The Thornhill family lives near the river in London in cramped quarters. The streets are only wide enough for one person in places, and everything is dirty. The church steeples are the tallest things, and there's one around every corner. William remembers his life beginning at Christ Church by the river. The building was huge enough to scare him, with snarling stone lions at the gates. Inside, William feels as though his being expands with no boundaries. He doesn't understand God and is even more frightened.
The descriptions of where the Thornhills live shows that they live in extreme poverty, establishing class as one of the novel’s main themes. The abundance of churches, and William's fear of them, suggests that religion is a language that's all around, but that it isn't a language that William understands. It doesn't offer him comfort because he cannot use it.
Once William Thornhill learns his name, he realizes that there are many William Thornhills in the world. Most notable is his brother, the first William Thornhill, who died when he was a week old. When William Thornhill was born a year and a half later in 1777, he took on the same name. He always felt his brother's ghost, however, and resented his cousins who were also named William Thornhill.
William's common name works here to remind him that, in the eyes of others, he's not unique, special, or even worthy of individual treatment. He's one of many, which reinforces his position as a poor boy who's seen as just another one of many poor boys by upper class Londoners.
Ma and Mary sew shrouds while Lizzie cares for the babies. She's sweet and motherly, and makes William feel warm and loved. The family is always hungry. Pa works wherever and whenever he can and has a constant rattling cough. When William turns five, he begins accompanying Pa to collect dog feces for a factory. William never learned what they used the feces for, but thinks that being hungry is worse than the smell. Ma prefers to steal than collect dog feces. She and William's siblings steal books from booksellers.
The need for William to work at such a young age underscores how impoverished the Thornhill family is. That Thornhill never learns what the factories use the feces for shows that it's far more important at this point to make money than it is to understand where it comes from or to do something more dignified than picking up after other people’s dogs.
By the time William is ten, he's a fighter and enjoys feeling his rage. He runs around the city with his brothers, James and Rob, and his friends, William Warner and Dan Oldfield. Dan is an expert at stealing roasted chestnuts and is kind enough to share them. A boy named Collarbone joins them too. They all steal in order to eat.
Dan's kindness here is very important to keep in mind for later. At this point, Dan and William are on equal footing: both are poor and thieves, though Dan is a generous thief with his friends. This shows that poverty doesn't always breed selfishness.
When Ma has more babies, William begins spending time with Lizzie's friend Sal since Lizzie's attention is elsewhere. Sal is an only child: though her parents had more babies after her, they all died within a month of their births. Mr. Middleton is a waterman and he keeps a warm, narrow house that always has food. When son after son dies, however, Mr. Middleton becomes sterner and quieter, and the house is always sad. The Middletons dote on Sal, and although she's not particularly beautiful she flourishes with the care. William finds Sal and her life intriguing: Sal can't bear to see a chicken killed, and he dreams of living in a home like hers on Swan Lane.
In comparison to William, Sal is spoiled. She has everything she could ever want in her parents' home: food, love, and a strong sense of belonging. She's privileged enough that she doesn’t even see where her food comes from (as in the case of the chicken), which is fascinating for William because of his extreme poverty. At this point in his life, Mr. Middleton is the pinnacle of success in his warm home that's full of food. This begins to shape William's goals for his own future.
William and Sal find common ground through their siblings: he has too many, she has too few. They often slip away to a sheltered spot near the fields and watch the rain on the river. He loves Sal's face and listening to her speak. With her, William doesn't have to fight. One day he shows her how far he can spit, but lets her think that she can spit further. She calls him Will, which he likes.
In London, Sal comes to represent home for William: with her, he feels safe and secure, and as though he belongs. At this point, the idea of home has less to do with an exact location and more to do with a specific person, which is also a consequence of William's poverty and home situation.
When William is thirteen, Ma gets very sick. Ma hallucinates that she's a child trying to pet the lions on the gateposts at Christ Church. When she dies, she's buried in a common grave. The next day, William goes to the church and throws a glob of muck at the lions. Not long after, Pa dies, leaving the family without a head. William's brother Matty had already left to be a sailor and James had disappeared, so the job of supporting the family falls to William. He tries to work at a factory but quits after he sees a child crushed by an engine. When he can, he works as a "lumper" on the wharves. He loves the docks.
