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Literature: Charles Dickens

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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
attitude 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
after 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
based 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
than 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
plagued 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
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?
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