Oliver Twist is one of most well-known novels by Charles Dickens and has been adapted into various stage and screen versions. It tells the story of an orphaned boy, Oliver Twist, who spends his early childhood in the terrible conditions of a 19th century English workhouse. The inmates are given very little food and are regularly beaten; many of them die as a result of the under-nourishment and harsh living conditions. At the age of nine, after narrowly escaping being apprenticed to a drunken chimney sweep, Oliver is put to work with an undertaker. Conditions at the undertaker’s house are not much better than at the workhouse, but Oliver does at least have some meat to eat, even if it is only the dog’s leftovers. But the boy is treated so cruelly by the other members of the household that he runs away to London.
When he arrives in the big city Oliver falls into the hands of a gang of thieves and pickpockets under the control of the evil and scheming old Jew, Fagin. Oliver is very naïve and doesn’t raelise that Fagin is trying to teach him the pickpocketing trade until it is too late. On his first ‘job’, Oliver ends up being arrested. Fortunately, the victim of the gang’s crime – a kindly old gentleman – recognises the honesty and sweetness of the young Oliver and he decides not to press charges. The old gentleman gives him shelter and nurses Oliver through a bad fever.Meanwhile, the thieves want Oliver back with them because, for one thing, he knows enough of their secrets to get them hanged. Oliver is soon re-captured by Nancy, another member of Fagin’s gang. Nancy obviously likes Oliver and wants to help him, but she knows she is a victim of the gang herself and cannot do much. However, she does manage to intervene when Fagin looks set to give him a beating, threatening to kill the old man if he hurts the boy. Oliver is locked in a room in Fagin’s house for being so ‘ungrateful’ as to run away from those who had taken him in off the street.
A robbery of a house is organised by the ruthless Bill Sikes, a member of Fagin’s gang, and it is decided that Oliver should take part as he is small enough to climb through the window. But the robbery goes badly wrong and Oliver is shot and wounded by one of the servants and is then abandoned by the gang as they make their escape. On hearing the news, Fagin is distraught and it soon becomes clear that there is a secret about Oliver that no one must know when he meets with a mysterious man in a pub to bargain over the boy’s future.
The morning after the robbery, Oliver goes to the house the gang was trying to rob for assistance and he is taken in by the family who do not believe that such a sweet child would take part in such a terrible crime. The Maylies family look after Oliver and take him to their country house where he spends three happy months far away from the poverty and crime of the London streets.Meanwhile, the mysterious man who met with Fagin in the pub turns up again. This time he goes to see Mr Bumble, seeking information on the identity of Oliver’s dead mother. Bumble and his new wife agree to meet the man at the dead of night in an old abandoned house on the river bank. In return for a sum of money, Bumble’s wife provides the man with what he is looking for – a package containing a gold chain and a wedding ring which belonged to Oliver’s mother. The mysterious man throws the package into the river saying that now it can never be used against him.Since the robbery, Sikes has been unwell and unable to make a living. As a result, he and Nancy are living in poverty. He asks Fagin to give him some money and it is decided that Nancy should accompany Fagin to his house to fetch it. While she is waiting for Fagin to get the money, Nancy overhears a conversation between Fagin and the mysterious man which fills her with worry and anxiety. She realises that Oliver is in great danger and she resolves to help him even though it will put her life in great danger. She goes to see the Maylies family with whom Oliver is staying and tells them what she overheard in Fagin’s house – that in return for money, Fagin has agreed to do all he can to make Oliver a criminal.
The Maylies family contact Mr Brownlow and he sets about making Oliver safe and putting him out of reach of the criminals. He tries to help Nancy, but she refuses, saying she has no choice but to return to Bill Sikes. But unfortunately for her, Fagin has noticed her strange behaviour and, assuming she has found another lover, has been having her followed. When he finds out that Nancy has been giving away the gang’s secrets, Fagin decides to inform Bill Sikes of Nancy’s treachery. The reaction of the robber is predictably violent, and Nancy pays a terrible price at his hands.
But in the end, the thieves are brought to justice. They are all either hanged or end their days in prison, with the exception of one boy from Fagin’s gang who is so outraged by Bill Sikes’s violent behaviour that he sees the error of his ways and lives an honest life. Oliver’s secret is finally revealed and he goes to live with Mr Brownlow in whose house he is given the safe and loving environment that he deserves.