Making Sense of Fagin, Dickens’ Most Troubling Character

By Boze Herrington

What’s a Dickens-lover to make of Fagin?

The iconic gang leader and child-stealer in Dickens’ second novel, dark mentor to the orphaned Oliver Twist, has long made for uncomfortable reading. The earliest edition of the novel (published between 1837 and 1839 in Bentley’s Miscellany) refers to him as “the Jew” no less than 250 times. Fagin’s uncomplicated portrayal as a wizened, repulsive-looking, smelly old man who hungers for money and snatches innocent Christian children away from their homes traffics in the most durable and disgusting antisemitic stereotypes.

Illustration by George Cruikshank.

Dickens’ willingness to perpetuate the oldest hatred, enshrining it in the canon of literature, is particularly baffling given his reputation as a humanist and a champion of the despised. This contrast between his professed ideals and his casual antisemitism was noted even in his own time: the Jewish Chronicle, a London weekly, lamented that “Jews alone should be excluded from the ‘sympathising heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed.” It is, at the very least, deeply inconsiderate—suggesting not malice but a thoughtless refusal to even entertain the notion of the Jews as fully dimensional people. Fagin is not even accorded the dignity of a “Hath not a Jew eyes?” moment.  

Dickens’ later contrition in the face of reproach from the Anglo-Jewish community suggests that he was not driven by any deeply felt animosity towards the Jewish people. How, then, did a character like Fagin come to dominate one of his most beloved novels? One clue may lie in Dickens’ unique role as a popular entertainer. He had a nigh supernatural ability to channel the hopes and fears, the dreams and resentments of the masses. He was like an intricate seismograph fully attuned to the moods of the English reading public. And unfortunately in England there existed a centuries-old literary tradition of antisemitism, of which Oliver Twist is the apex.

Fagin’s roots go deep, back to the blood libels of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in which English Jews were accused of kidnapping and murdering children. The cults that grew around the bodies of William of Norwich (1144) and Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (1255) took it as given that Jews ritually slaughtered innocents in preparation for their Passover meals; in the latter case, eighteen Jews were hanged following a coerced confession, and a groundswell of public sentiment against the Jewish community ultimately led to their expulsion from England in 1290. It was in this context that Chaucer wrote the first canonical work of English antisemitism, “The Prioress’ Tale,” a short poem within the Canterbury Tales in which Satan stirs the hearts of the Jews to murder an annoyingly saintly seven-year-old boy.

“Oliver Twist introduced to the respectable old gentleman,” by George Cruikshank. Source: https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/cruikshank/ot5.html

Thus the twenty-five-year-old Charles Dickens, knowingly or not, was writing within an established literary tradition—that of the Blood Libel. As Anthony Julius writes in his book Trials of the Diaspora, “It is not surprising—indeed, it is perhaps even predictable—that the third canonic account of Jews in English literature [after Chaucer and Shylock] … should concern a guileless Christian boy lost to his mother, whose life is put in peril when he falls into the hands of a sinister Jew, but who by a miracle is rescued (twice over, each time by proxies for his mother), while the Jew is apprehended, and executed.” The plot of Oliver Twist follows the tropes and conventions of the Blood Libel genre to the letter. Dickens, however, being the literary innovator that he is, tweaks the formula slightly by casting his contempt for the Jewish antagonist in thoroughly secular terms. In contrast to Shakespeare and Chaucer, he de-emphasizes Fagin’s religion, making him an eater of sausages who frightens away the rabbis who seek to pray with him before his execution. Fagin’s great sin isn’t murdering Jesus or rejecting the self-evident truth of the Christian religion, but an all-consuming greed that drives him to steal children from their mothers so that he can pick the pockets of London. Dickens reaches the same conclusion—Jews are predatory snatchers of young boys—via more modern means.

In any case, the Jews among Dickens’ original audience were not pleased, and a growing public outcry compelled him to make significant revisions to the novel in later printings. In an incident that was recently dramatized in the children’s picture book Dear Mr. Dickens, a Jewish woman named Eliza Davis, who had purchased Dickens’ old home, wrote him a series of letters accosting him for misrepresenting the Jewish community in his portrayal of Fagin. “It has been said that Charles Dickens, the large-hearted,” she wrote, “whose works plead so eloquently and nobly for the oppressed of this country has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew.”

