The narrator introduces Oliver Twist, the novel's young protagonist, who is born in an unnamed town in 1830s England, in a workhouse for the poor. The narrator claims that, although it is typically not considered good luck to be born in a workhouse, Oliver was, in this case, lucky: he had trouble breathing at birth, and if he were surrounded by family members trying to help him breathe, he surely would have died because of their misguided efforts. Since it was only the surgeon, an attending old woman, Oliver's mother, and Oliver at the birth, however, Oliver was allowed simply to "fight with Nature," and he eventually breathes.
The narrator here introduces his (or her) ironic tone, which will be maintained throughout the course of the novel. Although it appears, at first, that the narrator is going to highlight the importance of family, and the ways in which a family might help a mother giving birth, instead the narrator states that all those meddling relatives would only get in the way of the young child's breathing. Much of the humor in the novel derives from this ironic detachment from or subversion of one's expectations of a typical "family drama" of the time.
Oliver's mother asks to see Oliver once before she dies. The surgeon places Oliver in her arms, and she falls back and dies immediately. The surgeon and the attending woman, Mrs. Thingummy, discuss Oliver's mother's origins. The night before the birth, Oliver's mother came to the workhouse in torn, dirty clothes, without a wedding ring. Oliver's father is unknown.
It is a cardinal sin, in the Victorian era in England, to be pregnant and to give birth out of wedlock. This is the first strike against Oliver, in his unlucky early years—that he is a "bastard," or, officially, the child of parents who were not married.
The narrator states that, when Oliver is simply wrapped in swaddling clothes, he cannot be distinguished from the child of a very rich man—all newborns exist outside the hierarchies of social class. But then Oliver is placed in a garment of the workhouse, indicating that he is to be a pauper. The narrator comments that, if Oliver were aware of his poverty, he would be crying even louder.
Another ironic note. Poverty, the narrator states, is not inherent to the poor—it is something taken off or worn, like clothing; it is indeed inseparable from the clothing one wears. Oliver's reversal in fortune later on will show that his "poverty" was not an essential quality of his character (many in Victorian England, though, did seem to believe that poverty was just that: innate, a product of a person's inner laziness or badness.