by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist Chapter 23 Summary
READ THE BOOK: Chapter 23
"Which Contains the Substance of a Pleasant Conversation Between Mr. Bumble and a Lady, and Shows that Even a Beadle May be Susceptible on Some Points"
- The second book opens with Mrs. Corney (new character!), the matron at the workhouse where Oliver was born, making herself a comfortable cup of tea on a cold and bitter night.
- She’s in the middle of reflecting on how lonely she is (she’s been a widow for twenty-five years) when there’s a knock at the door.
- She assumes it’s one of the workhouse paupers, come to tell her that someone or other is dying, and she’s annoyed by it: "they always die when I’m at meals," she complains (23.7).
- But it’s not a pauper, it’s Mr. Bumble. Mrs. Corney quickly changes her tone of voice.
- Mr. Bumble complains about how demanding the poor people all are—even after being given bread and cheese, a man with a large family asked if he could have "a pocket-handkerchief full" of coals to make a fire (23.15).
- He tells another story of a man who came looking for relief at the overseer’s house when the overseer was having a dinner party—the man hardly had any clothes on (it’s the middle of winter), and the overseer offered him a pound of potatoes and some oatmeal. The man said that the food wouldn’t save him, and that he’d go die in the streets. And that’s exactly what he did. Mr. Bumble thinks that shows how "obstinate" paupers are.
- Even as he finishes telling Mrs. Corney about the man who died in the street of the cold, he pulls out two bottles of good port wine that he’s brought with him, "for the infirmary," and puts on his hat as though to go.
- But then he stays when Mrs. Corney invites him to a cup of tea.
- Mrs. Corney gets him a cup of tea, and asks him if he wants it sweet.
- He says he wants it "very sweet," and gives her a tender look (23.31).
- He eats his toast and drinks his tea in silence, until he comments on her cat and kittens.
- She says that they make good companions, because they are "so happy, so frolicsome, and so cheerful" (23.34).
- Mr. Bumble uses this as an awkward way to hit on her: he says that "any cat or kitten that could live with you, ma’am, and not be fond of its home, must be an ass, ma’am," and that he would himself "drown" any cat so ungrateful (23.37).
- Mrs. Corney tells him that drowning cats is "cruel" and "hard-hearted" (we’re inclined to agree).
- Mr. Bumble doesn’t argue with "cruel" but objects to "hard-hearted."
- He scoots his chair away from the fire (and further from Mrs. Corney—it’s a round table). And then he scoots it again—and again—until he’s quite close to her again on the other side.
- Mrs. Corney is now pinned between the fire and Mr. Bumble (see the Cruikshank illustration, if you need a visual aid to imagine this).
- Mr. Bumble asks Mrs. Corney if she is "hard-hearted," and when she wants to know why he asks, he kisses her.
- She threatens to scream, but then there’s a knock at the door.
- This time it is a pauper, letting Mrs. Corney know that "old Sally" is dying, and has something she wants to tell Mrs. Corney before she dies.
- Mrs. Corney is very put out about all this, but does get up to go, and asks Mr. Bumble to wait until she gets back.
- While she’s out, Mr. Bumble goes around her room weighing and counting her silver sugar-tongs, milk pot, spoons, and examining all her furniture.
READ THE BOOK: Chapter 23