Excerpt from Oliver Twist

By Charles Dickens
1838

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was an English writer and social critic. He is considered one of the best
novelists of the Victorian era, the time during Queen Victoria’s reign. In this excerpt from Dickens’ famous
novel Oliver Twist, Oliver asks his master at the workhouse for more food. During this time in England, a
workhouse was a place where those who were unable to support themselves could find accommodations
and employment. As you read, take notes on how the author describes Oliver’s experiences at the
workhouse.

Chapter II: Treats of Oliver Twist’s
Growth, Education, and Board
The room in which the boys were fed, was a large
stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the
master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and
assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel1
at
meal-times. Of this festive composition each boy had
one porringer,2
and no more — except on occasions
of great public rejoicing, when had two ounces and a
quarter of bread besides. The bowls never wanted
washing. The boys polished them with their spoons
till they shone again; and when they had performed
this operation (which never took very long, the
spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they
would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes,
as if they could have devoured the very bricks of
which it was composed; employing themselves,
meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most
assiduously,3 with the view of catching up any stray
splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and
his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild
with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (or his father had
kept a small cookshop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem,4
he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next to him, who happened to be a weakly
youth of tender age. He had a wild hungry eye; and they implicitly5
believed him. A council was held; lots were
cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
[1]

  1. a thin liquid food of oatmeal or other meal boiled in milk or water
  2. a small bowl, typically with a handle
  3. Assiduous (adjective) showing great care and perseverance
  4. a Latin phrase meaning “per day”
  5. absolutely
    1
    The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the
    copper; his pauper6
    assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was
    said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered to each other, and winked at Oliver;
    while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery.
    He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his
    own temerity:7
    “Please, sir, I want some more.”
    The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied8
    astonishment on the small
    rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder;
    the boys with fear.
    [5] “What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.
    “Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”
    The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned9
    him in his arms; and shrieked aloud for the
    beadle.10
    The board were sitting in solemn conclave,11 when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and
    addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said,
    “Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!”
    [10] There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.12
    “For more!” said Mr. Limbkins. “Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he
    asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?”
    “He did, sir,” replied Bumble.
    “That boy will be hung,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. “I know that boy will be hung.”
    Nobody controverted the prophetic13 gentleman’s opinion. An animated discussion took place. Oliver was
    ordered into instant confinement; and a bill was next morning pasted on the outside of the gate, offering a
    reward of five pounds to anybody who would take Oliver Twist off the hands of the parish. In other words, five
    pounds and Oliver Twist was offered to any man or woman who wanted an apprentice to any trade, business,
    or calling.
  6. a very poor person
  7. excessive confidence or boldness
  8. Stupefy (verb) to make someone unable to think or feel properly
  9. to hold the arms or legs of someone
  10. a church leader
  11. a private meeting
  12. a person’s face or facial expression
  13. Prophetic (adjective) accurately describing or predicting what will happen in the future
    2
    [15] “I never was more convinced of anything in my life,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, as he knocked at
    the gate and read the bill next morning: “I never was more convinced of anything in my life, than I am that that
    boy will come to be hung.”
    3
    Discussion Questions
    Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to
    share your original ideas in a class discussion.
  14. In the context of the text, what does it mean to be brave? How does Oliver exhibit bravery
    in the text? Do you think Oliver exhibits bravery despite being picked by the other boys to
    complete the task?
  15. In the context of the text, how does power corrupt? How are the adults in the text
    corrupted by the power they have over the boys? Cite evidence from this text, your own
    experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.
  16. In the context of the text, what are the effects of social status? How is the way that the
    master treats Oliver a result of his social status? Cite evidence from this text, your own
    experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.