Oliver Twist Summary

Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist

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Oliver Twist Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

Oliver Twist is born into a life of poverty in 1837 England, seventy miles north of London. Orphaned by his mother’s death in childbirth and abandoned by his father, he lives his first nine years at a baby farm, being looked after by Mrs. Mann. This life supplies only the bare necessities.

When Oliver is about nine, the beadle Mr. Bumble collects Oliver and sets him to labor weaving at the main workhouse. Oliver works there for six months, receiving very little food as he toils away. In one of the book’s most-famous scenes, one day, the workhouse boys decide to ask Mr. Bumble for more food. They draw lots, with Oliver “losing.” Oliver approaches Mr. Bumble and says, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

In response, the men who run the workhouse offer five pounds to anyone willing to take Oliver as an apprentice. Oliver is nearly claimed by the chimney sweep Mr. Gamfield, but the magistrate refuses to sign the papers after Oliver begs not to be sent with him. Instead, Oliver goes with the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. Sowerberry improves the treatment Oliver receives, and because of Oliver’s sour appearance, Oliver serves as a mourner at children’s funerals.

As nice as Mr. Sowerberry is, however, his wife is another matter. She treats Oliver poorly, the result of her being unhappy in her marriage. Additionally, a fellow apprentice, Noah Claypole, and the Sowerberrys’s maid, Charlotte, who is in love with Noah, bully Oliver.

Noah succeeds one day in provoking Oliver into a fight by insulting Oliver’s dead mother. Mrs. Sowerberry joins Noah in beating Olivier, and then demands that her husband and Mr. Bumble do the same. After spending the night in his room sobbing, Oliver breaks out of the Sowerberrys’s home and heads to London to find his future there.

On the way to London, Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, a pickpocket more commonly referred to as the “Artful Dodger,” and Dawkins’s sidekick, Charley Bates. Dodger shares food with Oliver, and offers to direct him to a man who will let him live there for free. The man is the criminal Fagin, who leads a group of juvenile delinquent pickpockets as an underground illegal enterprise. At first, Oliver is unaware of the gang’s criminal activities, thinking that the boys make wallets and handkerchiefs, when, in fact, they’re stealing them.

No long after his arrival with the gang, Oliver joins Dodger and Charley on one of their pickpocketing excursions. Charley and Dodger steal the handkerchief of Mr. Brownlow. When Brownlow notices he’s been robbed, Dodger and Charley escape. Oliver, however, is caught, and is accused of stealing by Mr. Brownlow.

Upon closer inspection of Oliver, Mr. Browlow begins to doubt Oliver’s capacity for pickpocketing. In front of the judge, a bookstall holder who witnessed the crime exonerates Oliver. Oliver is not well, though, and faints in the courtroom. Mr. Brownlow takes Oliver to his house, and, with the help of his housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin, nurses Oliver back to health.

Oliver returns to health quickly thanks to the kindness of Mrs. Bedwin and Mr. Browlow, but his presence nearby comes to Fagin’s attention, who decides that Oliver must be returned to the gang so he doesn’t inform on the gang’s activities to the authorities. While he’s out running an errand for Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is assaulted and returned to Fagin’s lair by Nancy and her abusive, violent boyfriend Bill Sikes. He is beaten and robbed of his money and new clothes, and when he attempts to flee, Dodger, Charley, and Fagin recapture him. Fagin and Sikes are about to beat Oliver, but he’s saved by Nancy, who feels sympathetic and motherly toward him.

Fagin forces Oliver to participate in a burglary, hoping to draw Oliver into a life of crime. Nancy helps bring Oliver along, though reluctantly, and she promises Oliver that she’ll help him in any way she can. Sikes pushes Oliver through a small window and orders him to open the front door of the house. The operation goes awry, though, and as a result, Oliver is shot in the arm and eventually abandoned by Sikes. Oliver returns to the house they were robbing and is cared for by the people he finds there: Miss Rose, and her guardian Mrs. Maylie.

Meanwhile, Fagin is joined by a mysterious figure named Monks, and together, they work out a plan to ruin Oliver’s reputation and ensure that Oliver doesn’t learn about his past. In Oliver’s hometown, Mr. Bumble has married Mrs. Corney, the wealthy matron of the workhouse from earlier in the story. She is difficult and overbearing, and as a result, Bumble is unhappy in his marriage.

After an argument with his wife, Bumble finds himself at a bar where he runs into Monks. Monks asks Bumble about Oliver. Bumble brings Monks to his wife, who tells Monks even more about Oliver’s past, and the three of them decide to toss a ring and locket that once belonged to Oliver’s mother into a nearby river. Monks reveals the plan to Fagin, and neither criminal realizes that Nancy has overheard their conversation. She leaves to warn the people who care for Oliver.

Nancy arrives at the home of Miss Rose and Mrs. Maylie, ashamed of the role she played in Oliver’s kidnapping. Nancy tries to leave the gang one night, to talk to Oliver’s people, but Sikes refuses to let her go. He doesn’t trust her.

Noah has separated from Mr. Sowerberry and fled to London along with Charlotte, who is now his girlfriend. They both go to work for Fagin’s gang. While Noah is with the gang, the Artful Dodger is caught stealing and shipped to Australia as punishment. Fagin uses Noah to spy on Nancy, and Noah discovers that she’s been working with Miss Rose and Mr. Brownlow to figure out how to save Oliver from Fagin’s gang.

Fagin tells Sikes, but Fagin changes enough of the story to make it seem as though Nancy has worked against the gang. Sikes accuses Nancy of being a traitor, and he beats her to death. He flees to the countryside, where Nancy’s ghost haunts him. Afraid he’s about to get caught, Sikes returns to London and accidentally hangs himself to death while fleeing from an angry mob.

Mr. Browlow forces Monks to admit his family secrets. Monks is actually Oliver’s paternal half-brother, and Oliver’s mother, Agnes, contributed to the dissolution of Monks’s parents’ marriage. Mr. Brownlow has a picture of Agnes, and had noticed the resemblance between her and Oliver. Monks has long looked to find and destroy his father’s child. On Brownlow’s recommendation, Oliver gives Monks half his inheritance, to let Monks have a second chance. We learn that Monks goes to America where he again turns to a life of crime, and dies in prison. Fagin is arrested and sentenced to death.

Miss Rose turns out to be Oliver’s long-lost aunt. She marries, and Oliver takes up with Mr. Brownlow. The Bumbles hit financial hard times and wind up in the workhouse themselves. Charley becomes an honest citizen.

Oliver Twist uses both satire and realism to comment upon the squalid conditions of the common people in nineteenth-century London. Poverty and its effects play a primary role in the book (and would go on to be important elements in a number of Dickens’s works). There can be little doubt that Dickens disapproved of the plight of the poor at the time, especially when contrasted with the wealth of those who sought to take advantage of the poor. Dickens uses the character of Oliver as an example of the success you might find if you’re kind and honest. The worst circumstances can be overcome.

The novel and several of its adaptations have come under fire for its perceived anti-Semitism. The character of Fagin is seen by some as a terrible stereotype of Jewish people, unfair in its depiction.

Oliver Twist is widely read, and was successful in its time as well as ours. It’s been adapted numerous times—most notably as the award-winning musical Oliver!—and its scenes and characters have become ingrained in the consciousness of English-speaking culture. The characters in Oliver Twist are some of the best known in all of English literature.