In the workhouse of an unidentified place, on an unspecified date, a child is born. As the infant struggles for survival, the pretty young mother's life is ebbing. An old pauper has assisted the attending surgeon, supported by the contents of a green bottle. She explains to the doctor that the young woman was unknown and had been brought in the night before, after being found lying in the street.
At the sound of her child's voice, the mother murmurs faintly, "Let me see the child and die." Both wishes are granted. As he leaves, the surgeon looks at the girl's left hand and comments: "The old story: no wedding-ring."
The newly arrived inmate is clothed in old garments that have seen much service. Thus he is immediately "badged and ticketed . . . a parish child — the orphan of a workhouse — the humble, half-starved drudge — to be cuffed and buffeted through the world — despised by all, and pitied by none."
Young Oliver is kept in the workhouse for eight or ten months, but the accommodations there not being suited to the care of infants, he is transferred to a private asylum. This haven for juveniles is run by Mrs. Mann, an entrepreneur who prospers by starving the children and pocketing most of the allowance dispensed for their sustenance. The youngsters perish with regularity, but investigation always sustains the report that death was due to natural causes or "accident."
Under this gentle system of charity, Oliver Twist spends his first nine years. His birthday is celebrated with a beating and confinement in the coal cellar with two other malefactors for "atrociously presuming to be hungry."
While Oliver is thus disposed of, Mr. Bumble, a minor church official, suddenly appears at the garden gate. Mrs. Mann keeps him waiting until the prisoners are released. After Bumble is admitted, he demonstrates his sense of importance by rebuking Mrs. Mann before they then join in a demonstration of mutual hypocrisy as he partakes of her gin.
The self-important Bumble has come on business. His efforts to discover the identity of Oliver's father or the origin of his mother have failed. The authorities have ruled that the orphan is to be returned to his birthplace — the workhouse. In the meantime, Oliver has been removed from the coal bin and has been made presentable. He is now brought forth and delivered to Mr. Bumble, who escorts him to his new home.
That very evening, the board in control of workhouse affairs is meeting, and Oliver is promptly summoned to face that august body. After being admonished to persevere in gratitude for the blessings given him so far, the boy is told that he is to be further favored by being taught a trade — picking oakum, (a tar-soaked fiber used as a caulking in ships) starting the next morning.
Following this scene the author discloses that the authorities have just devised a new regime for the workhouse. The paupers are restricted to a pitifully small portion of food, and other callous measures are put into practice. The policy succeeds in reducing the workhouse population, although many depart for the graveyard.
After several months of the most meager meals, the boys are desperate with hunger. They hold a council meeting to select one of their number to request more to eat. The lot falls to Oliver to make the audacious experiment. That evening after the skimpy ration of thin gruel has been consumed, Oliver approaches the fat workhouse master and asks for more. The master is overwhelmed with astonishment. In a state of agitation, Bumble rushes to inform the board, which is in session. The members are horrified; a gentleman in a white waistcoat is satisfied beyond all doubt that the culprit will end up on the gallows.
Oliver is instantly sentenced to confinement. The next morning, a notice is posted on the gate offering five pounds to anyone who will accept Oliver Twist as an apprentice.
It is always instructive to give special thought to how a writer begins a novel. Almost everyone has had difficulty in starting to write something — even a letter. Consider how much more agonizing the novelist's position may be when he is faced with setting down the opening words of the crucial first chapter. The method chosen is, naturally, regulated by the overall organization of the book, and there are many possible solutions. A traditional technique much adhered to is to begin in medias res, in the midst of things — that is, at the height of the action — and then gradually to fill in the background. Although Dickens uses this in-the-middle-of-things approach in Oliver Twist, the reader won't be able to identify it right away.
So far as the career of Dickens's main character is concerned, we are led to expect a straightforward chronological account of his life because the action begins with Oliver's birth, when the reader is promptly introduced to the newborn pauper, who is "the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter."
Dickens treats the setting of the opening action with artful subtlety. He does not give the town a name or state a date when the action takes place. The only fact essential to the reader is that the events occur in a workhouse, an institution common to most localities. In this manner, Dickens announces that he is going to deal with topics of general import and focuses attention on the workhouse by leaving its immediate setting vague.
One of the most important elements of technique that engages a writer's ingenuity is the way he manages time. The passage of time can be made evident by the chronology of events, either through dramatic presentation or narrative summary. Yet it is often impracticable for the writer to represent or suggest the passage of time, and he may resort to bare statement, which is what Dickens does in Chapter 2. A brief account of the mistreatment suffered by the young paupers leads to an abrupt statement that Oliver Twist is nine years old. The reader is in no way made to feel the passing of years, and the pronouncement comes as rather a surprise. The author, however, is obviously eager to reach the point where a fuller chronicle takes on significance.
In this same chapter, we meet Mr. Bumble, one of Dickens's famous minor characters. The minute he begins to speak, he makes himself conspicuous by mispronouncing parochial as "porochial." He also seems to regard his headgear as indicative of his station: he glances "complacently at the cocked hat." Oliver Twist acknowledges the power of the symbol when he makes his bow, which is "divided between the beadle on the chair, and the cocked hat on the table."
In his conversation with Mrs. Mann, Bumble reveals that he could learn nothing about Oliver's parentage. This persistent obscurity surrounding the boy's origins reinforces the atmosphere of mystery evoked in the opening scenes of the book.
The orphan's forsaken situation is further emphasized by the manner in which he received his name. Bumble explains that the foundlings are provided with names arbitrarily selected in alphabetical order. Consequently, Oliver Twist comes between Swubble and Unwin. This process of acquiring a name is governed by the operation of chance and signals that a good deal of random chance is in store for the lad. Appropriately, Oliver is martyred by fate when it falls to his lot to make the perilous attempt to get more food.
In his caustic indictments of folly and evil, Dickens utilizes irony with devastating effect. The literal expression in irony is the opposite of the meaning that an utterance is intended to convey. The tone may be light and relieved by humor, but the serious intent is unmistakable. A striking specimen occurs in Chapter 2 during Oliver's presentation to the ominous board, when he is treated to blows and derision: "Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease."