Oliver Twist By Charles Dickens Summary and Analysis Chapters 3-4

Summary

For a week, Oliver remains a solitary prisoner except for the rituals of being flogged every other day before the assembled boys and being exhibited at prayer time as an example of consummate wickedness.

One morning, a passing chimney sweep, Gamfield, catches sight of the notice posted to rid the workhouse of Oliver. Since he happens to badly need five pounds, Gamfield enters and volunteers to take Oliver as an apprentice for the advertised sum. Mr. Limbkins of the board points out that "It's a nasty trade." After a consultation, the board rejects Gamfield's offer. But with a bit of haggling, they agree to dispose of Oliver for three pounds, ten shillings; legal papers binding Oliver to an apprenticeship with Gamfield are drawn up for final approval.

When Oliver is brought before the magistrates, he is terrified at the sight of Gamfield's cruel appearance. Just as one of the old gentlemen is about to sign the documents that will assign Oliver to Gamfield, he glimpses Oliver's fear-stricken features. The magistrate hesitates and questions Oliver, who pleads desperately that he be condemned to any fate rather than be delivered into the custody of the malicious-looking chimney sweep. The kindly old man is moved and the proceedings are terminated. Oliver goes back to the workhouse; the sign again adorns the gate.

Inquiries are made to determine whether Oliver could be shipped out as a cabin boy on some vessel, but the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, agrees to take the boy to be a general drudge, on a trial basis. Arrangements are concluded at once. When Oliver is informed, he receives the news without expression, leading to the consensus that he is "a hardened young rascal." The truth is that the boy is "in a fair way of being reduced, for life, to a state of brutal stupidity and sullenness by the ill usage he had received."

Bumble conducts the emaciated child "to a new scene of suffering." When they arrive at the undertaker's establishment, Mrs. Sowerberry permits Oliver to feast on leftovers neglected by the dog, Trip. Oliver hungrily gobbles up the scraps, alarming the peevish woman at the prospects of having to cater to such an abnormal appetite. The mistress then shows Oliver where he is to sleep, under the counter, among the coffins.

Analysis

Dickens continues his violent assaults on the conditions fostered by the Poor Law of 1834, which instituted the workhouses and the attendant brutal and cynical treatment of helpless paupers, young and old alike. The practice of deliberately starving the unfortunates arouses the author's furious indignation, and he denounces it again and again. Furthermore, he does not spare individuals who take advantage of the victims of poverty in order to exploit their labor at the cost of a mite of food.

We are again reminded how much Oliver is at the mercy of chance. If the dim-sighted magistrate had not glanced about in search of the inkstand, he would not have noticed the boy's frightened expression, and the documents of apprenticeship would have been signed, dooming Oliver to the horrors of cleaning chimneys under a heartless master.

A variety of irony is dramatic irony, a term applied to a situation in a play when the actors are ignorant of the true significance of the circumstances or the words spoken, while the audience is informed of the actual state of affairs. A highly ironical development of that sort occurs in the scene between the undertaker and Mr. Bumble. When Sowerberry compliments the beadle on his elegant coat button, Bumble explains proudly that it is a reward from the board: "The die is the same as the porochial seal — the Good Samaritan healing the sick and bruised man." The speakers are oblivious to the cutting irony.

Dickens regularly injects irony into a single descriptive phrase. Thus Bumble is dubbed "that dignitary" and the like, but his true nature is transparent. Often, the application of "philosopher" carries negative connotations, particularly when used in connection with the political economists who were apologists for the current attitudes Dickens found so distasteful. These "philosophers" were individuals that he would have share Oliver's dog-food leftovers. At the time Dickens was writing, "philosophy" might be used with reference to various branches of learning. But the term means literally "love of wisdom," so the irony is potent when Dickens refers to individuals he considers to be guilty of an appalling lack of wisdom and logic as "philosophers." Similarly, when he describes Mrs. Mann's less-than-kindly treatment of orphans, she is declared to be "a very great experimental philosopher."

When setting out the action of a tale, a writer has access to two principal means: the dramatic and the narrative. When the dramatic technique is used, the author reports fully what is said and done so that the reader is, in effect, a direct witness of what takes place, as if watching a dramatic performance on the stage. When he uses this technique, Dickens's personality is withdrawn — but not for long, because he can seldom resist the temptation to interject some comment or interpretation.

The dramatic method offers the advantages of vividness and immediacy. Obviously, the contents of a typical novel cannot all be dramatized, owing to limitations of length. Also, the dramatic scene gains in vitality when it is reserved for occasions calling for maximum impact.

At other times, the novelist employs the narrative method, where the reader is told what happens but is not presumed to be actually present. Narration is used to summarize and to condense; it serves to fill time gaps and to provide a transition between dramatic scenes.

Chapter 3 begins with a narrative account of Oliver's punishment. For most of the rest of the chapter, the scenes involving Oliver, Bumble, Gamfield, the board, and the magistrates, take the form of pure drama. In the last two paragraphs, the author reverts to narration to conclude the episode. The same alternation of technique can be observed throughout the book, and in most fiction.

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