130 pages 4 hours read

Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1838

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Summary and Study Guide


Oliver Twist is Charles Dickens’s second novel. First published in serial form in 1837, the work was later compiled into a novel. The novel has been adapted into many a screenplay and movie, and is often referenced in popular culture. Oliver Twist follows the life of the titular Oliver on the streets of London in the early 19th century.

Orphaned at birth, Oliver is raised in numerous government and church-run workhouses. There, Oliver is subjected to torture, neglect, and starvation. After nine years under the charge of Mrs. Mann, it is decided that Oliver is old enough to enter the workhouse, where he picks oakum. Paupers work long hours sustained only on gruel, food that is made precisely to slowly starve the impoverished and keep the deep pockets of the church full. Driven to starvation and egged on by a few other young boys, Oliver begs for more food: “Please, sir, I want some more” (20). The board does not believe Oliver’s audacity and is absolutely scandalized. They fear that Oliver will start a rebellion and offer to pay £5 to anyone willing to take Oliver on as an apprentice.

Oliver is almost sent away with a cruel chimneysweep by the name of Mr. Gamfield but a kind magistrate notices Oliver’s terror and spares him. Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker, takes Oliver on as an apprentice instead. Oliver joins Noah Claypole, a charity boy, and Charlotte, a housemaid, at the Sowerberrys. There, Oliver is bullied by Noah and Charlotte, mistreated and underfed by Mrs. Sowerberry, and forced to attend child funerals as a mourner by Mr. Sowerberry. One day, Noah insults Oliver’s mother and Oliver punches Noah. Noah cries out for help and Charlotte and Mrs. Sowerberry run in to help; they punch, scratch, and beat Oliver. Noah only joins the assault after Mrs. Sowerberry and Charlotte have incapacitated Oliver. After, Mr. Sowerberry and Mr. Bumble punish Oliver horribly. Oliver runs away for London, in order to “seek [his] fortune” (78).

After long days of walking, Oliver meets the Artful Dodger, a young boy who dresses like an older man. The Dodger buys Oliver a meal and offers him a place to stay with an older gentleman in London. Though Oliver is worried about the Dodger’s character, Oliver is too innocent and naïve to realize the reality of the situation. Oliver begins living with Fagin, the ringleader of the gang. Oliver believes that the gang makes handkerchiefs and does not suspect the true nature of their business. After a while at Fagin’s, Oliver is sent out to work with the Dodger and Charley Bates. The Dodger and Charley pickpocket an old man named Mr. Brownlow. Mr. Brownlow erroneously believes that Oliver is the one who robbed him. A mob chases Oliver down and brings him before the magistrate.

Mr. Brownlow tries to explain the situation but Mr. Fang, the magistrate, is uninterested. Mr. Brownlow begins to second-guess himself and is no longer sure that Oliver is the pickpocket. Eventually, Mr. Brownlow is able to convince the magistrate and brings the unwell Oliver to his home. There, Oliver is cared for by Mrs. Bedwin, one of Mr. Brownlow’s house servants. After Oliver recovers, Mr. Brownlow sends Oliver off with some money and books to return to the bookstore owner. On his way, Oliver is kidnapped by Nancy, one of Fagin’s gang. Nancy and her lover, Bill Sikes, a violent robber, bring Oliver back to Fagin’s. Nancy feels guilty about her part in the plan.

Fagin then forces Oliver to help Sikes rob a house. Though Oliver does not want to help, Sikes threatens to kills him. Oliver crawls through a small window of the targeted house and is supposed to open the door for them. Oliver makes up his mind to warn the homeowners but servants appear on the step and one shoots Oliver in the arm. Sikes tries to get Oliver out but ends up leaving him in a field a little ways away. The next morning, Oliver stumbles towards a house for help and discovers it’s the house that they tried to rob. This begins Oliver’s time with Mrs. Maylie; her adopted daughter, Rose Maylie; Mr. Losberne the doctor; and Harry Maylie. They travel to and from the countryside and strive to protect Oliver.

