"Bleak, dark, and piercing cold," it is a night "for the homeless, starving wretch to lay him down and die." But within the workhouse where Oliver was born, Mrs. Corney, the matron, is preparing to enjoy the good cheer of her tea. The ritual is interrupted by the arrival of one taking shelter from the "anti-porochial weather."
The caller, Mr. Bumble, complains about those who urge the paupers to greater demands, yet the ingratitude of the needy persists "brazen as alabaster." The woman defers to what she considers to be Bumble's superior understanding. He sees some utility in the direct dole (welfare payments): "The great principle of out-of-door relief is, to give the paupers exactly what they don't want; and then they get tired of coming."
As Bumble is about to go, Mrs. Corney shyly invites him to stay for tea, and he eagerly accepts. After an exchange of pleasantries, Bumble contrives to shift his chair around the circular table until he is next to the matron. Then he boldly kisses his hostess and puts his arm around her.
This tender scene is rudely shattered by the demands of an old pauper, who announces that old Sally, who is near death, is anxious to speak to the matron. Mrs. Corney requests Bumble to wait and, highly irritated, follows the messenger. Bumble, left alone, inspects various articles in the room and appears to be conducting a mental inventory of the furniture.
In the garret room, old Sally, the dying inmate lies in a coma. The impatient matron is just about to leave when the sick woman sits up and asks that the two attendants withdraw. The rapidly failing patient begins her incoherent story: In this same room years ago, she nursed a pretty young woman who bore a child and died. But before dying, the mother entrusted a gold object to her attendant. However, the narrator confesses, she stole the article, although she realized that the boy would have been better treated "if they had known it all!" In her final moments, the girl expressed the hope that if her child survived it might one day have reason not to be ashamed of its mother.
The speaker's last words are: "They called him Oliver. . . . The gold I stole was — ." Death again guards the secrets of the living. The matron walks out nonchalantly, remarking that there was nothing to reveal after all.
In this section, we have eloquently illustrated how poverty and misery hardens and brutalizes everyone exposed to its effects. Bumble's verdict about the famished man who carried out his threat to die in the street is characteristic: "There's a obstinate pauper for you!" Upon being informed that old Sally "is dying very hard," Mrs. Corney reacts with annoyance that soon turns into anger over the inconvenience. The apothecary's apprentice is bored by the common spectacle of the extinction of human life. The paupers themselves are not touched by the death of one of their number but find it a rather diverting occasion.
This callous indifference is spotlighted by the artistic device of contrast. After reviling the poor, Bumble and the matron simper inanely about the lovable qualities of cats. At the same time, they are unmoved by the condition of their fellow creatures who live in wretchedness and die in agony.
The passing of old Sally is a dramatic scene. It is charged with mounting suspense, particularly after it is disclosed that she was present at Oliver's birth and has something to impart regarding the boy. Since the old woman dies before she can finish what she wishes to tell the matron, the mystery surrounding the boy's parentage becomes more baffling. Now the only person who seemed able to supply some clue to the solution of the riddle is dead.