The lions send a message that the church is something scary and far above poor individuals like William and his mother. By throwing the muck at them, William is lashing out at the system that keeps him at the bottom of the social order—which in turn, is one of the reasons his mother is buried in a mass grave and not in a grave by herself. William's decision to quit his factory job shows that he has a heart and cares for people less fortunate than himself.
One day, William finds a group of men in a warehouse opening up a crate of brown sugar. The sight of all the sugar makes William's mouth water. While the other men fill bags that hang in their coats and then leave, William stays and shoves sugar into his mouth. He hears footsteps approaching and tries to fill his hat and leave, but his boss catches him. The boss strikes the hat to the ground and accuses William of stealing, but William insists that the crate was already open. The boss doesn't listen and whips William. William learns he should never get caught.
The bags in the men's pockets are William’s first hint that stealing along the docks is a common activity, and one that can be made marginally less risky with the proper supplies. William gets caught here in part because he's not prepared, but also because, in his extreme poverty, he has never seen sugar like this before—so stealing it is a choice for survival for him, while being sneaky about it is secondary.
When William is 14 and the snow comes, the river freezes over. While those more fortunate enjoy a fair on the ice, work on the ships is stalled. Mary continues sewing shrouds and William's brothers steal potatoes, but there's little work to be done. After another baby son dies, Mr. Middleton realizes he'll never have a son to take over his business and agrees to take William on as an apprentice. He also finds sewing work for Mary and Lizzie.
The apprentice system offers William an official channel through which he'll have the opportunity to move up in the world. It gives William hope to succeed in the system that has, until now, kept him and his family down, and encourages him to believe that not all people of a higher class than him are bad, as evidenced by Mr. Middleton's kindnesses.
In January, Mr. Middleton takes William to Watermen's Hall to be bound as an apprentice. William is breathless as he thinks of the possibilities of his future: after the seven year apprenticeship, he can be a freeman on the river, carrying people and goods across the river as long as he stays healthy. He thinks he'll be able to marry Sal and inherit Mr. Middleton's business. Mr. Middleton pulls William into a grand room. Robed men sit on the other side of a mahogany table and address Mr. Middleton by his first name. William realizes that these men are of a much higher status than Mr. Middleton.
It's worth noting that for a boy such as William, his dreams here are lofty ones given his family’s limited means and modest background. William's observations about the class system at play in the grand room begin his journey of truly situating himself within the greater class system. By figuring out where others stand in the hierarchy, he can place himself in that same hierarchy and, eventually, find a way to move up in the world.
Mr. Middleton introduces William and the robed men ask if William has his "river hands." Mr. Middleton explains that William already has blisters from rowing, and William offers his hands to the robed men. They laugh and grant him his apprentice's license.
Though working as a waterman promises to give William a way to move up in the world, the calluses he'll form are a physical marker of his occupation and of his class that will be with him for years to come.
For the first time, William is well-fed and warm. His blisters never heal and the blood from them stains his oar brown. Mr. Middleton teaches William how to read the tide, and he learns how to interact with the gentry and not get cheated. William develops a charming way of interacting with the gentry, but thinks of them as a different species. One day, standing in the water and steadying his boat as a couple climbs in, he hears the man telling his companion to not show her leg to "the boatman." William looks up at the gentleman, whose look tells William that, while the gentleman "owns" the woman, William owns nothing. William thinks that the gentleman doesn't look like he knows what to do with his beautiful companion, even if she is his property.
William struggles to think of the gentry he meets on the river as people. Their lives seem so vastly different from his own, he finds it hard to see the similarities. This will come up again when Thornhill is in New South Wales, but these experiences here suggest that it's part of William's nature to immediately think of different types of people as inhuman. The gentleman's cruel and condescending attitude towards William only heightens William’s sense that the gentry must be an entirely different species.
