Model Essay: Literature


I have a few criticisms of this, but basically it is a reasonably good example of a term paper.

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Fagin the Jew in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens


     One of Charles Dickens’s most famous novels, Oliver Twist, has been criticized for many years because of elements used in the story which raise the idea of racism. The main problem of this novel is the anti-Semitic treatment of the character Fagin. In the text, Dickens very often does not call him by his name, but by his race. In the first 38 chapters, Dickens calls Fagin “the Jew” 257 times and only calls him “Fagin” or “the old man” 42 times (Lebrecht). Also, Dickens uses Fagin as a symbol of evil in this novel. Norman Lebrecht states that, “Two masterpieces of English Literature (The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare and of course, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens) are unmistakably anti-Semitic. Also in 1863, a Jewish acquaintance, Elisa Davis, wrote a letter to Dickens complaining about Fagin. “Fagin, I fear, admits of only one interpretation; but [while] Charles Dickens lives the author can justify himself alone for a great wrong on a whole through scattered nation” (Roth 305). However, in return, Dickens claimed not to have been anti-Semitic. He also writes back to Mrs. Davis that, “I have no feeling towards the Jewish people but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or in private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them” (Lane 305).

     When we look at other works of literature, we find that Jews are often portrayed in a negative way. For example, in “Trilby” (1894) by George Du Maurier, a Jewish character named Svengali, who is a villainous hypnotist, appears in the story. Also, T. S. Eliot, has also been accused of being anti-Semitic. In his poem, Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar, there is the phrase, “The rats are underneath the piles/ The Jew is underneath the lot” (Eliot 34) which caused critics to call him anti-Semitic. From these points, we can see that prejudices against the Jews were widespread. In Dickens’s time, Jews were treated as outsiders because of their appearance, religion, social standing, etc (E notes), so it seems to be unfair just to blame Dickens for his descriptions of Fagin. Also, in his later years, Dickens explained why he had made Fagin a Jew. He said that he had made Fagin Jewish because, “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew” (Lane 94). Some critics have argued against this statement, saying that there is no evidence to support this idea. However, although Dickens’s words seem to be rather exaggerated, they are based on fact. It is said that, “Because the majority of English Jews belonged to the lower class, they contributed to the problem of crime in London” (Endelman 193). From this, we can say that this novel seems to be consistent with the reality to some degree. Dickens states that his aim was a realistic one, “to draw them as they really were” (Lane 94). From these points, we must say that making Fagin Jewish was clearly a natural thing.

     The purpose of this paper is show that Charles Dickens was not anti-Semitic. This paper will examine three points; firstly, the prejudicial images people had about the Jews at the time of Dickens and also the negative images actually included in the portrayal of Fagin in the novel, Oliver Twist; secondly, the Jewish crime rate and the reality of Jewish life at that time; thirdly, the role of Fagin in the novel and the richness of his characteristics. [Teacher's Comment]

     As stated above, in the nineteen century, people discriminated against the Jews because of the negative images they had of them. Three major images people had about the Jews were firstly, Jews as moneylenders, secondly, Jews as murderers, and thirdly, the Jews as devils (Naman 31).

     First, it is a fact that many Jews were involved in money lending. Not many Jews were given a proper job at that time, and money lending was the only job that the guilds allowed them to join in (Naman 32). In Oliver Twist, Fagin is not actually a money-lender, but he works as a fence, which is similar in a way to money-lending, but worse, since it is illegal. Fagin earns his money by receiving stolen goods, which the children collect, and selling them. Second, the image of the Jews as murderers was made by the church. The church asserted that the Jews were murderers because they killed Jesus Christ. The image of Jews as murderers led to the belief that Jews killed Christian children so that their blood could be used in the making of unleavened bread, which was used in the celebration of the Passover (Naman 32-33). In the novel, Fagin does not actually kill anybody. However, we can say that Fagin leads Sikes to kill Nancy, because it is he who tells Sikes that Nancy has betrayed them. Furthermore, he purposely does not tell Sikes that Nancy had begged Mr. Brownlow not to get her associates into trouble. Also, in chapter 44, Fagin, who thinks that Nancy is going to go meet her lover, hopes to persuade her to kill Sikes so that she can be together with her new lover. We can say that although Fagin does not kill anybody with his own hands, he does kill Nancy by using Sikes. From these points, we can see that the image of the Jew as murderer was included in Fagin. Third, the image of the Jew as a devil is not a surprise, from looking at the two former ruthless images people had of Jews. Not only were the Jews viewed as having some kind of relationship with the devil, but they also came to be viewed as being devils themselves. The image of Fagin as a devil is frequently used in the novel. E. Pugh states in Charles Dickens’ Original that “Fagin, the arch-devil, though he is limned in the fewest possible words, stands forth lurid and malignant as the figure of Satan in medieval pageantry” (Pugh 249). When Fagin is first introduced in the novel, he is frying sausages with a toasting-fork in his hand. The use of fire and fork emphasize the image of Fagin as a devil. Also, Nancy says of Fagin, “Devil that he is and worse than devil as he has been to me.” (Dickens 385). In the novel, Fagin is described as, “a very old shriveled Jew, whose villainous- looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of mattered red hair” (Dickens 64). He is ugly, greedy, strange in appearance, unmanly cowardly, and has a big nose. All of these are also typical images people had of Jews (Meyer). From these points, we can see that Fagin was made from the prejudicial images people popularly had of the Jews. However, we must remember that those images of Fagin were not something Dickens himself created, but were already in the minds of people at that time.

