Background.

Oliver Twist
  • The child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food.” is a quotation from Oliver Twist (Chapter 2).

Context.

In this paragraph, Charles Dickens is attacking the Board that runs the workhouse in which Oliver finds himself.

Oliver Twist begins his journey to London.
Illustration of a young Oliver Twist, thin from being under-fed, beginning a journey to London.

Character Profile: Oliver Twist.

The protagonist of the novel named after him, Oliver Twist is an orphan child, born at a workhouse where his mother died giving birth. With no father, the orphan Oliver is cruelly raised in both the care of the parish authorities and as an apprentice to an undertaker. Oliver runs away to a new life in London, where he is recruited into a gang of thieves run by Fagin and the brutal Bill Sikes. Despite this troubled upbringing, Oliver maintains a pious innocence, and his good-nature brings him to the attention of wealthy benefactors.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Chapter 2 (Treats of Oliver Twist’s Growth, Education, and Board) of Oliver Twist:

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.

Occasionally, when there was some more than usually interesting inquest upon a parish child who had been overlooked in turning up a bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death when there happened to be a washing—though the latter accident was very scarce, anything approaching to a washing being of rare occurrence in the farm—the jury would take it into their heads to ask troublesome questions, or the parishioners would rebelliously affix their signatures to a remonstrance. But these impertinences were speedily checked by the evidence of the surgeon, and the testimony of the beadle; the former of whom had always opened the body and found nothing inside (which was very probable indeed), and the latter of whom invariably swore whatever the parish wanted; which was very self-devotional. Besides, the board made periodical pilgrimages to the farm, and always sent the beadle the day before, to say they were going. The children were neat and clean to behold, when they went; and what more would the people have!

It cannot be expected that this system of farming would produce any very extraordinary or luxuriant crop. Oliver Twist’s ninth birthday found him a pale thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference. But nature or inheritance had implanted a good sturdy spirit in Oliver’s breast. It had had plenty of room to expand, thanks to the spare diet of the establishment; and perhaps to this circumstance may be attributed his having any ninth birth-day at all. Be this as it may, however, it was his ninth birthday; and he was keeping it in the coal-cellar with a select party of two other young gentleman, who, after participating with him in a sound thrashing, had been locked up for atrociously presuming to be hungry, when Mrs. Mann, the good lady of the house, was unexpectedly startled by the apparition of Mr. Bumble, the beadle, striving to undo the wicket of the garden-gate.

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The child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food.
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