Dickens, Fagin, and Mr. Riah:
The Intention of the Novelist
Agitation about the film version of Oliver Twist and its release in Berlin has given widespread currency to a belief that Charles Dickens himself was anti-Semitic, and that Fagin was conceived as “a savage racial caricature.” Dickens describes Fagin, it has been pointed out, as “a very old, shrivelled Jew,” “dressed in a greasy flannel gown,” and with a “villainous and repulsive face . . . obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.”
The ruffianly Sikes refers to him as an “infernal rich, plundering, thundering old Jew.” And it might be added that Dickens portrays him as in the highest degree cowardly, treacherous, greedy, scheming, and vindictive.
But these facts cannot be understood in isolation. Does Dickens make Fagin more evil, we should ask, than the ferocious Sikes or the villainous Monks, neither of whom is a Jew? Are Fagin’s hateful qualities presented as if Dickens thought them not simply human but peculiarly Jewish? Has he drawn other derogatory pictures of Jews in his writings, and no favorable ones? Do his utterances elsewhere imply an ill opinion of Jews as a group?
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