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Oliver Twist is notable for its unromantic portrayal by Dickens of criminals and their sordid lives, as well as for exposing the cruel treatment of the many orphans in London in the mid-19th century. The alternative title, The Parish Boy's Progress, alludes to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, as well as the 18th-century caricature series by William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress and A Harlot's Progress.
Oliver Twist is born and raised into a life of poverty and misfortune in a workhouse in the fictional town of Mudfog, located 70 miles (110 km) north of London. Orphaned by his mother's death in childbirth and his father's mysterious absence, Oliver is meagerly provided for under the terms of the Poor Law and spends the first nine years of his life living at a baby farm in the 'care' of a woman named Mrs. Mann. Oliver is brought up with little food and few comforts. Around the time of Oliver's ninth birthday, Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, removes Oliver from the baby farm and puts him to work picking and weaving oakum at the main workhouse. Oliver, who toils with very little food, remains in the workhouse for six months. One day, the desperately hungry boys decide to draw lots; the loser must ask for another portion of gruel. This task falls to Oliver himself, who at the next meal comes forward trembling, bowl in hand, and begs Mr. Bumble for gruel with his famous request: "Please, sir, I want some more".
A great uproar ensues. The board of well-fed gentlemen who administer the workhouse hypocritically offer £5 to any person wishing to take on the boy as an apprentice. Mr. Gamfield, a brutal chimney sweep, almost claims Oliver. However, when he begs despairingly not to be sent away with "that dreadful man", a kindly magistrate refuses to sign the indentures. Later, Mr. Sowerberry, an undertaker employed by the parish, takes Oliver into his service. He treats Oliver better and, because of the boy's sorrowful countenance, uses him as a mourner at children's funerals. Mr. Sowerberry is in an unhappy marriage, and his wife looks down on Oliver and loses few opportunities to underfeed and mistreat him. He also suffers torment at the hands of Noah Claypole, an oafish and bullying fellow apprentice and "charity boy" who is jealous of Oliver's promotion to mute, and Charlotte, the Sowerberrys' maidservant, who is in love with Noah.
Wanting to bait Oliver, Noah insults the memory of Oliver's biological mother, calling her "a regular right-down bad 'un". Enraged, Oliver assaults the much bigger boy. Mrs. Sowerberry takes Noah's side, helps him to subdue, punch, and beat Oliver, and later compels her husband and Mr. Bumble, who has been sent for in the aftermath of the fight, to beat Oliver again. Once Oliver is being sent to his room for the night he breaks down and weeps. The next day Oliver escapes from the Sowerberrys' house and later decides to run away to London to seek a better life.