The story is of the orphan Oliver Twist, who starts his life in a workhouse and is then sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker. He escapes from there and travels to London, where he meets the Artful Dodger, a member of a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the elderly criminal Fagin. Oliver, an innocent child, is trapped in a world where his only options seem to be the workhouse, a life of crime symbolized by Fagin's gang, a prison, or an early grave. From this unpromising setting, Oliver's pure-heart leads him on an adventure of a lifetime.
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. In this early example of the social novel, Dickens satirizes the hypocrisies of his time, including child labour, the recruitment of children as criminals, and the presence of street children.