Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

Oliver Twist is born in a workhouse, attended by a doctor and an old woman acting as a nurse. Oliver's mother, Agnes Fleming, was found the night before lying in the street and was brought to the workhouse. After Oliver's birth she takes her son in her arms, kisses him, and dies. Leaving instructions for the baby to be fed gruel (a thin mixture of water and oats or other grains) if "it" cries, the doctor notes that the dead girl wears no wedding ring and leaves to eat his dinner. The nurse swigs from a flask before wrapping Oliver in a blanket.

Chapter 2

Oliver is transferred to a baby farm, where a fee is paid for the ongoing care of babies and children. Old Mrs. Mann, for example, makes her living by raising poor orphaned children. At Mrs. Mann's baby farm, Oliver receives little food, clothing, care, or affection. He's lucky to survive, as several other children do not. On Oliver's ninth birthday, the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble, takes him back to the workhouse.

At the workhouse Oliver's job is to pick oakum, untangling old tar-covered ropes to make material used to seal a ship's seams. Under new regulations the workhouse children are fed three meals of gruel per day supplemented by occasional bits of bread. After three months of this regimen, the children are starving and desperate. Oliver and several others draw lots, and it becomes Oliver's task to ask for more food. After finishing his small bowl of gruel, he approaches the master and says, "Please, sir, I want some more." Overcome by the impertinence of this demand, the master calls for Mr. Bumble, who informs the board. The board decides to offer Oliver as an apprentice, and one of them predicts, "that boy will be hung."

Analysis

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the central mystery of Oliver Twist—his identity and that of his mother—as well as several ongoing themes: poverty, criminality, and child abuse. They also address the themes of hypocrisy and greed, especially in the character of Mrs. Mann, whose desire to live well leads her to starve the children in her care while claiming that she "couldn't see 'em suffer."

Mrs. Mann runs a baby farm. Under Hanway's Act of 1767, London's poor children under six had to be educated in the countryside outside of the city, and London church parishes set aside a small weekly stipend per child for this purpose. Since the parishes were in charge of caring for the children, they chose the cheapest means of doing so: lodging them with individuals who contracted to provide care, maintenance, and education. The system was flawed from the start. In its first 10 years, over 20 percent of the children placed in these baby farms did not survive the experience.

Children who survived the baby farm were then expected to work. Some went to work in the factories; others, like nine-year-old Oliver, went to the workhouse. Oliver is given the job of picking oakum. Old, tarry ropes had to be untwisted and the threads, or oakum, picked out for reuse. It was a hard and painful task.

In his narration Dickens frequently creates verbal irony by having characters say the opposite of what they mean. For instance the narrator says in Chapter 1 that being born in the workhouse "was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could possibly have occurred" because it forced him to overcome his breathing difficulties on his own. In Chapter 2 Mr. Bumble tells Mrs. Mann that the parish has been unable to discover Oliver's identity despite their "supernat'ral exertions"; however, it is clear that the parish leaders would not exert themselves on behalf of any of the orphans.

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