Charles Dickens being anti-Semitic when portraying the character Fagin as “the Jew”, in his classic story Oliver Twist, or was he merely painting an accurate portrait of the 19th Century Jew in England? Some critics seem to believe so. Though there are no indications of neither anti-Semitic nor racist slurs throughout the story, Dickens’ image turned out to follow the path of his time and place in history. The result is an enlightened picture of Victorian England’s image of the Jew. The attitude towards Jews and Jewishness in 19th Century England demonstrates that Dickens was a man of his time.
His ttitude reflected the common British belief that Jews were villainous thieves. Fagin, a thief, is described by Dickens as “a very old shriveled Jew, whose villainous and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair”(Dickens 87). This common depiction of the Jew was accompanied by the stereotype that they had big noses and lured orphaned children into their filthy dens and turned them into derelicts. He was a thief because he did not have any skills, nor was he welcome anywhere. On the other hand, to describe Fagin in any other light would have to give the impression that Jews just might be humans fter all.
In reading this story, I discovered Fagin to be somewhat likeable and misunderstood. Though revolting to look at, having a repulsive disposition, and having manners and hygiene left to be desired I could not help but to feel sorry for the old guy. All he wanted to have was security in his old age. For example, when Fagin sees Oliver looking at him while admiring his treasures, Fagin asks the boy if he had seen any of his pretty things. Oliver tells him that he did. “Ah! ” said the Jew, turning rather pale. “They- are mine, Oliver; my little property. All I have to live upon, in my old age. The folks call me a miser, my dear.
Only a miser, that’s all” (Dickens 1961: 91). I also found Fagin to be very charming in instances, almost likeable and having some redeeming qualities. Another example of Fagin’s humanity is seen in the way he treats Oliver. Although Oliver plays a totally utilitarian role to Fagin, he becomes protective of him, even though the motives are purely selfish. When not being watched, Fagin has great self-control, even under duress. He is always cautioning Sikes against violence. There are some signs that Fagin still has a shade of humanity left in his perverted character. Several times throughout the story he exhibits some kindness towards Oliver.
He checks his motives before he acts. Though the reader is still at bay with his actions, he still seems to have some sort of a conscience. It could be argued that Fagin and Oliver are somewhat similar. Though the reader does not see this at first, more in depth reading reveals that Oliver and Fagin mirror each other in who and what they are. Oliver, a boy without a home, Fagin, “The Jew”, without a country. Fagin, in fact, is not seen as an Englishman. He is Jewish, which is a race all its own. Fagin is the outsider, unlike Oliver. His Jewishness places him at even more a disadvantage than Oliver’s orphaned status.
Both characters echo each other in asking for more; they are placed in oppositions so that for Oliver to claim his rightful place in society, Fagin must die. Dickens’ stereotypical association of Fagin with a class of criminal perceived by him as almost invariably Jewish is based on a particular awareness of the commonly accepted wicked practices of this kind of Jew. Dickens’ stereotypical association of Fagin with a class of criminal perceived by him as almost invariably Jewish is ased on a particular awareness of the commonly accepted wicked practices of this kind of Jew.
In Dickens and his Jewish Characters, Dickens answers a letter from a Jewess woman who wrote him concerned with the fact that Dickens may be in fact an anti-Semitic and wanted to allow Dickens to reply as to why the characterization of Fagin. His response was that “Fagin in Oliver Twist is a Jew because it unfortunately was true, of the time to which that story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew” (Dickens 1918:9).
Critical reviews have been inclined to argue that Fagin is only a Jew in no more han name. His main claim to Jewishness”, contends critic Harry Stone, “is the fact that Dickens constantly labels him ‘the Jew” (Felsenstein 239). The point being that Fagin, though belonging to the Jewish people, has no distinguishing characteristics of one who practices the Jewish religion. According to Stone, Fagin, as a Jew, lacks actuality. The crucial point being is that, even though Fagin does not reflect the true meaning of what Judaism represents, Fagin’s “Jewishness” flows far more distinctly from Dickens’ creative mind of the attributes of the anti-Semitic stereotype that has lagued the Christian beliefs for so long.
Fagin is what might be considered a “Wandering Jew”. Medieval legend details this type of Jewish character as condemned by Christ to wander over the earth until he comes again. That, I see, is Fagin’s punishment for all the wrongs he has done society. But, in retrospect, Victorian society had harmed him also. The Jew has been persecuted from the beginning of time. The Apostle Paul killed Jews until they converted. Then Martin Luther came along to try to make all the Jews assimilate and convert to Christianity. Then, of course, there was Hitler.
