Fagin is a problem, isn’t he?

You know, there are times when committing to a blog timetable can be a real bummer. Yr. Humble Chronicler is spending Easter with the folks, meaning that Sunday’s entry has to be written today, Friday. Unfortunately, my Most Diminutive Friend had a party last night in Edgware. And I won’t lie to you (this time), things have been a bit crap lately, the practical result of which is that I had to knock back a ridiculous amount of red just to enjoy myself and not bring everyone else down. I know, alcohol won’t solve your problems, but it’s pretty good in the short term. Red wine is high in congeners, the impurities that contribute to a hangover (hence “red wine headache”). I remember almost nothing of my journey home and this morning I find myself on the receiving end of a hefty dose of alcoholic instant karma.

So, that longwinded and irrelevant introduction over, I thought I’d talk about one of the most well-known characters of London literature – Fagin, the leader of the pickpockets in Charles DickensOliver Twist. He’s a bit of a problematic one, I find. If you’ve not read the book, the version of the character you’re probably most familiar with is Ron Moody’s portrayal in the film Oliver!, which depicts him as a gruff figure with a heart of gold, a lovable, avuncular rogue. Which he isn’t.

In the book, Fagin is a deeply unpleasant character. Although he is described as a “merry old gentleman,” in his first appearance he is also described as “villainous-looking and repulsive.” He is indeed nice to Oliver on their first meeting, but only to love-bomb the boy into joining his gang. He manipulates people (even trying to get Oliver to testify in his favour after his arrest) and doesn’t give a damn about anyone else (he’s responsible, basically, for getting the sympathetic Nancy killed by implying to the vicious Sikes that she’s dobbed him in) and is a coward. Moody himself described Fagin as a “monstrous creation.” More like Alec Guinness’ version in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, above right.

And then there’s the Jewish thing. This makes for particularly uncomfortable reading these days, but Fagin is depicted very much as the clutching, avaricious, filthy, lying, red-haired Jewish stereotype that would find itself plastered across Nazi propaganda a century later. Some portrayals, such as those by Ron Moody and Robert Lindsay, have either toned the Jewish aspect down or attempted to rework it into something more sympathetic.

Dickens’ defence of the character was that such criminals are deeply unpleasant and, like it or not, many such criminals were Jewish. In this, again, uncomfortable though it is in the post-Holocaust world, he was correct. There were a lot of poor Jewish immigrants in the East End in the 19th century, and poverty and desperation breed crime. It wasn’t some sort of Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style cultural or racial motivation, but the result of social circumstances. Dickens appears to have taken a lot of his inspiration for Fagin from a real-life Jewish criminal named Ikey Solomon, a fence, thief and possible recruiter of children, whose life would make for a fine entry in itself. [NOTE TO SELF: You should totally do that.]

Dickens also argued that Fagin is far from the only unlikeable figure in the novel – Monks, Sikes, the Artful Dodger and Bumble are all “baddies,” as it were, but they aren’t Jewish. How do we know they aren’t Jewish? Well, because Dickens doesn’t call them “the Jew.” And there’s another problem. Sikes is Sikes, Dodger is Dodger, but Fagin is largely referred to throughout as “the Jew.” The religion of other characters is almost never raised (although it is fair to say that Dickens isn’t too impressed with the pious hypocrisy of the supposedly Christian gentlemen who run the workhouse in the early chapters).

Even today, Judaism is one of the first things that springs to mind when the character is raised. Will Eisner, legendary comic creator and author of the graphic fictional biography Fagin the Jew, refers to Dickens’ decision to constantly use the term “the Jew” as “an evil thing.” In 2004, Labour MP Ian McCartney caused outrage when he compared Oliver Letwin, who is Jewish himself, to a modern-day Fagin who “will pick the pockets of Scotland’s pensioners.” While perhaps antisemitism is an overreaction (McCartney would appear to have been playing on Letwin’s first name rather than his ethnicity), there’s no denying that it was a bloody stupid thing to say about a Jewish MP.

So, was Dickens an anti-Semite? Well, first and foremost, we should bear in mind that until just a few decades ago, racial stereotyping was fair game. Eisner himself, in the interview cited above, expresses regret at having created a big-lipped, wide-eyed black character named Ebony White in the 1930s. In the pioneering 19th century British comic Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, the titular character’s best friend is Ikey Mo, a positive character but undeniably a stereotype. And then there’s the notorious Tintin books, Tintin in the Congo and The Shooting Star, guilty in their first editions of horrendous racism and anti-semitism. Even these, though were a great improvement on Jewish characters of early ages – I refer you to Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta to see the Elizabethan take.

Panel from an early edition of Herge's The Shooting Star. "Have you heard, Isaac? The end of the world! If it's true..." "He! He! There'll be one good thing, Solomon. I owe my creditors 50,000 francs - this way I won't have to pay..."

Dickens, in this context, would appear to be simply going with the current of the times. He later befriended a Jewish woman named Eliza Davis (who had purchased Tavistock House in Bloomsbury from Dickens), who forced him to re-evaluate his opinions. Indeed, on this basis of this friendship, Dickens himself toned down a lot of the references to Fagin’s Judaism in later editions of the book (which rather leads one to wonder how awful it was before he made his changes). In later books he would rigorously criticise anti-Semitism.

If I might finish with my own opinions (not that I haven’t been putting those in, but you know), I think the anti-Semitism in the Fagin character is a great pity. Were he not so portrayed, he would no doubt be regarded as another of Dickens’ great monsters. As it is, a fine villain is ruined by Dickens’ personal ignorance.

Further Reading

http://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/piracy-with-a-twist/ - Previous entry on Oliver Twist.

http://www.time.com/time/columnist/arnold/article/0,9565,488263,00.html - Will Eisner talks about Fagin the Jew.

http://www.fpp.co.uk/online/04/02/Letwin1_2920204.html - Ian McCartney is a fool.

http://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/well-at-least-he-didnt-die-poor/ - More of Dickens’ inspiration.

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5 Comments

Filed under 19th century, Crime, East End and Docklands, Film and TV, Geography, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Theatre

5 responses to “Fagin is a problem, isn’t he?

  1. niq

    Didn’t you forget Shylock, the most famous evil Jew of all?

    I’d recommend another good 19th century stereotype: Eléazar, the old Jew of Halévy’s opera “La Juive” is more monstrous than any of them. Yet Halévy himself was a Jew. What does that say?

  2. TGW

    Shylock is better known than these other characters, it’s true, but I figured The Jew of Malta is a more racist play than the already pretty damn racist The Merchant of Venice.

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