William looks to the woman's leg, covered in silk stockings with green silk slippers on her feet. Although the woman thanks her husband, William thinks that she's purposefully showing him her leg, possibly to provoke her husband. The husband climbs in and pulls his wife's skirt down over her leg. When William climbs into the boat, the woman stretches her leg out, pulls her skirt to her knee, and laments that her slipper is ruined. She gives William a quick look, and William realizes that the gentry are indeed people, with human desires.
For William, the thought of sex brings this gentlewoman onto his level of understanding: she desires sex and to play with the men around her, just like other women William (presumably) knows. However, the couple's way of interacting with each other suggests that, for the husband, his wife is truly his property, something to be guarded. She's less than a full human being in his eyes.
William spends his Sundays with Sal since he doesn't have to work. The first winter she decides to teach him to read and write, though he's not particularly interested. He can keep lists and do math in his head and sees no reason to write anything down, but humors Sal. The quill feels foreign in his hand and when he finally tries to write, ink splatters all over the paper. William thinks that he can do anything but this. Sal laughs, but soon stops. She draws a T for Thornhill on the paper in dots, and William carefully traces it. He insists on being done for the day. By the end of winter, he becomes the first in his family able to write his name.
Although Thornhill certainly wants to move up in the world, he's less interested in learning to read and write, which are markers of being of a higher class. This suggests that at this point, truly climbing the social ladder is an abstract idea for William and he doesn't exactly know how to do it. For now, he sees his ability to move through life without needing to write as being a marker of success, even as he comes in contact with rich people on a daily basis who demonstrate their status through writing.
As the years go by, William realizes that he's in love with Sal. He thinks about her while he's on the river and the thought warms him. They begin spending time together in the graveyard at Christ Church, where they read the writing on headstones. One day, he tells her that as soon as he's done with his apprenticeship, he'll marry her. She promises to wait for him.
William is building his life and his home in London: he'll marry Sal, and he has Mr. Middleton's example to look to for how to create a home. The headstones are, notably, those of richer individuals. William and Sal are learning about the lives of the upper-class as they read them.
William and Sal marry on the day William is freed from his apprenticeship. Mr. Middleton gifts William a boat as a wedding gift, and the couple takes a room near Mr. Middleton's house. At night, they tell each other stories. Sal tells William about Cobham Hall, a luxurious place where her mother worked before marrying. They talk about their future as well: the children they'll have and how successful William will be on the river. William (who now begins to go by Thornhill) can barely believe his good luck. He works primarily rowing coal and timber to shore and can employ Rob to help him.
The boat from Mr. Middleton is one of the first things that Thornhill truly owns. As such, it is proof that he's advancing up the social ladder and is realizing his dreams of owning things. Thornhill also shows that he's kind, generous, and wants to support his entire family by employing Rob. This allows him to share his wealth and good fortune with others and suggests that he might be more generous with his wealth than the gentry he ferries across the river.
Sal gives birth to a boy a year later. Though they christen him William, they call him Willie. Thornhill loves Willie, and loves watching Sal care for him. When Willie is two, winter arrives with a vengeance. In January, the Thames freezes and the Thornhills huddle together and hope the money they have saved is enough to get them through. Things begin to go downhill quickly: Lizzie comes down with the quinsy (a form of tonsillitis), and then Mrs. Middleton falls on the ice and struggles to recover. The surgeon is expensive, as are the delicacies that Mr. Middleton fetches for her with the hope of getting her to eat something.
The speed with which the Thornhills begin to slide back down the social ladder shows how fickle the entire system is. Wealth and fortune aren't things that can be counted on, even when Thornhill seemed so sure of his success only months ago. The fact that all this comes about because of an act of nature begins to suggest that nature itself will prove to be one of Thornhill's primary adversaries.
Sal and Thornhill visit often. One day they meet Mr. Middleton on his way to an apothecary across town. He refuses to be talked out of going. He returns to his wife hours later. Mrs. Middleton takes one sip of the mixture before refusing more, and Mr. Middleton finally allows Sal to help him out of his coat and boots. Mr. Middleton is very cold and wakes with a fever the next day. He dies a week later. When Sal tells her mother, Mrs. Middleton turns away, refuses to eat, and finally dies.
