Summary and Analysis
Oliver goes to sleep in a very dejected frame of mind. He is awakened the next morning by the clatter of someone kicking at the outside door. Investigating, he learns that the noise maker is a repulsive youth attired in yellow "smalls" (tight knee breeches). This is Noah Claypole, who informs Oliver that he outranks Oliver. After Oliver suffers the consequences for breaking a pane of glass while struggling to take down the heavy shutters, the boys are served breakfast. Charlotte treats Noah with the deference befitting his superior station, for he enjoys the distinction of being a charity boy of known parentage.
When Oliver has been with the undertaker three or four weeks, Sowerberry cautiously broaches to his wife a plan that he has in mind. After venting her irritation, Mrs. Sowerberry agrees to listen to the plan, which is: Because of Oliver's melancholy appearance, Sowerberry proposes that Oliver serve at children's funerals as a mute — that is, as a hired mourner provided by the undertaker. Hearing the plan, she grudgingly approves.
The next day, Oliver is "initiated into the mysteries of the trade." Bumble comes to tell the undertaker that he is to conduct the funeral of a poor parishioner's wife. When Oliver and his master arrive at the parishioner's shambles of a home, they find the husband in a state of frenzy. He rages that his wife was allowed to starve to death in the cold and dark while he was in prison for begging to procure food. The dead woman's deranged mother is pleased with herself for outliving her daughter and looks forward to the funeral as a gay respite from their grim existence. But the burial is a dismal, unfeeling affair. The stunned husband collapses and has to be revived with cold water. Even then, his raging and protesting make it necessary for the officials to lock him out of the graveyard.
After his month's probation is over, Oliver is formally apprenticed. He is regularly in attendance at most funerals, gaining an insight into human avarice and hypocrisy. Having Mr. Sowerberry pleased with his work earns Oliver the jealousy of Noah Claypole. Because of his seniority over Oliver, Claypole believes he should be getting all the praise. The undertaker's regard for Oliver automatically makes Mrs. Sowerberry his enemy. Charlotte is against Oliver because Noah is.
At dinner time one day while Charlotte is out of the kitchen, Noah takes advantage of the opportunity to revile and torment Oliver. The apprentice bears the mistreatment patiently, so the "malicious and ill-conditioned charity-boy" resorts to personal affront and taunts Oliver about his mother. As his victim begins to retort, Noah summarizes: "But yer must know, Work'us, yer mother was a regular right-down bad 'un."
In an outburst of violent fury, Oliver seizes the much bigger boy by the throat and knocks him to the floor. In response to the fallen bully's outcries, Charlotte and Mrs. Sowerberry come rushing to the rescue, and all three combine forces in subduing little Oliver. The rebel is forced into the dust cellar, from where he proclaims his dauntless rage by assaults upon the locked door. Sowerberry is not at home, so his amiable wife dispatches Noah to summon Mr. Bumble.
At the workhouse, Noah's loud, wild gestures so startle Bumble that he forgets to wear his cocked hat. The board member of the white waistcoat happens to be present. After hearing Noah's version of Oliver Twist's revolt, the gentleman suggests that Bumble give Oliver a flogging. Bumble leaves with Noah to carry out this agreeable assignment.
At the undertaker's, Oliver persists in his defiance, even after Bumble tries to reason with him through the keyhole. Bumble theorizes that Oliver's fury is the result of feeding him meat. The members of the board, "who are practical philosophers," have prescribed gruel. So Bumble counsels an interval of starvation to restore Oliver to normal.
As negotiations have reached this point, Sowerberry returns. If for no other reason, fear of his spouse dictates the undertaker's course of action. So he drags the battered child out and beats him so unmercifully that Bumble's contribution is waived. Oliver is then shut up until Mrs. Sowerberry orders him to his bed among the coffins.
Not until he is alone does Oliver give way to tears. For a while, he gazes into the cold, still night. Then he wraps up his few articles of clothing and sits down to wait for morning. As soon as it begins to get light, he opens the door and walks away from the scenes of his troubles.
The boy follows a path that takes him past the establishment where he had been kept before being committed to the workhouse. The only inmate to be seen is Dick, a child younger than Oliver, who had been his special companion in misery. The two friends exchange an affectionate farewell.
Although Dickens has the greatest scorn for the privileged orders whom he holds responsible for the oppression and exploitation of those less fortunate, he is aware of vileness on all levels of society. Noah Claypole, who considers himself rightfully appointed to be Oliver's superior, assumes as part of his birthright the privilege of maltreating the smaller boy without provocation: "It shows us what a beautiful thing human nature may be made to be; and how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy."
Let's look closely at the key words in this quotation. Notice that "human nature may be made to be" and "qualities are developed." Dickens doesn't retreat from his position that the blemishes of human nature are products of environment.
The wordy and pompous Bumble manages to incorporate his "porochial" absurdity into almost every conversation. His addiction to words beyond his command is a source of humor in the form of malapropism. While commenting on the "sickening" pride of the dying Mrs. Bates, Bumble says that her attitude was "antimonial." The term, of course, is the adjective derived from the metal "antimony." What Bumble had dimly in mind was "antinomial," which means inconsistency or contradiction.
A more somber vein is introduced as Bumble dwells on the ingratitude of the destitute family implied in their declining to accept medicine sent in a blacking bottle. It becomes easy here to detect a note of bitterness going back to Dickens's childhood hatred of blacking (shoe-polish) bottles.
The "gentleman in a white waistcoat" puts in an appearance again. Never named or described, he seems to be no more than a voice — one who delivers general comments on the action without being a participant. And, speaking for the gentlemen class, he keeps repeating the same refrain: that miscreants like Oliver were born to be hanged, and that the only means whereby they may be saved is the infliction of savage physical punishment.
Chapter 6 opens with some narrative summary. Then, before presenting the momentous and pathetic scenes that follow in rapid succession, Dickens addresses the reader directly to alert him that the clash with Noah Claypole will have indirect repercussions for Oliver, producing "a material change in all his future prospects and proceedings."
In the development of his plots, Dickens makes liberal use of accident and coincidence, with the result that probability is weakened. It is more artistically effective to have turns of plot grow out of character rather than out of chance events. The change of direction in Oliver's life is here determined by an alteration in his character.
Up until now, Oliver has endured all manner of indignities without uncomplaining. He has been humble and docile. But Noah's constant hazing and teasing, followed by his rude insinuations about Oliver's mother, brought Oliver to the limit of endurance. He rebelled. "He had listened to their taunts with a look of contempt; he had borne the lash without a cry; for he felt that pride swelling in his heart which would have kept down a shriek to the last though they had roasted him alive."
The awakening of pride was a new sensation for Oliver, and with it came the resolution to take positive action to escape from his oppressors. At the conclusion of Chapter 4, when ordered to his dreary bed, Oliver "meekly followed his new mistress." As Chapter 7 ends, we find Oliver firmly telling his friend Dick: "I am running away. . . . I am going to seek my fortune, some long way off. I don't know where."