Oliver Twist | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Chapters 3–4

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapters 3–4 of Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist | Chapters 3–4 | Summary



Chapter 3

While waiting for an apprenticeship, Oliver is held for a week alone in a dark room and taken out each morning to wash in cold water while being caned by Mr. Bumble. Every other day he is taken to the dining hall to be whipped in front of the other boys. Every evening he is permitted to hear the boys pray they will "be guarded from the sins and vices of Oliver Twist."

The first person to offer Oliver an apprenticeship is the chimney sweep, Mr. Gamfield, a cruel man who, if one of his apprentices gets stuck in a chimney, lights a fire at the bottom to prompt them to "struggle to hextricate theirselves." Mr. Bumble brings Oliver to meet Mr. Gamfield before the magistrates, who must agree to the arrangement. But even the old, shortsighted, and somewhat dimwitted magistrate can see the terror on Oliver's face, and he asks the boy, "What is the matter?" Oliver begs not to go with the cruel-looking man, and the magistrate—silencing Mr. Bumble's protests—refuses to okay the deal.

Chapter 4

Disappointed, the board instructs Mr. Bumble to look for a trading vessel that will take Oliver as a ship's boy, hoping the master of the vessel will flog him to death. But before the beadle can set off on his mission, Mr. Sowerberry, the parish undertaker, offers to take on an apprentice. Mr. Bumble brings Oliver to the Sowerberrys that very night. There Oliver meets Mrs. Sowerberry, who orders that Oliver be fed the scraps that had been put aside for the dog. Oliver, amazed by the offer of meat, gobbles them up greedily. Mrs. Sowerberry then sends him to sleep under the counter among the coffins in the shop.


Few characters in Oliver Twist are fully developed; some are downright caricatures. This is in line with the somewhat allegorical nature of the story, in which some characters symbolize moral or political ideas, as well as with its melodramatic, or emotionally extreme, aspects.

One such caricature is Mr. Gamfield, the chimney sweep, who is unrelentingly greedy and abusive. Readers first see him beating his donkey and realize this is exactly how he must treat his apprentices. There follows a discussion between Mr. Gamfield and the workhouse board, during which Mr. Gamfield describes the best way to get a boy to come out of a chimney:

"Young boys have been smothered in chimneys before now," said another gentleman.

"That's acause they damped the straw afore they lit it in the chimbley to make 'em come down agin," said Gamfield; "that's all smoke, and no blaze; vereas smoke ain't o' no use at all in making a boy come down, for it only sinds him to sleep, and that's wot he likes. Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, gen'lmen, and there's nothink like a good hot blaze to make 'em come down vith a run. It's humane too, gen'lmen, acause, even if they've stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes 'em struggle to hextricate theirselves."

To ensure he acquires Oliver as an apprentice, Mr. Gamfield tries to show he treats his boys humanely by describing his cruelty in detail. This is another example of Dickens's use of characters in his social satire. In fact boys forced to work as chimney sweeps might be as young as three. Their masters starved them to keep them thin enough to go up and down the chimneys, and it was extremely dangerous work. Many boys died from falls or, if they got stuck in a chimney, of smoke inhalation; if the boys survived the work, they often died of the long-term effects of breathing soot.

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