The intensity with which Mr. Middleton cares for Mrs. Middleton shows how devoted Mr. Middleton is to his wife and his family more generally. It also helps explain how, later in the novel, Sal will learn to define home for herself: not just in terms of where her literal home is, but in terms of the people she loves.
After the Middletons' deaths, Thornhill realizes that their prosperity had been precarious. Mr. Middleton had spent all his savings on the delicacies for his wife and the prescriptions from the doctor. When the rent collector calls, Thornhill finally understands that Mr. Middleton's house was leased, not owned, and he begins to think of it as cheerless and unsafe. He and Sal sell the furniture to pay rent, but the bailiffs seize Mr. Middleton's boats, including the one he'd given Thornhill as a wedding gift. Thornhill must now make a living as a journeyman, rowing boats for other men.
At this point, Thornhill understands that his idolization of Mr. Middleton's way of life was in some ways misguided. Thornhill places so much emphasis on owning that the revelation that Mr. Middleton's home was rented is enough to make a place that, by all other metrics, was a warm, cheerful home seem suddenly very unsafe. Although Thornhill thinks that it's the home that's unsafe, he's slowly learning that prosperity in general isn't something he can rely on.
Sal fights this turn of fate. When Mrs. Middleton dies, Sal purchases red velvet for her coffin. She doesn't cry until they bury Mr. Middleton, but after she cries, she seems more prepared to move forward. She takes it upon herself to find her family cheaper and cheaper rooms. Thornhill admires her tenacity, even as she begins to steal food. Because Sal has never experienced hunger before, stealing is fun for her. She acts as though it's a fun game, but Thornhill feels as though his life is going backwards.
Sal conceives of her poverty as something that she'll experience for a while and eventually leave behind. This illustrates her privilege, as she can't bring herself to believe that this will be her permanent state going forward. Thornhill, having experienced poverty before, knows that it likely will be: society makes it very difficult for the poor to get ahead without a great deal of help.
One day, Sal develops a plan to steal a chicken from their landlord. Thornhill successfully abducts the chicken and gets it up to their room, but before they can wring its neck, they hear footsteps on the stairs. Sal throws the chicken out the window, where it stalks across the roof of the outhouse, clucking. When their landlord bursts into the room, he accuses the Thornhills of stealing, but they swear they did nothing and the landlord leaves them alone.
The fact that Sal develops this plan illustrates just how dire of a situation the Thornhills are in. The girl who couldn't bear to see a chicken killed is now orchestrating thievery and butchering schemes in her own home. This shows that Sal is able to adjust and adapt to new circumstances.
The narrator explains that watermen in general were not honest people. They were all thieves, though some were certainly better than others. The narrator mentions Thomas Blackwood, a successful thief who owns a lighter (a type of boat) with a false bottom for storing stolen goods. Collarbone isn't so lucky: he's caught with Spanish brandy and sentenced to hang. Thornhill visits him the day before his hanging and imagines hanging himself. Collarbone asks Thornhill to bribe the executioner to buy him a quick death, and Thornhill agrees. The executioner, however, takes no notice of the bribe and Collarbone chokes and tosses on his rope the next morning. Rob vomits, and later Thornhill tells Sal that it was a clean, quick hanging. She sighs and turns back to her darning.
The system in which Thornhill and his peers find themselves is not set up to allow them to get ahead at all: they must steal to survive, but if they are caught, they are punished without mercy. The only comfort is the hope of a quick exit from this life, which Collarbone's horrific death shows isn't even something that can be bought. When Thornhill lies to Sal, he does so to protect her from these horrors. This begins to erode the trust and openness between the two in ways that Thornhill couldn’t have predicted.
Thornhill is hired by Mr. Lucas, a successful man who's rumored to want to be Lord Mayor of London. He employs a man named Yates as a foreman and doesn't tolerate thieving on his boats: he made sure one man caught stealing from him hung to set an example for others. Thornhill is cautious at first and learns to bribe the marine police with French brandy. One night, after three years of working for Mr. Lucas, one of Thornhill's friends lets him know that a ship has just arrived carrying valuable Brazil wood.