Persecution and horror beset these people. They did nothing to deserve that. They were just practicing what they believed and who they were. In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the Jew Shylock was forced to become a Christian after he condemned Antonio for not paying him back. This is an unfair proposition. The old adage, you can take the boy out of the religion, but you cannot take the religion out of the boy rings true for this. I have to wonder what it feels like to read or hear references to your culture, race or religion by one who is not of your group.
As a woman from multi-ethnic family, (my father and grandparents were Jewish, and my great-grandparents and my grandmother were Holocaust survivors), knowing what it feels like to have ethnic slurs thrown is very familiar to me. From my perspective, I know the picture of what Dickens’ created in Fagin separates them from the humanity of the rest of the world. Unlike the other characters in the novel, Fagin’s life is unsayable and unnarratable. His being is spiritually different from other characters in the story. His language of charm, including the “my dear” and “deary” (Dickens 1961) is not of the Queen’s English.
Jewish life on the streets of London is a cultural description of who and what they are. The racial names are from observers and apparently biased individuals. The supposed criminality of the Jews is also unsubstantiated. Fagin is not of that class. Neither is he a martyr or victim. Fagin is simply the devil’s tempter for the Christians. Fagin is an anomaly. The impact of his isolation depends on the ways in which every other character in the novel is part of the group. Fagin never becomes part of any group, so therefore he is isolated, not only as “The Jew”, but as a member of his own society. Fagin stands alone.
He has no double. The story structure assimilates Jew and criminal into one person and one race. Jewish readers are not fond of this idea. Fagin on the other hand is king among the thieves. He is more devious than his cohorts are. While they may strut with the cool of the younger members of the group or brood like the diabolical Sikes, Fagin understands the gentle nature of the children’s positions and demonstrates great reserve when it comes to teaching them. He shows his persuasive lectures to Oliver. He wins people over with his charm, though through devious ways. I liked Fagin, to put it simply.
He represents not only the poor in 19th Century England, but he also represents a race in which no understanding or compassion can be reached. If Fagin were to be a schoolteacher or a doctor, then people might have had a different view of him and his “Jewishness. ” But even then, the society of that time would not have let him live the fact of him being Jewish down. They might have characterized him as snobbish, opportunistic and “scrooge like”. I do not believe that Charles Dickens was being anti-Semitic in his portrayal of Fagin. I believe that he truly was depicting im as the person he was, who just happened to be Jewish.
England in the 19th Century attest to the strength of a tradition in which it was not uncommon to depict the Jews as crucifiers, Judases, murderers of innocent Christian children, and eternal wanderers. The weak hold of this tradition was brought about, it has been claimed, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and attention being paid to ancient superstitions concerning the Jews during the latter part of the 19th Century. Unfortunately, any attempt to reconstruct how the telling and retelling of biblical tales in rural England colored popular ttitudes toward contemporary Jews.
Despite Dickens never intending a harmful portrayal of the Jews, the immediate effect of Fagin may well have been to hold back their struggle for emancipation and recognition in this important era of time. Dickens’ Jew exemplifies the prejudices that may otherwise have remained untalked about. Dickens gave me the impression that he respected Jews and their plight, but in turn was realistic in the fact that he described them as unsentimental and unaware of the degradation that they face. This is portrayed at the end of the story. Fagin is being given a guilty verdict.
Fagin will be hanged. His religion is once again repelled when religious people come to pray with him. He refuses them and has hallucinations. Dickens portrays a disturbing picture of the ultimate punishment due to a life of evil and crime. Once again, Fagin is isolated, but now as the criminal. The courtroom scene is evidence that no one wishes to have anything to do with him except to watch him die. Chapter LII gives us Fagin’s trivial thoughts as he awaits his verdict: There was one young man sketching his face in a little notebook.
He wondered whether it was like, and looked on when the artist broke his pencil-point and made another with his knife, as any idle spectator might have done Not that, all this time, his mind was for an instant free from one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet; it was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way, and he could not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and hether they would mend it or leave it as it was.
Then He thought of all the horrors of the gallows and the scaffold – and stopped to watch a man sprinkling the floor to cool it- and then went on to think again (Dickens 1961:469). Dickens did portray the character of Fagin in a fair and just light. Fagin was an awful man, driven by greed and loneliness. Perhaps the only true happiness that Fagin could find was that of vicarious pleasure. In other words, love through others, things that others owned and places that others lived. In the end, Fagin just wanted to be a part of. I read this story several years ago and saw the movie musical.
I don’t remember the depictions of Fagin, or any other characters, being portrayed in the light as I have discovered in doing work on this paper. That is a shame of being an adult and seeing the atrocities being handed to people because of race or religion. One might ask why I was so interested in doing this paper. I did it for my own peace of mind. Dickens’ is not a Jew hater. He is a realist and his brilliant work in Oliver Twist not only makes for good reading, but also makes one think. After all, isn’t that what literature is all about?