by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist Chapter 8 Summary
READ THE BOOK: Chapter 8
"Oliver Walks to London, and Encounters on the Road a Strange Sort of Young Gentleman"
- Oliver is at the very edge of town, and it is now eight in the morning. He’s so afraid of being caught by the parish authorities or the Sowerberrys that he runs, dodging between hedges, until noon.
- Oliver stops to rest by a milestone (like a Victorian road sign) that says that he is seventy miles from London.
- Oliver remembers having heard about London from the old men at the workhouse, and decides it’s "the very place for a homeless boy, who must die in the streets unless some one helped him" (8.2).
- Oliver walks five miles before stopping to take stock of his supplies: he only has a crust of bread, an extra shirt, two spare pairs of stockings (socks, basically), and a penny, and he now has sixty-five miles more to go. He walks twenty miles that day, and only eats the crust of bread he has with him, and spends the night under a hay-rick in a meadow.
- He wakes up so hungry that he has to spend his only penny on a loaf of bread, and he’s so tired from the events of the last few days that he’s only able to walk twelve miles that day.
- He tries to beg from some people on the outside of a stagecoach (this was before the railway, so the only way to get from city to city was by stagecoach). But they ignore him.
- Some folks threaten to set their dogs on him for begging, some assume he’s planning to steal from them, and some towns have signs up saying that anyone begging within the city limits will be sent to jail.
- The only two people who have any compassion on poor Oliver are two poor people who can't really afford to—a turnpike-man (think of him as a Victorian tollbooth worker), and an old lady who is reminded of her own lost grandson when she sees Oliver.
- After a week of walking from his hometown, Oliver arrives at the town of Barnet (a small village ten miles north of London).
- He arrives at sunrise, but "the light only seemed to show the boy his own lonesomeness and desolation as he sat with bleeding feet and covered with dust upon a cold door-step" (8.9).
- As the town wakes up, passersby seem suspicious of him, but don’t offer him any help.
- A boy notices Oliver sitting there, and after looking at him for a while, comes over and says, "Hullo! My covey, what’s the row?"
- Before translating this odd speech for his readers, Dickens backs up to describe the boy: he’s about Oliver’s age, but swaggers around like a full-grown man, and wears grown-up clothes with the sleeves and legs turned up.
- He asks Oliver some more questions that Oliver doesn’t understand ("Beak’s order, eh?") and his explanations aren’t much more clear than the original.
- We will now interrupt this program for another Historical Context Lesson: The reason we don’t understand this boy’s speech is because it’s in cant, or criminals’ slang, so neither Oliver nor the reader is likely to understand it. So don’t worry—it’s not just you. Oliver doesn’t understand criminal cant, either, and Dickens doesn’t expect us to. Check out the "intro" section for more on crime novels (a.k.a. "Newgate novels").
- For now, suffice to say that all the novelists who were writing about crime liked to work some criminal slang into their novels to spice things up a bit, and make it seem like they really knew how criminals communicated. Did criminals really talk like that in the nineteenth century? Hard to say— you’ll hear different answers from different people. In any case, the mix of Oliver’s innocence and the Dodger’s slang is pretty hilarious.
- Back to the story. After some more misunderstandings, the young man (who still hasn’t introduced himself) offers to buy Oliver some food, which Oliver obviously accepts.
- As he eats, he tells the boy that he’s going to London. The boy asks if he knows where he’s going to stay, or if he has any money. When Oliver answers "no" to both, the boy says that he knows of a "genelman" in London who will give Oliver a place to stay "for nothink," so long as Oliver is introduced by this boy.
- Of course Oliver can’t say no to an offer like this—he’s been sleeping outside for a week, and it’s the middle of winter.
- The boy introduces himself as "Jack Dawkins," but he’s more often known as "the Artful Dodger" (which is how we’ll be referring to him from now on).
- Oliver decides that the Dodger is probably not a very moral person, and decides that he’ll avoid spending much time with him in the future if that turns out to be true.
- They arrive in London after eleven o’clock at night, and pass through a dirty neighborhood to a tiny alley called Field-Lane (well known to contemporary readers to be a hideout for pickpockets).
- After an exchange of secret passwords with someone in an upstairs window, the Dodger leads Oliver upstairs to a dirty room, where he introduces Oliver to "a very old shrivelled Jew." Yikes. We recommend that you go straight over to "Character Analysis" before going on to work through the antisemitism here.
- Okay, back to the story. Besides Fagin, the room is full of various other young boys. There are a whole lot of pocket handkerchiefs spread out around the room, which Fagin tells Oliver are being sorted for the laundry. All the boys seem to find this hilarious.
- After giving him a dinner of sausage, they give him a tumbler of gin and water. Even watered down, you can imagine the effect that much liquor has on a small boy: he drops right off to sleep.
READ THE BOOK: Chapter 8