Mr. Lucas's goals and ambitions show that men of the gentry class can move up the social hierarchy, and can do so by exploiting men of a lower class. This shows that there is the possibility of upward mobility for some people, but it's certainly not available to all.
Yates instructs Thornhill to transport the Brazil wood, along with other timber, to a wharf upriver. Thornhill is ready and thinks of Sal as he sleeps in his boat. She's pregnant again, and doesn't ask too many questions about where Thornhill's money comes from. All the same, he senses that she's beginning to turn away from him.
The silence between Thornhill and Sal, which began when he lied about Collarbone's hanging, is truly beginning to create distance between the two. Although Sal doesn't ask questions, the outcome here suggests that they'd be better off if they were honest with each other.
At daybreak, Rob doesn't show up to help Thornhill load the wood. Thornhill hires another man to help and grows angry with Rob. When most of the timber is loaded, Mr. Lucas arrives. Thornhill asks if there's more wood, and Mr. Lucas finally tells Thornhill where the Brazil wood is. Mr. Lucas marks the pieces of wood with his mark, and Thornhill wonders if he shouldn't follow through with the theft. He wonders if Mr. Lucas knows what he's planning.
Brazil wood is used to make bows for stringed instruments and can also be used as a textile dye: as a material, it’s symbolic of the gentry class who would be able to enjoy such luxuries. For Thornhill, it represents the possibility of achieving some degree of success, though he'll likely never think of Brazil wood the way that the gentry do.
At 11 that night, the tide turns and Thornhill guides his boat upstream. He finds the appropriate wharf where he knows his personal boat is waiting, but the tide is too low to unload. He calls softly for Rob, who finally appears and helps Thornhill pull the boat to shore. After they tie up the boat, Thornhill hears a splash and wonders if something isn't right. He and Rob begin to unload the Brazil wood into Thornhill's boat when suddenly Thornhill hears boots running and Mr. Lucas yelling. As Mr. Lucas gets closer, he trips on the oars and Thornhill and Rob manage to push off into the river. Rob is upset that he lost his coat in the scuffle, which Thornhill finds a silly fixation given the circumstances.
The fact that Mr. Lucas himself is involved in catching Thornhill in the act shows just how valuable the Brazil wood is to him. It's valuable enough to warrant Mr. Lucas being out on the cold river at night to supervise, even though Mr. Lucas is of a class that normally wouldn't do such a thing. In Rob's defense, his health and livelihood depend on staying warm enough and not getting sick, something that will be far more difficult without his coat. Even if they make it through this theft, losing his coat puts Rob at a steep disadvantage.
Thornhill thinks they've successfully escaped when he hears Mr. Lucas yelling for Yates to get them. Thornhill notices another small boat quickly approaching, and he rows away as fast as he can. Yates is a big man, however, and quickly catches up. Suddenly, the boat lurches as Yates jumps into Thornhill's boat. Rob yells and falls into the river. Thornhill pleads with Yates before jumping into the river himself and climbing into Yates's boat. Yates doesn't pursue Thornhill, but Mr. Lucas offers a ten-pound reward for Thornhill's capture, and Thornhill is found the next day.
Yates's decision to not pursue Thornhill suggests that he understands why Thornhill is doing what he's doing: he likely worked his way up to where he is now from a place similar to Thornhill's, and knows how difficult it is for a man like Thornhill to achieve financial security. This epitomizes Thornhill's assessment of how things work on the river: everyone steals, and everyone knows everyone steals.
Sal, Lizzie, and Mary visit Thornhill in the Newgate prison. Sal brings Willie, who's four, but Thornhill asks her to not bring him again. They also bring food, but he can barely eat. Thornhill feels hopeless, but Sal has a plan. She knows that Thornhill needs a story that he believes wholeheartedly and will be able to recite as though it's the truth. Sal suggests that Thornhill say that he left the timber at the wharf to make his boat lighter, but while he was away, someone took the wood. The story makes Thornhill hopeful, and he becomes even more hopeful when he hears the next day that a man accused of stealing ducks was just acquitted because he insisted he was "as innocent as the child unborn."
