The novel begins in the early 1800s. A young woman arrives at a workhouse in a small town north of London; here she gives birth to a boy and then dies. The child is given the name Oliver Twist and is put into a workhouse orphanage until the age of nine, when he is transferred to the workhouse itself. All the young boys are mistreated and half-starved.
When Oliver asks for more food he is thrown out, and becomes apprenticed to the local undertaker (one who arranges funerals); but again he is ill-treated; after months of abuse he runs away to London, where he falls among thieves. They take him about pickpocketing but the first time he is sent with two other boy to steal, he is horrified to see them pick the pocket of an old gentleman, and runs away. An angry mob of people corner him, suspecting that he is the thief, and he is arrested. Fortunately for him Mr Brownlow, the pickpocket’s victim, is convinced of his innocence and takes him to his house. Here Oliver, for the first time in his life, is treated with compassion and benevolence.
The thieves are brought to justice; Monks receives his share of the inheritance, goes to America and becomes bankrupt, falls into crime and dies in jail. Oliver is finally adopted by Mr Brownlow.