The novel opens with the introduction of Oliver, a waif who has spent his short life living in miserable conditions in a workhouse. Along with other fellow orphans, he is regularly beaten and underfed. One day the young, hungry orphans decide to draw sticks in order to determine who will ask for another portion of gruel. The unlucky representative of the starving children is Oliver, who goes up to the stern Mr. Bumble and makes his famous plea “Please sir, I want some more”. Unimpressed by such a request, the authoritarian administrators of the workhouse offer five pounds to anyone willing to take the boy as an apprentice. Subsequently, Oliver is apprenticed to local undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry.
Things do not get any easier, as Oliver is bullied by fellow apprentice Noah Claypole who also causes him to be unfairly flogged by their superiors. Consequently, Oliver decides to run away and is quickly on his way to London where he meets a boy his own age by the name of Jack Dawkins. Unaware that his new found companion is a pickpocket, Oliver naively follows Jack to the house of his benefactor Fagin where he is offered shelter. He is also oblivious to the fact that Fagin is in reality a criminal who trains young boys in the art of pick pocketing. Oliver is swept up in the corrupt game mastered by Fagin, and once again must escape the grasps of captivity in order to find happiness.