Fagin is one of the most intriguing characters in Oliver Twist. He is certainly not a hero, and there are times at which he seems the epitome of a villain, but the oppressive nature of the penultimate chapter that gives the reader some sympathy for him. The chapter ends with "the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death," in stark contrast, for instance, to the ironic absurdity of Mr. Bumble's punishment. However, while Oliver's position in the workhouse was entirely miserable, Fagin gave him an environment in which he was treated kindly, with warmth and companionship. There are worse things than being a pickpocket, and Fagin is a more humane figure than the heartless guardians of the law.
Ultimately, Fagin is neither a hero nor a villain, but a victim who has made his way as best he can by victimizing others but who is not wholly bad. The reader knows nothing of his background, but it is not difficult to imagine that it is at least as harsh as Oliver's. The mystery of his origins is heightened by the fact that he is continually referred to as "the Jew" but his name is clearly Irish. However he has come to be the leader of his criminal gang, Dickens makes it very clear that society regards Fagin as a villain, but he also makes it clear that society itself is more culpable for the evils described in the novel than Fagin is.