Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Oliver Twist | Chapters 21–22 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 21

Day breaks as Bill Sikes and Oliver make their way through London. They pass through Smithfield market; it's market day, and Oliver is amazed at the commotion of people and animals. The pubs are open, but Bill passes them by. They travel all day, sometimes walking, sometimes getting a ride in a cart. By nightfall they have left London behind. Finally, at a distance from any town, Sikes leads the boy into "a solitary house: all ruinous and decayed."

Chapter 22

Inside the house Toby Crackit and Barney meet Bill Sikes and Oliver and provide them with food washed down by spirits. They grab a few hours of sleep and rise again at 1:30 a.m. After dressing warmly in dark clothing and assembling their equipment, Bill and Toby lead Oliver out into the night, while Barney goes back to sleep. There's a dense fog and no moon, making the night all the darker. The three walk through a nearby town and beyond it until they reach a house. The men lift Oliver over the wall that surrounds it, and, suddenly understanding their mission, he begs them to let him go. Bill pulls out his gun, but Toby stops Bill from shooting and threatens to smash Oliver's head if he doesn't behave. Bill pries open a small window, instructs Oliver how to find and open the front door, and slips the boy through the window. Oliver, having decided to run up the stairs and alert the inhabitants, moves forward.

Suddenly, Bill shouts, "Come back!" Oliver sees two men appear at the top of the stairs. There's a flash and a loud noise. Oliver has been shot. Bill drags him back through the window and carries him off in the midst of more gunshots and shouting. Oliver passes out.

Analysis

Chertsey is an old market town near the Thames, southwest of London. It takes Bill Sikes and Oliver a very long day to reach it, during which they walk or ride through many districts in the city and beyond. Because many of his readers would have been aware of each district, its location, and its character, Dickens presents a litany of them in the expectation that readers will follow the characters' journey in their minds. They start walking in the dark old neighborhoods well to the east of central London. It's getting light but is still foggy as they reach Smithfield market, where livestock—mostly cattle and sheep—were sold and slaughtered; Dickens calls attention to the "reeking bodies of the cattle." This dark, confusing, and threatening atmosphere contrasts starkly with the sundrenched "better" suburbs such as Kensington and Chiswick, which they ride through later on their way west.

When they arrive in Chertsey, Sikes leads Oliver across a bridge built in 1780 to connect Chertsey with the London road. Again, Dickens's understanding of the geography of the area feeds the logic of events. Later Oliver will cross the bridge again and recognize it.

During their travels, readers learn that Sikes, like Nancy, can put on a pleasant face when necessary. He is agreeable with the two men who offer them rides. He also treats Oliver with some care, allowing the boy to rest and sleep at times. This may, of course, be purely practical; after all, he needs Oliver to be awake and at his best when called on to perform during the burglary. But it may also indicate that there is still a speck of humanity in an otherwise inhumane character.

"Flash" Toby Crackit is Sikes's partner in the housebreaking. As with many characters, his name is a clue to his occupation. In the early 1800s, crack meant "burglary."

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