Based in 1838, the orphan, young Oliver is born in a parish workhouse in an unnamed town, His unmarried mother dies during labour. Old Sally, who was present at the birth, takes from the dying woman a locket and ring. Mr Bumble, the Beadle, names the boy Oliver Twist. Oliver is sent to an orphanage, run by Mrs. Mann, until he is nine years old, until he escapes.
The orphans at the workhouse are starving because of their cruel treatment. They cast lots to decide who will ask for more gruel for them all, and Oliver is chosen. At evening supper, once the gruel is dished out and eaten, Oliver goes to the master and makes his famous request, "Please Sir. I want some more." He is then branded a troublemaker and offered as an apprentice to anyone willing to take him, and he is eventually apprenticed to Sowerberry, the undertaker. Oliver fights with Noah Claypole, an older boy at the undertakers, because Noah mocked Oliver's dead mother. Oliver is then beaten for the offence, but he manages to escape and runs away to London.
In London Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, who offers him a place to stay, where he meets up with Fagin and his band of young thieves. Oliver innocently goes "to work" with Dawkins and Charley Bates, but sees the real nature of their "work" when Dawkins picks the pocket of a gentleman. When the gentleman, Mr. Brownlow, realises he is being robbed, Oliver is mistaken for the pickpocket. And he is then chased, captured, and taken to the police. Oliver, who was injured in the chase, is cleared by a witness to the crime and is taken in by Brownlow to his home where he is well treated. After recovering from his injuries, Oliver is sent on an errand by Brownlow to pay a local merchant £5 and to return some books. However, Oliver is caught by Nancy and Bill Sikes, who pretend to be his siblings, and is returned to Fagin's den. However, Nancy later betrays Fagin and Sikes, as well as herself, for doing so since they've stolen Oliver's chance to have a better life.
Mr. Brownlow, who mistakenly thinks that Oliver has run away with the money, assumes that Oliver was a thief all along. This belief is further strengthened when Bumble, in response to Brownlow's newspaper advertisement for information about Oliver, gives a disparaging opinion of the boy. Nevertheless, Brownlow still holds onto a little bit of hope that this might not be true.
Meanwhile, Oliver is forced by Fagin to join Sikes in an attempted robbery at a rural house, as they need a small boy to enter a window and open the front door for Sikes to get in. However, the robbery fails and, in the ensuing chase, Oliver is shot. He is then nursed back to health at the home of the Maylies, the house Sikes was attempting to burgle. Oliver gives his story to the Maylies (more exactly, the widow Mrs. Maylie, her son Harry and her adoptive daughter Rose) and Doctor Losberne. He also helps out when Rose falls ill, casually meeting a mysterious man along the way...
The mysterious man is Mr. Monks, who is revealed to be Oliver's half brother (his true name being Edward Leeford). He joins Fagin in an attempt to recapture Oliver and lead him into a life of crime, so that Oliver's rightful inheritance, of which Oliver knows nothing, would then go to Monks. Nancy, who still feels compassion for Oliver, overhears Fagin's and Monk's plans and tells Rose Maylie, hoping to thwart them. Rose then contacts Brownlow (clearing Oliver's name in the process, much to Brownlow's relief), Dr. Losberne and other people, to help her protect Oliver.
Meanwhile, Bumble has married the matron of the workhouse, Mrs. Corney. The former Mrs. Corney had been in attendance at Old Sally's death, and purloined the locket and ring Old Sally had taken from Oliver's mother Agnes on her deathbed. Monks buys these items from the Bumbles and throws them into the river Thames, hoping that, by destroying them, Oliver's true identity will remain hidden.
Brownlow and Rose Maylie meet Nancy on London Bridge and she tells them how to find Monks. However, Fagin has had Nancy followed and, believing Nancy has revealed his secrets, Fagin tells Sikes that Nancy has betrayed them. Sikes brutally murders Nancy, then flees London to the country. However, their neighbors and some of Fagin's own band members soon find out about Nancy's death and, enraged, they tell the police; Sikes falls to his death when he's about to be captured and taken away.
Oliver is revealed to be the illegitimate son of a rich man named Edwin Leeford and his young mistress, a girl named Agnes Fleming. Leeford had also fathered another son, Edward ("Monks"), through a failed former marriage. After seducing Agnes, Leeford died, leaving a will which stated that the unborn child would inherit his estate if "in his minority he should never have stained his name with any public act of dishonour, meanness, cowardice, or wrong" in the event of which all would go to Monks. Monks is given half of Oliver's inheritance by Brownlow - who had been Edwin Leeford's best friend and the keeper of his secrets - in the hope that he would start a new life. Monks flees to the United States, where he quickly squanders the money and dies in prison.
Rose Maylie is revealed to be Agnes Fleming's younger sister, who was adopted by the Maylies after her parents died. Therefore, Rose is Oliver's aunt and is able to marry Harry Maylie. Oliver collects his inheritance and is adopted by Brownlow, for the conventional happy ending to the novel.
