In this paragraph, Charles Dickens is describing the meagre ‘starvation‘ rations that the boys were given in the workhouse. The bowls do not need washing because the boys are so hungry they are scrapped clean by spoons looking for any last traces of gruel.
The paragraph leads up to arguably the most memorable incident from Oliver Twist, in which Oliver goes up to the master after finishing his evening supper meal, still hungry, and asks ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’
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.
The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.
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