History: Published in 1838, this is Dickens second novel. Oliver Twist is the first novel in the English language to centre throughout on a child protagonist and is also notable for Dickens' unromantic portrayal of criminals and their sordid lives. the book calls the public's attention to various contemporary social evils, including the Poor Law that states that poor people should work in workhouses/poorhouses, child labour and the recruitment of children as criminals. Dickens mocks the hypocrisies of the time by surrounding the novel's serious themes with sarcasm and dark humour. The novel may have been inspired by the story of Robert Blincoe, an orphan whose account of his hardships as a child labourer in a cotton mill was widely read in the 1830s. Obviously, Dickens' own early youth--he was vulnerable, and a child laborer--must have also entered. The book was originally published in Bentley's Miscellany as a serial, in monthly installments
Plot: Oliver Twist is born into a life of poverty and misfortune in a workhouse in an unnamed town (although when originally published in Bentley's Miscellany in 1837 the town was called Mudfog and said to be within 75 miles north of London). Orphaned almost from his first breath by his mother’s death in childbirth and his father’s unexplained absence, Oliver is meagerly provided for under the terms of the Poor Law, and spends the first eight years of his life at a baby farm in the 'care' of a woman named Mrs. Mann. Along with other juvenile offenders against the poor laws, Oliver is brought up with little food and few comforts. Around the time of the orphan’s ninth birthday, Mr. Bumble, a parish beadle, removes Oliver from the baby farm and puts him to work picking oakum at the main workhouse (the same one where his mother worked before she died). Oliver, who toils with very little food, remains in the workhouse for six months, until the desperately hungry boys decide to draw lots; the loser must ask for another portion of gruel. The task falls to Oliver, who at the next meal tremblingly comes forward, bowl in hand, and makes his famous request: "Please, sir, I want some more."
A great uproar ensues. The board of well-fed gentlemen who administer the workhouse, while eating a meal fit for a mighty king, they offer five pounds sterling to any person wishing to take on the boy as an apprentice. Later, Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker employed by the parish, takes Oliver into his service. He treats Oliver better, and, because of the boy's sorrowful countenance, uses him as a mute, or mourner, at children's funerals. However, Mr. Sowerberry is in an unhappy marriage, and his wife takes an immediate dislike to Oliver – primarily because her husband seems to like him – and loses few opportunities to underfeed and mistreat him. He also suffers torment at the hands of Noah Claypole, an oafish but bullying fellow apprentice who is jealous of Oliver's promotion to mute, and Charlotte, the Sowerberry's maidservant, who is in love with Noah.
One day, in an attempt to bait Oliver, Noah insults the orphan’s late mother, calling her "a regular right-down bad 'un". Oliver flies into an unexpected passion, attacking and even besting the much bigger boy. Mrs. Sowerberry takes Noah's side, helps him subdue Oliver, punches and beats Oliver, and later compels her husband and Mr. Bumble, who has been sent for in the aftermath of the fight, into beating Oliver again. Once Oliver is sent to his room for the night, he does something that he hadn't done since babyhood - breaks down and weeps. Alone that night, Oliver finally decides to run away. He wanders aimlessly for a time, until a well-placed milestone sets his wandering feet towards London.
During his journey to London, Oliver encounters one Jack Dawkins, who is also affectionately known as the Artful Dodger, although young Oliver is oblivious to this hint that the boy may be dishonest. Dodger provides Oliver with a free meal and tells him of a gentleman in London who will "give him lodgings for nothing, and never ask for change". Grateful for the unexpected assistance, Oliver follows Dodger to the gentleman’s residence. In this way, Oliver unwittingly falls in with an infamous Jewish criminal known as Fagin, the "old gentleman" of whom the Artful Dodger spoke. Ensnared, Oliver lives with Fagin and his criminal associates in their lair at Saffron Hill for some time, naively unaware of their criminal occupations. He believes they make wallets and handkerchiefs.
Later, Oliver innocently goes out to "make handkerchiefs" because of no income coming in, with two of Fagin’s underlings: The Artful Dodger and a boy of a humorous nature named Charley Bates. Oliver realises too late that their real mission is to pick pockets. Dodger and Charley steal the wallet of an old gentleman named Mr. Brownlow, and promptly flee. When he finds his wallet missing, Mr. Brownlow turns round, sees Oliver, and pursues him. Others join the chase and Oliver is caught and taken before the magistrate. Curiously, Mr. Brownlow has second thoughts about the boy – he seems reluctant to believe he is a pickpocket. To the judge's evident disappointment, a bookstall holder who saw Dodger commit the crime clears Oliver, who, by now actually ill, faints in the courtroom. Mr. Brownlow takes Oliver home and, along with his housekeeper Mrs. Bedwin, cares for him.
