Originally published in 1838, available for free on Project Gutenberg.
Born to an unmarried woman who dies after giving birth, orphan Oliver Twist seems destined to slog through a dismal life in the workhouse. A rebellious cry for more gets Oliver banished, and ultimately lands him on the dismal streets of London. The young outcast finds refuge with Fagin and his band of thieves before fate intervenes and puts Oliver in the hands of a kindly benefactor. It is likely that Dickens's own early youth as a child laborer contributed to the story's development. Oliver Twist has been the subject of countless film and television adaptations.
Oliver Twist was Dickens' second novel (after the Pickwick Papers). I've read a lot of Dickens novels, and while I'm a fan, I think his sophomore work was less polished and a bit more maudlin than his later works (and even his later works could get pretty maudlin). There is also a lot of filler material, typical of when Dickens was writing chapters for serialization.
Oliver, a parish orphan, first gets in trouble with the famous words, "Please, sir, I want some more," in one of the most iconic of all of Dickens' scenes.
Although he was actually put up to it by the other boys, Oliver is sent to work for an undertaker, where he is enraged by insults against his deceased mother (despite the fact that he never knew her), and winds up a runaway on the streets of London. Here he is recruited by young Jack Dawkins, aka the Artful Dodger, and led back to the den of Fagin, who has gathered a pack of young urchins whom he sends out to steal and spy. Oliver spends only a little time as part of Fagin's crew before he is captured after a bungled pickpocketing attempt, winds up in the home of a kindly old gentleman who takes care of the would-be thief, and in a series of remarkable coincidences which were also a Dickens trademark, a dozen different characters have all their subplots twined together before Oliver gets his forever home.
Dickens was known for his social justice advocacy, and many of his novels detailed the hard, grinding life of the poor. Fagin's band in Oliver Twist are all sympathetic little ruffians, except Fagin himself, who is repeatedly referred to as "the Jew" and is one of Dickens' most unflattering caricatures, and probably the most unfortunate Jewish literary villain since Shylock.
Besides Fagin, the other memorable villains of the book are the psychopathic Bill Sikes, one of the originators of the Kick the Dog trope (he's equally brutal to his much-abused girlfriend Nancy), and of course, the comically malevolent Mr. Bumble.
People either like Dickens or they don't. Oliver Twist is pretty much the definitive Dickensian tale: a humble orphan who lives happily ever after thanks to a fortuitous discovery of rich benefactors, angelic women too pure-hearted for this world, greedy and despicable authority figures who beat and starve orphans, and some very memorable and poignant indictments of Victorian society, even before Dickens was at the height of his powers.
Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher who had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he had got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, four-and-twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for, the experimental philosophy of the female to whose protecting care Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually attended the operation of her system; for at the very moment when the child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.
It's definitely worth reading the book, especially if you only know it as a tedious assignment in English class. Dickens deserves better treatment than to be punishment for high school freshmen.
While I've seen several movie versions, my favorite adaptation of the book is probably Oliver!.
Also by Charles Dickens: My reviews of A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and The Pickwick Papers.
My complete list of book reviews.