Oliver Twist By Charles Dickens Summary and Analysis Chapters 37-38

Summary

Mr. Bumble sits gloomily in the workhouse parlor. He has married Mrs. Corney and succeeded to the post of master, but in spite of his elevation, he sorely misses his cocked hat with its connotations of the authority that belongs to the minor parish official known as the beadle.

Bumble and the widow have been married for eight weeks. Going over the terms of his marriage dowry, he mutters that he sold himself too cheap. Mrs. Bumble did not catch all of his words but guesses at their meaning. On these grounds, she starts a quarrel. Bumble meets the challenge by employing the forceful gaze that never fails to stop hungry paupers. His defiant spouse laughs derisively and exercises her next weapon: "a paroxysm of tears." This tactic only entertains Bumble. Glowing with victory, he strides toward the door.

Mrs. Bumble now resorts to more persuasive methods. She knocks her lord's hat off, grasps him by the throat, and begins to pound him with her fists. After a bit of scratching and hair pulling, she pushes him over a chair and orders the fallen warrior from the room. He picks up his ineffectual hat and retires from the field.

Bumble makes a tour of the workhouse. He enters the room where female inmates are laundering and tries to improve his damaged spirits by reprimanding them for talking too loudly. The strict disciplinarian is promptly cowed by the unexpected presence of Mrs. Bumble. To the delight of the pauper women, the workhouse master is driven out under the threat of being doused with "a bowl of soap-suds." Humiliated, Bumble retreats to the street.

Bumble visits a pub where there is only one other customer, a tall, dark person wearing a cloak. After sizing each other up, the two begin a conversation. The stranger stresses that his identity is to remain secret, but he reveals that he knows something of Bumble's history. The dark man seeks information from Bumble and makes an advance payment.

The inquirer directs Bumble to recall an event of twelve years ago. It becomes clear to the reader that the stranger has reference to the birth of Oliver Twist, but he savagely denies interest in the boy. The woman who nursed the mother is the object of his investigation. When informed that the woman is dead, the man appears to hover between relief and disappointment. Then, saying that the matter is of no importance, he is about to leave.

Bumble's greedy instinct senses profit. His spouse has never told him what took place on the night of Sally's death, but he has learned that it concerned Sally's "attendance, as workhouse nurse, upon the young mother of Oliver Twist." So Bumble detains the stranger with the information that he can produce a witness to the old pauper's death. The man's apprehension seems to be revived by this confidence, and he arranges an evening meeting for the next day at some waterside address. The stranger leaves unceremoniously. Bumble notices that he did not write down his name. Overtaking the man, Bumble is curtly told that he is Monks!

The next evening, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble walk down to the riverside. The structures in the vicinity are all neglected shacks. Bumble leads the way to a large building, evidently once a factory of some sort but now collapsing into the stream. As the man and woman pause in front of the ruins, a rainstorm commences. Monks hustles them inside, provoked by Bumble's hesitation.

It begins to thunder now, and Monks is strangely disordered by the sound. He leads the way to an upper floor and then turns to Bumble with the words, "The woman knows what it is, does she?" But the dauntless matron earlier cautioned her husband to say as little as possible, and she assumes the role of spokesman. She has never confided in her husband about the business in hand.

It is obvious that Monks is willing to pay well for information pertaining to Sally's death. Mrs. Bumble negotiates astutely until Monks meets her price of twenty-five pounds. Speaking in a whisper, the woman relates her story. She assures Monks that she was entirely alone with Sally when she died. Mrs. Bumble removed from the corpse's hand a scrap of paper that turned out to be a pawnbroker's ticket. Sally had evidently pawned the object that she got from Oliver's mother, managing to keep up the interest payments. There was time enough for the matron to redeem the pledge, and she did so.

Mrs. Bumble now produces a small bag, which Monks eagerly opens. It contains a little locket holding "two locks of hair, and a plain gold wedding-ring." The ring has the inscription "Agnes," with a blank for the last name, also a date within the year before Oliver's birth.

Monks allows Mrs. Bumble to ask two questions, without committing himself to answer. She first asks, "Is that what you expected to get from me?" and then, "Can it be used against me?" Monks replies affirmatively to the first question and answers "Never" to the second. He then pulls open a trap door at Bumble's feet, exposing the turbulent river below. He ties a weight to his purchase and drops it into the surging waters.

Monks warns the married pair to secrecy, to which Bumble agrees. The couple then gladly obey Monks's command to leave speedily.

Analysis

Although he has been advanced to master of the workhouse, Bumble's deprivation of a beadle's symbols of office is indicative of his true status. Marriage to "the relict of Mr. Corney deceased" has reduced him to a subordinate rank appropriately signaled by the absence of the three-cornered hat.

The row between the matron and her spouse is the only extended passage of pure humor in the book. There are occasional flashes of comedy, as when Sikes is drenched with beer and when Fagin receives the blow aimed at Bates, but the interludes are fleeting. The incidents grow out of the fearful circumstances that overshadow them, hence admitting only an uneasy chuckle. Even the brawl in the workhouse does not stimulate a reaction of hearty amusement. We laugh at the Bumbles, but our pleasure stems largely from satisfaction at seeing them in a situation of deserved discomfort. On the other hand, we laugh with Mr. Pickwick and his friends but should be distressed to see them suffer actual harm. Joyous humor is aroused by sympathetic comic figures, not by despicable ones such as the ones in Oliver Twist. There is little relief in the book from the pervasive sense of intense evil and impending doom.

As soon as Bumble leaves the workhouse and has his meeting with Monks, we return to the menacing atmosphere of hidden agenda, treachery, and the potential for violence. The subsequent meeting between Monks and the Bumbles takes place under circumstances typical of similar scenes: at night, amid sodden surroundings of decay and ruin, accompanied by rain, thunder, and lightning.

After a long build-up of complications, there has been a slight movement in the direction of unraveling the plot's events. Some pertinent information concerning Sally's death, previously withheld, has been revealed. The matron's unruffled demeanor when leaving the death chamber is now clarified. No substantial amount of enlightenment has been set forth, but something has been cleared up.

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