From Dear Mr. Dickens, by Nancy Churnin. Illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe.

By then, of course, English attitudes towards the Jewish people were changing. Popular novelist Benjamin Disraeli was soon to become England’s first Jewish prime minister; George Eliot was developing the fascination with Jews and Judaism that would lead her to write Daniel Deronda.

Mr. Riah and Miss Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend. Illustration by Marcus Stone. Source: https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/mahoney/34.html

Dickens’ attitudes were softening as well. As though in response to Davis’ provocations, he included a saintly old Jewish man, Riah, in his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend—a sort of reverse mirror image of Fagin. In an apologetic letter to Davis, he wrote, “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard, and to whom I would not wilfully have given an offence or done an injustice for any worldly consideration.” Perhaps the final lesson, then, is the one given to Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ most beloved work: hard hearts can soften; slumbering consciences can be stirred; a life can be made right.

16 Comments

  1. Boze, I’ll respond more in full later, but I just wanted to thank you again for giving us such a marvelous introduction to such a difficult subject for a Dickens-lover to face. I found myself very moved by the conclusion, and I think this is SUCH an important topic to keep in mind. I think it’s good to keep in mind that the edition that most of us are reading is one which was amended later, where we have Fagin’s proper name in replacement of many repetitions of “the Jew”; so, the original edition would have been even more striking in the antisemitism.

    I really appreciate what you say here, too, about those things which make Dickens such a genius (his sense of the popular mind/imagination), can also be a HUGE blind-spot, as he plays into the old hatreds, stereotypes, and…Humbug.

    This is one of the reasons why Oliver is my least favorite Dickens to read, though there are still many, many marvels in it. But I’m so glad you got this discussion really and truly started ~ I don’t want to side-step this most important and troubling reality.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ” I think it’s good to keep in mind that the edition that most of us are reading is one which was amended later, where we have Fagin’s proper name in replacement of many repetitions of “the Jew”; ”

      It is? I don’t actually own an edition, but I’ve checked various ones out from libraries, and they refer to him as “the Jew” a lot. Was he not given a proper name at all in the first edition?

      Incidentally, I remember hearing that when he had to work at the blacking factory as a kid, Dickens had a coworker named Bob Fagin, who disliked him at first but ended up being helpful to him. Seems pretty ungrateful of Dickens to name such an evil character after him. Was it because he hated his time working there that much? Or was it a weird tribute since the literary Fagin is such a memorable character? (Not necessarily memorable for good reasons, given the whole antisemitism thing, but memorable nonetheless.) Or did Dickens just like the sound of the name and his use of it had nothing to do with his feelings about Bob Fagin?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Boze, for this insightful intro to the gnarly subject of Fagin, Antisemitism, and the Blood Libel.

    It seems to be a trope that just won’t die. I just listened to an interview with historian Timothy Snyder (ON TYRANNY, THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM) about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and he put the strange fondness of QAnon followers (who believe the Deep State is a cabal of pedophiles) for Putin in the context of the Blood Libel.

    He put it this way: “The QAnon idea is a traditional anti-Semitic trope….The outsider is the one who takes your child away….That’s how you know who the outsider is.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This is precisely what most disturbs me about Q-anon; I worry that it’s going to flower into full-throated antisemitism. Such things always do.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Dana: Your statement, “It seems to be a trope that just won’t die….” just sums up so much about Dicken’s presentation of Fagin. And it summarizes Boze’s contextual remarks regarding Dickens’ antisemitism and the background and social environment that over the years encouraged its sponsorship. “Jew” was definitely a negative “flashpoint” in 1830’s England and Dickens knew quite well that it was, and thus would enable his audience to integrate its feelings about Jewishness in support of a negative view of Fagin’s greed and “usury” of small boys in his thievery operation. That Fagin was a Jew simply “colors” his character, adds more depth to him and, in the eyes of the sympathetic anti-Semitic early Victorian
      readership reinforces the “evil” in his character. My feeling is this: Dickens’ use of this “trope” represents his and others naive, irresponsible, and casual integration of the negative historical notions of “Jewishness” that permeated European society in his time (and ours) and which made up the “Portrait” of what is probably the central figure in OLIVER. “The Jew” sadly permeates virtually every chapter and most pages of the novel. That Dickens was SO insensitive in the writing of this novel about the negative implications of “The Jew,” until he begins to receive negative feedback about it, speaks volumes. He just took it for granted that Fagin as “Jew” would solidify his evil. Ugh!