     As mentioned above, Dickens has stated that he made Fagin a Jew because “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew” (Lane 94). Indeed, there were many Jewish criminals at that time. In the 19th century, there were many poor Jewish immigrants who were unable to get a proper job. In order to survive, they participated in criminal activities. It is recorded that at that time, “Jewish robber bands certainly existed, and most Jews at one time or another had dealings with thieves” (Rothblatt). Crimes against people, such as murder, were rare, but crimes against property were frequently committed by Jewish criminals (Hsia 52-53). For example, large numbers of purse cutters were found to be Jews. Some poor Jewish parents actually sent their children to purse cutters so that their children could be trained to join them. The purse cutter had to look after the children by giving them food and clothes. In return, the children gave the stolen goods to their master (Hsia 55). As we can see, this action is similar to that of Fagin and the children. Also, there were many Jews who were working as receivers of stolen goods, like Fagin. They worked as dealers during the day, and as receivers of stolen goods at night (Hsia 59). In Dickens’s times, there was a famous Jewish criminal called Ikey Solomon. Solomon was a fence, a thief, and he owned a jeweler’s shop in London, using it for the purpose of receiving stolen goods (Sharman 457-458). It is said that Dickens was inspired by Solomon, and made him the model of Fagin. From the above, we learn that the image of Jew as a criminal was based on fact and therefore it cannot be said that Dickens was acting through prejudice when he made Fagin a Jew.

      The main theme of this novel, Oliver Twist, is the battle between good and evil. The characters which represent the good are characters like Oliver, Rose Maylie, and Mr. Brownlow and the characters which represent the evil are characters like Bill Sikes, the Dodger, Monks, and of course, Fagin. In order to make the goodness of the good characters stand out, Dickens had to make Fagin and other characters devilish. To make Fagin’s devilish characteristics easy for readers to understand, Dickens made Fagin a Jew. Indeed, Fagin is a bad character and many critics have commented on his evilness. However, we must say that when we read the novel, we realize that Dickens did not make Fagin a completely evil character in the same way as Sikes is.

     It is Fagin who helps Oliver when he has no place to go because he has run away from the workhouse. Although, the reason for helping him is to use him for criminal activities like the other boys, still, he gives him food, supplies, and a shelter. He welcomes Oliver into his community, and treats him as one of its members. The scene where Fagin, Charley Bates and Dodger play the game of pickpocketing is a humorous scene. We can see that, by making these warm scenes, Dickens was attacking the workhouse environment in the 19th century. Dickens wanted to show that being a criminal was far better that staying in a workhouse. At Fagin’s place, Oliver was able to eat plenty of food and was given the right to live a free life. In chapter 18 after Oliver is caught by Fagin’s gang, Charley and the Dodger try to persuade Oliver to join their gang. “Why don’t you put yourself under Fagin, Oliver?...Here’s a jolly life!” (Dickens 149). We can see that they are satisfied with their lives and that they respect Fagin to some degree.

