by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist Chapter 2 Summary
READ THE BOOK: Chapter 2
"Treats of Oliver Twist’s Growth, Education, and Board"
- Oliver gets sent out to be "farmed" because there isn’t a wet nurse to be found at the workhouse after his mother dies.
- Dickens treats us to a scathingly ironic description of the wretched conditions at the baby farm run by Mrs. Mann.
- Now, allow us to interrupt our scheduled program for a Historical Context Lesson: "baby farms" like Mrs. Mann’s actually existed, and the worst ones had mortality rates as high as 90%. Put differently, that would mean that only 1 baby in 10 would survive infancy at a baby farm like Mrs. Mann’s.
- But back to the story: Oliver survives infancy, if he doesn’t thrive. He’s now eight years old (wow, eight years in two chapters!) and he’s a "pale, thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference" (2.4). Apparently, Mrs. Mann doesn’t feed the babies very much; she pockets the extra money she should have been spending on their food and clothing. Sounds like a fun lady.
- Mr. Bumble, the Beadle, comes to inspect the baby farm. Time for another Historical Context Lesson (there will be fewer as we go along): in the Church of England, a beadle was somebody who worked for the parish and was in charge of charity (i.e., the workhouse and the orphanages). In Judaism, beadles were assistants at the synagogue (like the character Moshe the Beadle in Night by Elie Wiesel).
- And now back to our regularly scheduled programming: Mr. Bumble arrives at Mrs. Mann’s baby farm, and over a glass of gin and water with a spoonful of sugar (don’t try this at home; we do not recommend it), we learn something new about Oliver’s name—it was "inwented" by Mr. Bumble, to use his phrase (2.22). For more on the possible implications of Oliver’s name, check out the "Character Analysis" section.
- Mr. Bumble plans to take Oliver back to the workhouse with him because, at age eight, he’s old enough to start working.
- Oliver is cleaned up (sort of) and is taken before the parish board and questioned about his religion, and we learn that he’s never been taught any religion at all, even though he’s been brought up by the parish and associated with the Church of England his whole life (check out the "Religion" section in "Themes").
- He’ll start learning how to pick oakum the next morning at the workhouse. ("Picking oakum" involves picking the fibrous bits out of old rope for use in other things. We’ve never tried it ourselves, but we imagine it to be very, very dull work.)
- Oliver and the other young boys in the workhouse are close to starvation, because they’re given only one ounce of watery gruel for each meal.
- The boys draw straws to decide who’s going to ask for more to eat. Oliver gets the short end of that stick, and we get the famous scene of Oliver asking for more. This is also the first illustration by George Cruikshank. If you’re using an edition that doesn’t include the illustrations, we recommend looking them up online (check out the "images" links), or in another edition—they’re part of what made the novel so famous.
- Apparently asking for more to eat is an unforgivable offense—the man in the white waistcoat is so shocked that he prophesies that Oliver "will be hung […] I know that boy will be hung" (2.72).
READ THE BOOK: Chapter 2