Once again, Thornhill and Sal tie stories to hope. In this case, telling stories is a way to create hope for the future. This suggests that the way in which people tell stories can create meaningful change in their lives. The stories can also change how a person experiences the past by turning something fictional into something "true." The stakes are much higher here than they were in the privacy of the Thornhills' home, however, as it's no longer a matter of poverty or comfort, but of life and death.
The courtroom is a bear pit: barristers and ushers are near the ground, the jury sit along the wall on the next level up, and the witness and judge are on the same level opposite each other. Behind the witness sits the scribe, who records every word, and near the ceiling are the public galleries. As he stands in the courtroom, Thornhill tries to pick out Sal in the gallery. He can't quite find her, but knows she's there. His hands are tied behind his back, forcing him to hunch over. Thornhill is struck by how powerful words are in court: words will either save him or condemn him.
Thornhill isn't fully sold on the usefulness of the written word. Here, however, his spoken words will be recorded by the scribe and preserved for all eternity in the court record. Because Thornhill is still illiterate, this creates the sense that his words are beyond his control, because they'll take a form that he cannot access once they leave his mouth.
A lawyer named Mr. Knapp is assigned to represent Thornhill. Mr. Lucas takes the stand first, and Mr. Knapp sets a clever trap: he insists the night was so dark, Mr. Lucas could only identify Thornhill by his voice, which isn't enough to prosecute. Mr. Lucas seems annoyed and repeats that he knew Thornhill's voice. When Yates takes the stand, he looks very unhappy and cannot escape Mr. Knapp's trap regarding Thornhill's voice. Thornhill can feel Mr. Lucas staring at him.
Mr. Knapp's trap uses the idea that spoken language is less valuable than written language to help Thornhill, arguing that a man's voice isn't enough to warrant hanging. This divorces language from actions, as it matters not what Thornhill actually did. What Thornhill said on the night of the theft, and what people say in the courtroom today, will be the deciding factor in Thornhill's fate.
When Thornhill is allowed to speak, Sal's story disappears from his mind. He insists he's innocent, but the judge seems to not be listening. Finally, the judge sentences Thornhill to hang. When Thornhill is pushed back into his cell at Newgate, he feels naked without his story and his hope.
When Thornhill loses his words, he loses all hope for his future. This again connects the proper use of language to hope for the future—Thornhill's poor use of language here denies him a future.
Sal visits him later and tells him that the way out of his death sentence is to send letters "up the line." She tells him who to speak to, and Thornhill later buys a letter by trading in his wool greatcoat. The letter is to Captain Watson, one of Thornhill's regulars, imploring him to speak on his behalf. Thornhill stares at the illegible scribbles on the page and feels hopeless that they're the thing that can save him.
Even if language failed Thornhill in court, it's not useless: he now uses written language to try to change his fate. His own illiteracy makes this seem hopeless, as his inability to read means that the written word is truly useless to him, since he can't understand it or manipulate it himself.
Captain Watson sends a letter on Thornhill’s behalf to Lord Hawkesbury, who alone has the power to pardon Thornhill. Watson also sends a copy of his letter to Sal. She has to pay the man who wrote the initial letter to read Watson's letter aloud, and she and Thornhill fear it won't do any good. He and Sal smile at each other, but they know that this is the end and that Sal will have to "go on the streets" to make a living now.
Sal's own literacy only goes so far: she can't read cursive. This shows that the written word is a way to discern class even among literate individuals, as cursive is only taught to upper class people. Captain Watson's letter shows again that not all upper class people are cruel or as bad as Thornhill sometimes believes.
One morning, a man comes to the cell door and yells Thornhill's name. The man reads quickly that Thornhill's death sentence will no longer stand, but that he will be transported to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. The clerk accompanying the reader asks for Thornhill’s wife’s name, and says that she and Willie have also been granted passage to New South Wales.
Thornhill's punishment is now to be removed from the place he calls home. This robs him of his roots and of the dreams he has for a life in London. That an option even exists for Thornhill to be sent to the British colony of New South Wales is a matter of luck, since England in the 18th century had an interest in sending convicts to help settle this new territory.