Very common of Dickens’ writings is his commentary on the social status of 19th century England. Oliver is an example of a character that represents a social group at large: the poor. At the time, it was assumed that the poor were born corrupt, deviant, and as a result unable to move out of the low social stratum they occupied. However, people are typically not innately deviant, nor are the poor necessarily incapable of pulling themselves out of impoverishment. There are often external factors that contribute to the rigidity of the social structure, especially in 19th century England, given the nature of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which in part placed impoverished people in even worse living arrangements–workhouses–presumably to urge them to climb the ladder to higher social standings where the conditions were not so dismal. Oliver’s symbolic portrayal of poverty demonstrates how circumstance, rather than in-born impurity or corruption, strongly impacts a person’s situation.
Oliver was born in a workhouse, and orphaned almost immediately. He is effectively the lowest form of life in England, living in a dirty house, eating meager portions of gruel, and working long days. His fate throughout the novel is largely decided by outside forces: his birthplace was chosen for him; his caretakers fed him meager portions, raised him harshly and coldly, and forced him to work from a young age; and Sowerberry, the undertaker, apprenticed him. On the way to this new position, Oliver cries, seemingly realizing that he lacks control over his life. These actions are done unto him, while he only bears the effects of them. Outside forces have shaped the path of his life to that point. If one looks at Oliver’s behavior and mannerisms, it can be seen that he is the epitome of innocence and purity. Whereas the other poor characters speak rough, common English, Oliver delivers his dialogue with speech fit for the King. This can be seen when Oliver first meets the Artful dodger:
Dodger: “Hullo my covey, what’s the row?”
Oliver: “I am very hungry and tired. I have walked a long way. I have been walking these seven days.”
Furthermore, Oliver’s moral compass seems to steer him away from immorality without fail. It is not until he meets the Artful Dodger and Fagin that Oliver is able to take the reins, but even then he experiences negatively guiding influence from the band of thieves.
When Oliver joins up as a thief, he becomes textual evidence of the argument that the poor are not all bad, but have been forced into questionable means of living. Oliver is not a thief, but is frequently framed as one, which suggests that he, being poor, is also innately deviant. Such framing comes from his environment. Fagin and his underlings want to keep Oliver in the business in London, so Nancy and Sikes take him back to Fagin after Oliver was living with Mr. Brownlow. This leads Brownlow to believe that Oliver was a thief all along. Bumble sheds more negative light on Oliver in response to Brownlow’s newspaper advertisement. Monks tries to force Oliver into thievery so he can inherit all of his father’s estate instead of Oliver. We know, however, that this framing information is untrue. Presumably, readers at the time would also have picked up on the fundamental differences between Oliver and his companions. Oliver is not like the others, and thus represents the argument that the poor are normal people sometimes pushed to unsavory means of survival.
The trajectory of Oliver’s story follows the expectation of middle and upper class folks, that ‘inherently bad people’, such as the poor, do not have the moral strength to overcome starvation themselves. (A similar Malthusian connection has been made regarding Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.) Oliver is placed under this lens, and is constantly written off as a bad child, when in truth he has done nothing wrong. In fact, Oliver stands as the antithesis of this expectation, as he is the embodiment of resolute morality. His extra moral fiber, as it were, keeps Oliver pure–even after being exposed to hardship and thievery throughout his young life. All these influences working against Oliver, while he remains resolutely moral and innocent, suggest the impact of outside forces, rather than any sort of predetermined traits, on his life. Had Oliver been born in a different situation, for example to a wealthy family, he could have just as well been born corrupt or deviant. However, the circumstances of that birth would have provided a far different trajectory than birth in the workhouse.In Disney's 1988 animated film Oliver & Company, Oliver is portrayed as a ginger orange Tabby kitten who wants a home. He joins Fagin's gang of dogs before being taken in and adopted by Jenny. He is voiced by Joey Lawrence.
Disney's live-action television film, Oliver Twist was released in 1997. Oliver was played by Alex Trench.
In October 2016 it was announced that the studio would be making a feature-length live-action musical film adaptation of the story. Ice Cube is set to star as Fagin, and will also served as co-writer with Jeff Kwatinetz. The two will serve as co-producers, with Marc Platt of Wicked fame, as well. Thomas Kail, Director of Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton was announced as the film's director.
In the 2015 TV series, Dickensian, we meet Oliver in three instances of his circumstantial life. He's a minor character in the last two episodes, first appearing in episode 19, asking Mr. Bumble "Please, sir, may I have more," during a meal staged for the overseers of the work house, a ploy of Mr. & Mrs. Bumble for promotion. Considered impolite and an embarrassment, he's put out onto the streets of London. In the last episode, we see him forlorn and destitute on the street, until he meets up with the Artful Dodger and taken in to Fagin's den of thieves. It is the last scene of the last episode.