Why does Dickens repeatedly refer to Fagin as "the Jew"?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Charles Dickens was accused of being anti-Semite, though he drew Fagin based on an interview with Jewish London criminal, Ikey Solomon. Dickens changed the text of the novel when people complained.

Dickens was a product of his time  My favorite response by Dickens to the idea that Fagin mis-portrays Jews is from the article in my second link:

All the rest of the wicked dramatis personae are Christians.

It is easy to immediately dismiss Dickens’s use of “Jew” as racist.  Actually, he was accused of being racist at the time.  He was surprised when the Jewish community objected.  There was something for everyone to object to in Oliver Twist: prostitutes, criminals, brutal murders, children born out of wedlock and apparent discrimination against Jews.  Yet amazingly, the book sold well and still sells.

In fact, Dickens received a candid letter from one Eliza Davies, the wife of a Jewish banker, complaining that Fagin was referred to as “the Jew” over and over again in an offensive way.  Fagin is a pretty vile character, so naturally many might find this offensive.  In fact, in the letter quoted in the article in my first link she writes:

"Fagin, I fear, admits only of one interpretation."

Dickens objected, responding:

“I must take leave to say that if there be any general feeling on the part of the intelligent Jewish people that I have done to them what you describe as a great wrong, they are a far less sensible, a far less just and a far less good tempered people than I have always supposed them to be."

Basically, he is saying she is being too sensitive.  However, he rewrote portions of the book using “old man” instead of “Jew” to refer to the vile Fagin.

ankuanki | Student

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ankuanki | Student

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Read the study guide:
Oliver Twist

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