.. y one who is not of your group. As a woman from a 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 him 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 attitudes 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 whether 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?.