Oliver Twist is born into a workhouse, but seems unlikely to survive at first. He manages to catch his breath, however, but his mother is not so lucky. After giving him one kiss, she dies. Mrs. Thingummy tells the doctor that she had been brought to the workhouse the night before, after collapsing in the street, so nobody knew her name or where she came from, and Oliver Twist is left an orphan.
There is no one on hand who can nurse Oliver, so the parish authorities send him to an orphanage about three miles away, run by Mrs. Mann, an elderly woman who keeps most of the money meant for the care of the orphans for herself. It is not unusual in this orphanage for the children to die from weakness leading to illness, or accidents arising from neglect. Somehow, though, Oliver makes it to his ninth birthday, although he is rather pale and undersized.
At nine, Oliver is too old to stay in the orphanage, so Mr. Bumble comes to get him and take him back to the workhouse where he was born. There, Oliver is taken before the board, who think he is a fool and decide that he will begin to pick oakum so he can learn a useful trade. (The board has recently instituted a program whereby they will slowly starve those in the workhouse so that there won't be so many of them.)
The boys get so hungry that one threatens to eat the weakest of them if he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt get more gruel, so they draw straws to decide who will have to ask for more. Oliver is chosen. After finishing his gruel that evening, he approaches the master and asks for more. The master is shocked, strikes a blow at Oliver and calls for Mr. Bumble. Mr. Bumble tells the members of the board, who are outraged. They decide to offer five pounds and Oliver Twist to anyone who will take him off of their hands.
Oliver is confined to a small dark room while the board waits for someone to take him. Mr. Gamfield, a chimney-sweep who is in debt to his landlord and badly needs five pounds, sees the notice for Oliver and offers to take him. The board negotiates with him, and agrees to give him Oliver and a little over three pounds. When Mr. Bumble takes Oliver before the magistrate, however, Oliver can't help but show his terror at having to go with such a scary-looking man, and the magistrate therefore refuses to sign the authorizing papers, and orders the board to take Oliver back to the workhouse.
Mr. Bumble finds Mr. Sowerberry, the parochial undertaker, looking at the posting about Oliver Twist, and after a short discussion they agree that he shall take him. Mr. Bumble brings Oliver to the coffin-makerÃ¢ÂÂs shop, where he meets Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry. Mrs. Sowerberry thinks he will be more trouble than he is worth, but Mr. Sowerberry makes the decision. Oliver is fed the dogÃ¢ÂÂs leftovers for dinner, and shown to his sleeping space beneath the counter among the coffins.
Oliver is woken after his first night in the undertaker's by a kicking on the door. It is Noah Claypole, a charity-boy who works for the Sowerberrys. He, used to being looked down on for being a charity-boy, is delighted to now have someone that he can look down on himself, and he immediately begins to bully Oliver. Mr. Sowerberry tells Mrs. Sowerberry that he thought Oliver'ÂÂs melancholy aspect would make him perfect for a mute for a child's funeral, and she agrees.
Mr. Bumble soon brings an order for a coffin and a funeral. Mr. Sowerberry goes to measure the body, and brings Oliver with him, and the next day they bring the coffin back and take it to the graveyard for the funeral. Mr. Sowerberry asks Oliver how he liked it, and Oliver replies not very much, but Mr. Sowerberry tells him that he will get used to it.
Oliver makes it through his month trial and is formally apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry. This increases Noah's ire, and so Noah treats Oliver even more badly. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sowerberry continues her original ill treatment. One day in the kitchen, Noah decides to be especially unpleasant to Oliver, and insults his mother. Oliver becomes so enraged that his meekness is overcome and he attacks Noah. Noah calls for help, and Charlotte and Mrs. Sowerberry come running. Together with Noah they beat Oliver, then lock him in the cellar. Mr. Sowerberry not being home, Mrs. Sowerberry sends Noah to get Mr. Bumble.
Noah tells Mr. Bumble that Oliver tried to murder him, Charlotte and Mrs. Sowerberry. Mr. Bumble goes to the undertaker's to deliver a thrashing, where he finds Oliver is not afraid of him. He tells Mrs. Sowerberry that she has overfed Oliver, and that is why he has become so vicious. Mr. Sowerberry returns home and hears the story, and is forced to beat Oliver to appease Mrs. Sowerberry. The next morning, Oliver runs away, stopping by the workhouse to say goodbye to Dick, a former companion.
This first section of Oliver Twist is especially focused on the failures of the systems in place to take care of the poor and helpless - particularly orphans. The narrator, with his deft use of sarcasm, shows how little those entrusted with Oliver's care actually care about him (or any of their charges, for that matter). Most of those put in this position of guardianship are utterly convinced of their moral superiority to their paupers, just by virtue of their not being paupers, and so they consider it their duty to keep the paupers in their place.
A similar tendency, to raise oneself up by stepping on the head of those below, is elucidated in this section. The clearest example is Noah Claypole, who, as a charity-boy, is often made fun of for his occupation and put down by other boys; this does not lead him to have a sympathetic view of Oliver. Instead, he takes his first chance to be better than someone else, and bullies Oliver as much as he can. Similarly, characters like Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Sowerberry seem especially intent on making sure that those below them stay below them, and treat them with disdain and cruelty.
This involves, among other things, underfeeding them, which comes to symbolize the institutional cruelty to the poor in the novel. It is this underfeeding which leads to Oliver asking for more, and this act, this complaining about the malnourishment, is so against everything that the board of guardians stands for that it leads to their complete misunderstanding of Oliver's character - a misunderstanding that follows Oliver for a good portion of the story. Oliver's outrage at Noah's insult to his mother is blamed on his being overfed: for the poor to receive any more than the bare minimum nutritionally is not only a nuisance to those who care for them, but is seen as morally wrong.
The importance that food takes on in this opening section of the novel recalls the way that government policies toward the poor can alter society's attitudes. The New Poor Law Amendment of 1834, to which in part Dickens wrote Oliver Twist as a response, did indeed place a premium on conserving resources in caring for the poor, and provided workhouses with several choices for menus, all of which involved very limited portions. Dickens shows this policy not only harming the poor in its enactment, but also hurting them because its passage justified it as a moral stance, which permeated society.
This section also emphasizes the powerlessness of children, especially children without parents to stand up for them. Oliver is completely at the mercy of the board and Mr. Bumble, who fail to understand him. The reader sees Oliver as a meek, good-hearted, kind and helpless boy, while the board and Mr. Bumble, and later Mrs. Sowerberry, see him as intentionally vicious, ungrateful, and greedy. Whenever Oliver tries to speak to anyone to defend himself or voice a desire, he is misheard, ignored, or almost intentionally misunderstood. Thus, not only does Oliver have no legal or physical power, he does not even have a voice.