A suspicious man named Monks begins skulking around the countryside; he has a run-in with Oliver and almost attacks him. Monks and Fagin begin working together to try and make Oliver a criminal again. It is later revealed that Monks is Oliver’s half-brother, otherwise known as Edward Leeford, and he has orchestrated most of the tragedies to befall Oliver so that the young boy never discovers his true parentage. Monks seeks out the former beadle, Mr. Bumble, who has now married the matron of a workhouse and no longer holds his former station. Monks wants to find more information on Oliver. Mr. Bumble tells Monks that he knows someone who may tell him what she knows for a price. Mr. and Mrs. Bumble meet Monks in a suspicious neighborhood. Mrs. Bumble tells Monks everything she knows and Monks throws the locket and ring that once belonged to Oliver’s mother into the river. The jewelry would have unequivocally proven Oliver’s true parentage.

Monks tells Fagin about the development of events, unaware that Nancy has been eavesdropping on their conversation. Nancy seeks out Rose Maylie and informs her of Monks’ and Fagin’s evil machinations. Nancy and Rose set up a designated time to meet every Sunday on London Bridge, just in case they have information they need to relay to one another. Rose tells Mr. Brownlow, who has returned from the West Indies, and they all work together to help discover the truth of Oliver’s past. Nancy is unable to make it to the London Bridge that first Sunday, however, as Sikes refuses to let her leave. Fagin is suspicious of where Nancy might be going and resolves to discover her secret and use it to his own advantage.

Meanwhile, Noah Claypole and Charlotte have stolen from the Sowerberrys and fled to London. Noah and Charlotte go by the alias “Mr. and Mrs. Bolter,” and inexplicably find themselves joining Fagin’s gang of pickpockets. Noah is a coward and only wishes to steal from children. However, Fagin finds a use for Noah, asking him to watch the Dodger’s trial. The Artful Dodger has been convicted and continues to jest and mock the magistrate during his trial; Dodger is found guilty and will be transported to Australia. Fagin then has Noah begin to spy on Nancy. The man follows Nancy to her meeting on the London Bridge with Rose and Mr. Brownlow. He overhears everything and reports it all to Fagin.

Fagin tells this to Sikes, purposefully manipulating the information to make it appear that Nancy has directly betrayed him, when she resolutely refused to do so. Sikes beats Nancy to death with a club and escapes to the countryside. Sikes is unable to escape his own guilt, however, and the news of the horrible murder catches up with him no matter where he runs. Sikes returns to London, hoping to get money from Fagin and escape to France. However, Sikes discovers that Fagin has been arrested and that a mob is forming to bring him to justice. As Sikes attempts to escape the mob and the authorities, he tries to jump down from a rooftop into Folly Ditch. Sikes accidentally hangs himself in front of the crowd and his dog jumps down into the ditch and dies.

Monks confesses to Mr. Brownlow that he promised his mother that he would find his father’s bastard child and ensure that it is hanged. Mr. Leeford, their father, had fallen in love with Agnes Fleming and they planned on leaving the country with the money from their estate. However, Edward Leeford dies before he is able to do so, leaving behind a will that Monks and his mother destroy. Mr. Brownlow has a portrait of Agnes and reveals that he travelled to the West Indies in search of Monks, hoping to discover the truth of Oliver’s parentage.

Mr. Brownlow and the rest of the Maylie group meet in Oliver’s hometown, where they force the Bumbles, Monks, and a few other witnesses to confess all they know about Oliver. The truth is revealed that Oliver is Agnes Fleming and Edward Leeford’s son, and that Rose is Oliver’s aunt. Mr. Brownlow asks Oliver to give Monks a second chance and Oliver happily gives Monks half of his inheritance. The man ends up fleeing with his portion of the money, wastes it all, and dies in a prison in America after embarking on “some fresh act of fraud and knavery” (637). Fagin is condemned to death and the impending weight of his own demise snaps the last thread of his sanity.

Rose marries Harry Maylie, Mrs. Maylie’s son, who sacrifices all his political and high-society connections to become a pastor. They live near a small church and all their friends move to settle near them. Mr. Brownlow adopts Oliver and loves him like his own son. Noah and Charlotte become professional whistleblowers. The Bumbles are fired from their positions and become paupers in the very workhouse where they once worked. Charley Bates quits the pickpocketing profession and becomes a farmer in the countryside. The novel ends with Dickens describing the possibility that Agnes’s specter might finally find peace in the Maylie’s church.