Oliver Twist Chapter 17 Summary
"Oliver’s Destiny Continuing Unpropitious, Brings a Great Man to London to Injure his Reputation"
- This chapter opens with another digression like the one starting Chapter Fifteen, but this time, Dickens is explaining that going back and forth from tragedy and suspense to comedy and more mundane stuff is just part of good story-telling, and that real life is like that, anyway.
- So the real action of the chapter begins a few paragraphs in, with Mr. Bumble (Remember him? The beadle who likes to smack orphans with his beadle cane?) arriving at Mrs. Mann’s baby farm.
- Mrs. Mann asks him how he’s doing, just to be polite, and Mr. Bumble is conceited enough to think that she actually cares, so he tells her: "A porochial [he means "parochial," or working for the parish] life […] is a life of worry, and vexation, and hardihood; but all public characters, as I may say, must suffer prosecution (um, we assume he meant to say "persecution")" (17.12).
- After more pompous speechifying, Mr. Bumble tells Mrs. Mann that he has to travel to London to deal with a "legal action" that is "coming on about a settlement," and he’ll need to "depose to the matter before the quarter-sessions at Clerkinwell" (17.18). Okay, that wasn’t at all clear – basically, there are a couple of paupers who want to be supported by Mr. Bumble’s parish, but there’s some argument as to whose parish they belong to (remember, the parish only has to look after the poor people who were born there, so if you can’t prove where you were born, you’re kind of screwed). So Mr. Bumble has to travel to London to prove in court that his parish won’t have to take care of these two poor people.
- Mrs. Mann seems shocked that Mr. Bumble’s planning on traveling by coach (which is closed to the weather, and faster) instead of an open cart, since he’s traveling with the two paupers (and they don’t usually spend any money on comforts for the poor people if they can help it).
- But apparently the rival parish is paying for the coach, because the two paupers are close to dying, and they’ve calculated that it will be cheaper to move them (i.e., to the court by coach) than to bury them.
- Mr. Bumble then pays Mrs. Mann her salary, and asks how the orphans are.
- She says they’re all just fine – except the two who died last week, and little Dick (remember him?) who still isn’t well.
- Mr. Bumble seems to feel insulted that Dick is sick, as though it’s an insult to the whole parish.
- Dick comes into the room, and asks if someone can write down a note for him, to be given to Oliver after he dies.
- Mr. Bumble is astonished, and asks for an explanation.
- Dick says he wants to tell Oliver how much he’s thought of him, and cried at the idea of poor Oliver wandering around in the cold by himself, and how he’s happy to die young because then he and his dead sister will get to be children together in heaven.
- Mr. Bumble is shocked at this depressing speech from someone who has, he thinks, so much cause for gratitude, and blames it all on Oliver for "demoralizing" the other kids.
- So of course Dick gets locked in the coal cellar as punishment.
- Mr. Bumble goes on to London, and when they’ve stopped for the night, he notices an advertisement in the paper, asking for information about Oliver Twist and offering a reward of five guineas.
- Five guineas is a lot of money. Mr. Bumble runs away to Pentonville and knocks on Mr. Brownlow’s door, eager to tell him all that he knows about Oliver.
- Mr. Grimwig immediately can tell that Mr. Bumble is a beadle – something about the cut of his coat gave it away.
- Mr. Brownlow asks him what he knows about Oliver, and Mr. Grimwig cuts in, saying, "you don’t happen to know any good of him, do you?"
- Mr. Bumble takes his cue from Grimwig, and tells Oliver’s story in no very flattering terms to Oliver – how he was "born of low and vicious parents […] who had terminated his brief career […] by making a sanguinary and cowardly attack on an unoffending lad," etc., etc. (17.82-3).
- Mr. Brownlow is sad about it, but is afraid it must be true. He gives Mr. Bumble the five guineas, and says he’d have happily paid three times that much if the news had been more favorable to Oliver.
- Mr. Bumble wishes he’d known that before, but it's too late now – he leaves the house.
- Mrs. Bedwin still doesn’t believe it when they tell her. She says she knows children better than either of the men could.
- Mr. Brownlow says he never wants to hear Oliver’s name mentioned again.