the starving, malnourished poor. Bumble inquires as to whether Sowerberry knows someone in need of an apprentice; Sowerberry agrees to take Oliver himself.
Oliver appears before the board and is told that if he complains or returns, he will be sent out to sea, where a terrible fate likely awaits him. Unlike his previous experience of almost being sold to Mr. Gamfield, Oliver is quiet and obedient as he is “led away… to a new scene of suffering.” As Bumble walks Oliver to his new home, Oliver sobs, winning some sympathy from Bumble by revealing his misery. Upon entering the house of the Sowerberry family, Oliver is introduced to Mrs. Sowerberry, who thinks Oliver is “very small.” Oliver is brought to the basement, where he meets Charlotte (a servant to the household) and feasts on scraps of meat that the dog has rejected. Oliver is at last shown his bed, which is beneath a counter and near the coffins.
The narrator describes Oliver’s surroundings and the boy’s fear of the ominous coffins. Oliver wishes he were dead in a coffin himself. He is awakened by Noah Claypole, another charity boy who is Oliver’s superior in the business’s hierarchy, kicking at the door. Noah kicks Oliver when he is let in. Next, the workers eat breakfast, and Oliver is given the worst portion of food. Even though Noah is a charity boy, he is treated better than Oliver because he is not an orphan; he just comes from a poor family.
After about a month, Sowerberry asks his wife whether he might be able to bring Oliver along on some of his business. As a “mute,” Oliver’s job would be to go to the funerals with his master; his naturally gloomy countenance will fit the mood of the occasion. The mistress agrees with the undertaker’s plan. Bumble arrives at the shop to discuss a coffin order for a woman who died the previous night, likely of starvation. The undertaker and Oliver travel to the home of the deceased woman, making their way through a severely impoverished part of town marked by dilapidated tenement buildings. The streets are disgusting and littered with rats.
As they reach the apartment, Oliver and Sowerberry meet with a mourning family. The husband is angry and accuses a vague “They” of starving his wife to death. The woman’s mother seems to be mad, acting “merry” in the face of the tragedy. Sowerberry takes measurements for the casket and returns the next morning for the funeral. The casket is transported to the cemetery, where a brief service is performed. When the undertaker asks Oliver’s opinion, he must admit he doesn’t like the funeral business, but his master assures him he will get used to it.
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