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Free Study Guide-Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens-Online Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

CHAPTER 1

Summary

The novel opens in the first-person voice of the narrator who vaguely mentions a workhouse in which Oliver Twist was born on a day and date not mentioned by him. The narrator comments that the condition of the infant was delicate at the time of his birth since he lay gasping for breath due to a respiratory disorder. The narrator also notes that Oliver's birth in a workhouse had its advantages as Oliver was able to fight against nature all alone and could prove the winner. The infant lets out a loud and lusty cry to announce his arrival in the world.

The story now passes into the hands of an omniscient narrator who relates the details following the birth of the child. Oliver's mother who lay dying, expresses a desire to hold the baby in her arms. When the doctor complies, she imprints a kiss on the forehead of the infant and drops down dead.


The conversation between the surgeon and the nurse reveals that unfortunate woman was an unwed mother who was brought into the workhouse the previous night after she was found lying in the street. No information about her past or origin is given. The infant is taken change of by the attendants who announce his arrival into the workhouse by sticking a badge and ticket on him.

Notes

In the first chapter itself the reader gets a taste of Dickens' irony. As the narrator relates the condition of Oliver following his birth, Dickens hints at the plight of the orphans and their instinct for survival. The author also highlights the status of these unfortunate creatures living in a workhouse by mentioning the dress, badge, and ticket assigned to Oliver as an inmate of the institution. The infant loses his identity by being labeled.

The chapter is also significant as it not only introduces the protagonist but also hints at his struggle for existence in the subsequent chapters. The way Oliver fights for his life and overcomes the ordeal indicates his instinct for survival and his existence in a harsh world.

CHAPTER 2

Summary

Oliver is shifted from his birth place to a branch work house because the management becomes aware of the inadequacy of the female staff in the institution to care and nourish the infant. The conditions in this farm workhouse are no better than the ones prevailing in the other institution. It is looked after by an elderly woman called Mrs. Mann who pockets the greater part of the weekly stipends allotted to each child. The infants under her care are malnourished and neglected.

Oliver completes nine years in this workhouse. On his birthday Mr. Bumble, the beadle, arrives at the place in the morning to take Oliver back to the parent institution. The child is washed and scrubbed before being presented to the beadle. He is also given a piece of bread and little butter as a parting gift. Oliver is happy to leave the dreary place. However under instructions from Mrs. Mann, he feigns regret at parting. The first part of Oliver's childhood ends with exit from this place.

Oliver is presented before the board on reaching the workhouse. This august body, after asking for his name, informs him that he is an orphan. They ask him to recite his prayers like a good Christian and advise him to behave like one. They also inform him that he would be educated and initiated into the business of picking oakum from the next day.

When the board realizes that the paupers are happy about the conditions prevailing in the house, they lay down stringent laws by means of which the rations for the inmates are cut to the minimum. Oliver undergoes the torture of living under these conditions for six months. However, when he and the children experience the pangs of hunger, they become frustrated. They choose Oliver to represent them to demand for more food. That evening as usual the boys take their place to have their share of food. After gulping down the little gruel given to them, they nudge Oliver to make his demand. The boy goes forward to the master cook and asks for more. The man is astonished and hits Oliver with a ladle for his impudence. He also reports the matter to the board who decide to punish the boy by sending him to solitary confinement. The authorities paste a bill outside the gate "offering a reward of five pounds" to anyone who was interested in taking the boy as an apprentice in their trade.

Notes

Dickens shows his outrage at injustice by describing the condition prevailing in the workhouse. During his time such institutions for the poor were badly administered and the authorities were blind to the feelings of its inmates. Corruption too prevailed. The management pocketed a good share of the allowance meant for the paupers. Mrs. Mann and Mr. Bumble are representatives of this group who would starve the infants and enjoy a glass of beer themselves. The board expresses concern when the paupers look happy in the workhouse. They bring new rules under which the poor would remain hungry most of the time. When Oliver asks for more food the management punishes him instead of understanding his needs. Dickens denounces the parochial management in this chapter.

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