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Dickens explains his naming Fagin after a co-worker of his at Warren’s Blacking Factory in the autobiographical fragment he shared with his friend and biographer John Forster:

    “Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty downstairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot [on the blacking bottles]. His name was Bob Fagin, and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in “Oliver Twist” (Forster “The Life of Charles Dickens” 17).

    Dickens goes on to tell us that “Though perfectly familiar with [my co-workers], my conduct and manners were different enough from theirs to place a space between us. They, and the men, always spoke of me as ‘the young gentleman’”. When one of the other boys “rebelled against the ‘young gentleman’ usage . . . Bob Fagin settled him speedily.” (19)

    Bob Fagin both showed young Charles the tricks of the trade and stood up for young Charles.

    Peter Ackroyd adds color to Dickens’s use of this Bob Fagin:
    “The insidious and avaricious Fagin, one of the author’s greatest monsters, took his name from a certain Bob Fagin – a boy of Dickens’s age who was one of his working companions in the warehouse. But the real Bob Fagin was in Dickens’s own account a kindly and sympathetic child – and that is the point. He was turned into the hideous Fagin precisely because his kindness and fellow-feeling threatened to bring the young Dickens down to the level of what he called ‘common men and boys’, towards the disorder and the dirt and the darkness which he spent the rest of his life trying to escape.” (“Introduction to Dickens: Oliver Twist” 49)

    The distance between young Charles and young Oliver is short, indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dear Boze and Fellow Dickensians,

    Boze, you offer such nuance about Fagin and Dickens’ apparently “strategic” choice to appeal to the sensibilities of his readers. (Ouch.)

    And, you describe Dickens’ journey towards apology and the awareness of his responsibility in wielding the power of the word to portray or distort the fullness of another’s personhood.

    In my own journey, I have become very active in Jewish culture and practiceduring the past twelve years.

    My faith tradition is Roman Catholic Christianity. Pope Francis has observed that every sincere Christian must first be a good Jew. He, of course, is pointing out the inextricable bond between people of Jewish faith and those of Christian faith. (Jesus was born into an observant Jewish family, and read Torah and faithfully adhered to the commandments.)

    I engage in several key Jewish practices: Torah reading and study with a group of people of Jewish faith; Mussar, a spiritual-ethic practice for embodying key virtues more fully; and the Counting of the Omer, 49 days of soul cultivation from the second day of Passover to the feast of Shavuot/Pentecost.

    Jewish thought, including the immense capacity for inquiry (“midrash” exemplifies this) and its beautiful and embodied practices (e.g., the Seder meal to celebrate the passage from slavery to liberation and the passover of God’s avenging angels) have deepened and enriched my own spiritual and humanistic life immeasurably.

    So, encountering the wicked reduction of Jews to tropes and stereotypes is a source of anguish for me.

    Thank you, Boze and the rest of you thoughtful folks, for shining light on this issue of social/cultural antisemitism . We must speak the truth about it and hold ourselves in loving-trust that “hard hearts can soften; slumbering consciences can be stirred; a life can be made right.”

    Amen.

    Hag Pesach Same’ach! And, a blessed Easter! And, a holy Ramadan!

    Daniel

    Liked by 2 people

  5. A lovely post Daniel. Your close study of the Jewish Faith is so commendable. Thanks so much for your commentary. And a Blessed Easter to you and yours, also!

    Liked by 1 person

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