Summary and Analysis
Oliver remains in Fagin's room for many days, picking the marks out of handkerchiefs and sometimes entering into the curious game of extracting objects from the old man's pockets. When the other boys return empty-handed, they may be denied supper or rewarded with blows. The naive Oliver interprets these actions of Fagin as motivated by a worthy respect for diligence.
Oliver chafes under restriction and is granted permission to go out with the Dodger and Bates. At first he is puzzled by their erratic behavior, but at the sight of a gentleman absorbed in reading in front of a book stall, they swiftly go into concerted action. The Dodger steals the man's handkerchief, hands it to Bates, and the pair run off. In a flash of revelation, Oliver understands all he has witnessed since arriving in London. Frightened and bewildered, he too begins running.
Just as he misses his handkerchief, the gentleman at the bookstall sees Oliver fleeing and concludes that the boy is the thief. The old gentleman shouts, "Stop thief!" The Dodger and Bates unscrupulously repeat the alarm and run after Oliver. The hue and cry spreads rapidly, and a crowd chases the hapless object of it.
As his strength fails, Oliver is brought down by a blow from one of the pursuing mob. He is taken into custody by a policeman and hustled off, accompanied by his supposed victim, who seems kindly disposed toward the prisoner. The Dodger and Bates have disappeared.
Oliver is hurried to a nearby police office and locked up in a filthy cell. The old gentleman, still carrying the book that he picked up in the stall, wonders about Oliver's guilt. There is something about the boy that affects him. "Where have I seen something like that look before?" he muses. For a considerable while, the old gentleman endeavors to recall a connection by concentrating on the faces of many people that he has known through the years. But in vain; no countenance out of the past bears a resemblance to Oliver's.
The reflective old man is summoned to the courtroom, where Oliver is already installed, trembling with fright. The proceedings are conducted by an infamous magistrate, Mr. Fang. He is in an uncommonly vile mood because he is at the moment reading one of a long series of newspaper reports urging that he be subjected to investigation on account of his decisions.
Fang attempts to terrorize Mr. Brownlow, the prosecutor (plaintiff). Brownlow, however, will not be intimidated and finally is able to relate his side of the case.
Oliver is so overcome that he cannot even utter his own name. A compassionate officer supplies the name Tom White and contrives replies for other questions put to Oliver. The boy is obviously ill, but the sadistic judge forbids anyone to support him. So as the youngster falls insensible, Fang pronounces a sentence of three months at hard labor.
At that instant, the owner of the book stall forces his way into the courtroom, rekindling Fang's venomous temper. The man, nevertheless, is able to deliver his testimony. The bookman had watched everything that happened, and his information clears Oliver.
Oliver is discharged, but he is quite unable to move on his own power. Mr. Brownlow immediately secures a coach and drives off with the stricken boy.
When Oliver sees his companions pick Brownlow's pocket, we have a recognition scene. All the things that the boy has observed since joining Fagin's group now fit into place, and he realizes to his horror that he has fallen into unsavory company. Oliver is so trusting and naive that he never suspected what has been clear all along, producing an instance of sustained irony.
The crime gives Dickens a chance to throw light on some ugly realities of human nature. The ability of Dawkins and Bates in inciting the mob to hunt down their innocent fellow is another example of true criminal morality at work. The gleeful ferocity with which the pursuers charge after Oliver illustrates that "there is a passion for hunting something deeply implanted in the human breast," regardless of benevolent impulses.
The hue and cry is vividly described with the staccato effect of the words echoing the impetuosity of the people rushing to join the chase. By means of terse, parallel expressions which contain much vigorous alliteration, a turbulent scene is built up as old and young desert their normal occupations for the thrill of the pursuit.
It is a tribute to Dickens's attention to detail that there was a living model for Mr. Fang. The novelist gained admission to the courtroom so that he could study the mean-spirited magistrate personally. Similarly, in his quest for authenticity, Dickens made a tour to gather material about conditions in the unsavory private schools that he exposed in Nicholas Nickleby.
Although the meeting of Oliver and Mr. Brownlow seems to be sheer chance, the old gentleman's interest in the boy clearly hints at some mystery. Brownlow's prolonged and concentrated effort to revive an association between Oliver's appearance with someone from out of the past is too pronounced to reflect a mere passing fancy.