     We can also say that Fagin is more human compared to Sikes. Sikes is “stoutly built” with a “bulky pair of legs….a broad heavy countenance…and two scowling eyes” (Dickens 98). He is also said to have “a dogged roughness of behavior towards everybody” (Dickens 328). He even looks down on his fellow criminal Fagin. He savagely kills Nancy when he hears the story about her betraying them from Fagin. By contrast, Fagin is described as being mentally weak. There are scenes where Fagin fawns on Sikes, to maintain his own position. He also does not have enough strength of nerves to steal himself, so he makes others do the actual stealing. Also, his weakness is clearly shown in the chapter “The Jew’s Last Night Alive”. In this chapter, Fagin’s feelings of fear and guiltiness are vividly described by showing his inner feelings. By seeing Fagin’s suffering, we readers realize that Fagin is not a completely evil person, but just a weak old man. In this chapter, Dickens breaks down the readers’ feeling of hatred toward the villain Fagin, and makes us feel some sympathy towards him. In chapter 52, the scene where Oliver goes to meet Fagin in the jail, he cries, “forgive this wretched man!” (Dickens 449). We can see that Dickens is expressing his feeling of pity towards Fagin by using Oliver’s words. By showing his weakness and his inner feelings in the last scene, we can see that Fagin is a very well developed character compared to Sikes and other evil characters who are just evil.

     Although Dickens had no intention in discriminating against Jewish people, he apologized in his later years for the anti-Semitic expressions he used in the novel. In the revised version of the text, the expression “the Jew” was largely replaced by the name “Fagin” in order to emphasize his identity rather than his race (Lauriet 100). Also, in the novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens introduces a kind Jewish character named Riah. Mrs. Davis, who had once criticized Dickens for the character of Fagin, again wrote a letter to Dickens thanking him for the character of Riah. In reply Dickens wrote, “I have received your letter with great pleasure, and hope to be (as I have always been in my heart) the best of friends with the Jewish people”(Roth 307). In still later versions of the story, created after Dickens’s death, many changes were made in the story, adding to Dickens’ attempt to lessen the anti-Semitic elements. For example, Roman Polanski softens the Jewish image of Fagin and emphasizes the bond between Fagin and Oliver in his movie “Oliver Twist”(2005). In the movie, Oliver goes to the jail simply to thank him for his kindness, and says, “You were kind to me” (Gross). Will Eisner, a comic writer, published a comic, Fagin the Jew (2003) in which he retells the story of Oliver Twist from Fagin’s point of view. In the story, Eisner describes Fagin’s painful life, where he is forced into crime because of the cruel prejudice of society.

     As we can see from the above, the idea of reconsidering society’s mistreatment of the Jewish people is growing. However, this is still an idea that has grown up since World War II; at the time of Dickens, nobody, including Dickens himself, had ever imagined that subscribing to stereotypes of Jewish people meant that one was being racist. Negative images of Jews were something that had taken root in the society. We must remember that Dickens did not make Fagin Jewish because he wanted to discriminate against the Jewish people, but because he wanted to make an easily understood evil character, so he made Fagin Jewish because that was the typical image people had of the Jews and because there were actually many Jewish criminals at that time. From these points, we can say that Dickens was not anti-Semitic but was just very influenced by a society that discriminated against the Jewish people.


Works Cited


Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. (First published, 1837-38.) New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land and Other Poems. (First published, 1922.) New York: Penguin Group, 2003.

Endelman, Todd M. The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society. Michigan: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1999.

E notes. “The Portrayal of Jews in Nineteenth-Century English Literature”. 2010. e. Notes. com. (Accessed 31 May 2010.)

Gross, Michael Joseph. All About Jewish Theatre, “A Face Lift for Wretched Old Fagin”. 2002. All About Jewish Theatre. (Accessed 7 July 2010)

Hsia, R. Po-Chia and Lehmann Hartmut. In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany. Cambridge, MA: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. 1995.

Lane, Lauriat Jr. “Dickens’ Archetypal Jew.” Modern Language Association. (March 1958): 94-98. Accessed via JSTOR.

Lebrecht, Norman. LSM. “How Racist is Oliver Twist?” 29 Sep 2005. La Scena Musicale. (Accessed 31 May 2010.)

Meyer, Susan. “Anti-Semitism and Social Critique in Dickens’s Oliver Twist.” Victorian Literature and Culture. (Cambridge University Press online), 2005: 239-252. (Accessed 31 May 2010.)

Naman, Anne Aresty. The Jew in the Victorian England: Some Relationships Between Prejudice and Art. New York: AMS Press, 1980.

Pugh, Edwin William. Charles Dickens’ Originals. New York: General Books LLC, 2009.

Rothblatt, Sheldon. “Jewish Life in the Eighteenth Century”. Eighteenth Century Life 22,1 (1997): 123-133. Accessed via Project Muse.

Roth, Cecil. Anglo-Jewish Letters. Michigan: University of Michigan, 1938.

Sharman, R.C. Australian Dictionary of Biography Volume 2. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1967.

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