Oliver stays with Mr. Brownlow, recovers rapidly, and blossoms from the unaccustomed kindness. His bliss, however, is interrupted when Fagin, fearing Oliver might "peach" on his criminal gang, decides that Oliver must be brought back to his hideout. When Mr. Brownlow sends Oliver out to pay for some books, one of the gang, a young girl named Nancy, whom Oliver had previously met at Fagin's, accosts him with help from her abusive lover, a brutal robber named Bill Sikes, and Oliver is quickly bundled back to Fagin's lair. The thieves take the five pound note Mr. Brownlow had entrusted to him, and strip him of his fine new clothes. Oliver, dismayed, flees and attempts to call for police assistance, but is ruthlessly dragged back by the Dodger, Charley and Fagin. Nancy, however, is sympathetic towards Oliver and saves him from beatings by Fagin and Sikes.
In a renewed attempt to draw Oliver into a life of crime, Fagin forces him to participate in a burglary. Nancy reluctantly assists in recruiting him, all the while assuring the boy that she will help him if she can. Sikes, after threatening to kill him if he does not cooperate, sends Oliver through a small window and orders him to unlock the front door. The robbery goes wrong, however, and Oliver is shot. After being abandoned by Sikes, the wounded Oliver ends up under the care of the people he was supposed to rob: Rose Maylie and her guardian Mrs. Maylie, the mother of kind-hearted Harry Maylie (who loves Rose). Convinced of Oliver’s innocence, Rose takes the boy in and nurses him back to health in 1837.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Monks has found Fagin and is plotting with him to destroy Oliver's reputation. Nancy, by this time ashamed of her role in Oliver's kidnapping, and fearful for the boy's safety, goes to Rose Maylie and Mr. Brownlow to warn them. She knows that Monks and Fagin are plotting to get their hands on the boy again and holds some secret meetings on the subject with Oliver's benefactors.
Meanwhile Noah Claypole has fallen out with the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry, stolen money from him and moved to London together with his girlfriend, Sowerberry's maidservant Charlotte. Using the name "Morris Bolter", he joins Fagin's gang for protection. During Noah's stay with Fagin, the Artful Dodger is caught with a stolen silver snuff box, convicted (in a very humorous courtroom scene) and transported to Australia. Later, Noah is sent by Fagin to "dodge" (spy on) Nancy, and discovers her secret. Fagin angrily passes the information on to Sikes, twisting the story just enough to make it sound as if Nancy had informed on him (in actuality, she had shielded Sikes, whom she loves despite his brutal character). Believing her to be a traitor, Sikes murders Nancy in a fit of rage, and is himself killed when he accidentally hangs himself while fleeing across a rooftop from an angry mob.
Monks is forced by Mr. Brownlow (an old friend of Oliver's father) to divulge his secrets: his real name is Edward Leeford, and he is Oliver's paternal half-brother and, although he is legitimate, he was born of a loveless marriage. Oliver's mother, Agnes, was their father's true love. Mr. Brownlow has a picture of her, and began making inquiries when he noticed a marked resemblance between her face, and the face of Oliver. Monks has spent many years searching for his father's child — not to befriend him, but to destroy him. Brownlow asks Oliver to give half his inheritance (which proves to be meager) to Monks because he wants to give him a second chance; and Oliver, to please Brownlow, complies. Monks then moves to America, where he squanders his money, reverts to crime, and ultimately dies in prison. Fagin is arrested and condemned to the gallows; in an emotional scene, Oliver goes to Newgate Gaol to visit the old reprobate on the eve of his hanging, (where he is already dying of some unspecified illness and burning-up with a fever).
On a happier note, Rose Maylie turns out to be the long-lost sister of Oliver's mother Agnes; she is therefore Oliver's aunt. She marries her long-time sweetheart Harry, and Oliver lives happily with his saviour, Mr. Brownlow. Noah becomes a paid, semi-professional informer to the police (a "stoolie", or "stoolpigeon" in American terminology). The Bumbles lose their jobs (under circumstances that cause him to utter the well-known line "The law is a ass") and are reduced to great poverty, eventually ending up in the same workhouse where they once lorded it over Oliver and the other boys; and Charley Bates, horrified by Sikes's murder of Nancy, becomes an honest citizen, moves to the country, and works his way up to prosperity.
Review: I love this book. One of the most misunderstood facts of the books is the many interpretations of Bill Sykes. Considered by many to be the books main villian, Sykes can hardly be viewed as this in the novel. Yes he is violent and cruel but his is a different and less sinister type of villany. Sykes is merely representitive of one of Fagin’s boys, ie: Dodger, grown up. Fagin and Oliver’s half-brother, Monks, are far more devious in their plotting to tarnish Oliver’s reputation.
The relationship between Sykes and Nancy is always very moving, and its relation and manipulation by Fagin is a sort of London slum version of Shakespeare’s Othello.
In the end, the constant oppression of the poor by the rich is the true evil in Dickens story.
Opening Line: “Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.”
Closing Line: “I believe it none the less because that nook is in a Church, and she was weak and erring.”
Quotes: "Please, Sir, I want some more."'
Rating: Very Good.