How do anti-semitic influences shape Charles Dickens' portrait of Fagin in Oliver Twist?

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sagesource eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Fagin's depiction is definitely marked by antisemitism, but it is a rather careless, traditional antisemitism rather than the malignant forms we are more used to since the Nazi era.

Dickens based the character of Fagin on a real Jewish fence named Ikey Solomon, who was tried at the Old Bailey in June 1830 (he was not, however, sentenced to death). This contemporary reference, and the general antisemitic assumption that Jews were particularly money-grubbing, scheming, and dishonest, would have made the choice natural to Dickens on an unconscious level.

However, when the unpleasant aspects of making Fagin a stereotyped "Jew" were pointed out to Dickens, he felt revulsion for his carelessness. The wife of a Jewish associate criticized him in a letter in 1863, calling the caricature of Fagin a "great wrong." In response, Dickens wrote that "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 willfully have given an offence."

Dickens thus began revising Oliver Twist to play down Fagin's Jewishness. He cut many references to Fagin as "the Jew," and in his public readings refrained from delivering Fagin's lines in a stereotypical way. He also put a wholly admirable Jewish character into his 1865 novel Our Mutual Friend, Riah, whose behavior towards younger people is the precise reverse to Fagin's behavior towards his young thieves.

illumination | Student

Interesting you should bring up white slavery during a discussion about Charles Dickens and Olvier Twist, a story about an orphan in a workhouse who narrowly escapes becoming a chimney sweep (which deformed or killed 4-year-old boys, yet they still had to beg in the streets for food). Dickens sympathized because he'd spent time as a boy in a workhouse.

Scrooge: Are there no workhouses?
Philanthropists: Many would rather die than go there.
Scrooge: Then they'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

The practice of child slavery in the factories was also taking place in America, and those kids have descendants living today.

If I had to guess, my bet would be the children who will lose teeth in 2010 in the Appalachian Hills cause their parents can't afford milk. Of course, children weren't the only people destitute enough for slavery. Under the Poor Laws, the poor were auctioned off by the workhouse to the highest bidder to work in exchange for food and shelter.

They were worked until they collapsed, beaten and made to work more, and fed barely enough to live on, cause it would be cruel to let them starve in the street.

dothemath | Student
Because this was before the Holocaust, making fun of Jews likely seemed even more defensible than making fun of rednecks is today, cause Jews were the powerful, not the oppressed. Dickens tended to sympathize with the oppressed over the powerful, a trait we should probably learn to emulate today. Despite their tiny numbers, two thirds of the main power brokers in Hollywood are Jewish, which is a religion, btw, not a race. If we were describing Mormons controlling Hollywood, not Jews, would you see something wrong? Something along the lines of religious discrimination? Before the memory of the Holocaust kept people from insulting Jews, Mark Twain, Voltaire, Shakespeare and others described them as greedy manipulators. But if you think about our modern American definition of "anti-Semitism", it's basically any accusation that Jews engage in the same behaviors we regularly accuse of (and portray) white men engaging in. Some other examples of historical anti-Semites include Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Bobby Fischer (who's mother was Jewish), Immanuel Kant... it would take too long to name them all. Here's a good list/article on it: Fifty years from now, people won't want to believe their icons engaged in belittling poor whites who were missing teeth and couldn't afford shoes or running water, partially because we will have finally accepted that many of them are descendants of slaves (They Were White and They Were Slaves by Michael A. Hoffman II) but the terms "hillbilly" and "white trash" are all over the internet today, in popular jokes. Yes, it's sad that respected men have said anti-semitic things, but maybe there is still an unsheeplike example to learn from - baa, quit picking on rednecks and start questioning the status quo?