Friday, March 06, 2009

did you know Fagin was Jewish?

Thanks to my invisible interesting news source (who knows who she is), who posted this fascinating article about the character Fagin in Oliver!, by Charles Dickens.

I'm plagiarizing wholesale here:

Wikipedia's entry on Fagin told a story I was not familiar with. Fagin is Jewish; this is unstated but obvious in the movie, and stated outright in the book, which calls him "the Jew" far more often than it calls him by name. According to the Wikipedia entry:

Dickens claimed that he had made Fagin Jewish because "that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew. He also claimed that by calling Fagin a Jew he had meant no imputation against the Jewish faith, saying in a letter, "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or 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..."

Fagin is a fence, and part of the criminal underworld of Victorian London. It may in fact be true that fences were generally Jewish. However, Fagin was the only Jewish character who had appeared in Dickens's work up till that point. In fact, he's one of the only Jewish characters in the English literature of the period. And while he is portrayed somewhat sympathetically in the movie (he's a criminal, and occasionally violent, but he's also much kinder than the law-abiding Mr. Bumble), in the book he is an evil man who embodies every single nasty anti-Semitic stereotype that existed at the time, from hunched shoulders to a nasal voice.

In other words, Dickens may have said that he was not anti-Semitic, but any modern person who reads the character, and Dickens's defense, is going to roll their eyes. If Dickens were on LJ and making this case for himself, people would mock him and his pantsless self all over the Internet. Even if we go all alt-universe and try to imagine an LJ with Victorian sensibility (where some degree of anti-Semitism is socially acceptable) one would buy his claim that he harbors no prejudice and it's just a coincidence that the only Jewish character he's ever written is a viciously stereotyped villain.

Here is where the story gets interesting. In 1860, Dickens sold his London home to a Jewish banker, James Davis, and became acquainted with him and friendly with his wife Eliza. In 1863, Eliza wrote to Dickens to call him out for the portrayal of Fagin, saying that Jews considered the character "a great wrong" to them.

Dickens responded (eventually -- I would be interested to know if he attempted first to justify his portrayal of Fagin to his Jewish friend) by trying to repair what he'd done. He started revising Oliver Twist, working backwards, and removed all mention of Fagin's Jewishness from the last 15 chapters. In one of his final public readings, he had removed all the aspects of Fagin's description that were anti-Semitic stereotypes. And, in 1865, in the book Our Mutual Friend, he apparently put in a number of Jewish characters, all sympathetic.

So, to recap: Dickens was, at times, defensive. (It's not anti-Semitism! My fence character is Jewish because all fences are Jewish! It's pure coincidence that there has never been another Jewish character in any of my books!) But when taken to task by someone who said, in so many words, that this character had wronged her and her people, he took the criticism to heart and took steps to try to do better.

I stumbled across this story a few weeks after RaceFail started and was frankly kind of boggled to find a discussion of controversy surrounding cultural appropriation and Writing The Other from well over a hundred years ago. Damn, these discussions have been going on for a long time. But -- I think it's worth noting that

(a) You can be a really good writer, good enough that people are still reading you a hundred years later, and you can be generally a decent human being with progressive political views, and you can still fail at this stuff.

(b) Being a good (or even a great) writer and a good person and all the rest doesn't excuse you from trying to do better.

And also

(c) This conversation has happened before. This conversation will happen again. The bad news is that the supply of clueless people seems to be endless, and this conversation is exhausting and disruptive and draining for the people who repeatedly find themselves drafted as educators. The good news is that these conversations do accomplish stuff. With each iteration, there are people who learn, do better, and speak out. And while the supply of clueless people seems to be endless, some of them will Get It, and be there to speak out the next time around.

Anyway. I am sharing this mostly because I found the historical perspective fascinating.

ETA: It is clear even from the Wikipedia entry that Our Mutual Friend fails in its own set of ways. Writing overly romanticized, saintly, sentimental depictions of The Other is its own variety of Fail. But I will cut Dickens some slack for being a Victorian, and credit for making a sincere effort, as I imagine his friend Eliza did.

So interesting. I grew up with Oliver (the musical version), and always thought Fagin was an Irish name (...).

This makes my feelings about Dickens even more confused than they were after I read Parallel Lives.


JJ said...

How weird; I just asked my roommate that on Wednesday when the musical was on AMC. Fagin's songs sound somewhat "Jewish" to me (I don't mean no disrespect; it's just that I heard musical shades of Fiddler on the Roof in there) so I asked "Is Fagin Jewish?"

She didn't know. I read the Wikipedia entry about him as well and went "huh." I will confess that the only Dickens I've read is A CHRISTMAS CAROL, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and BLEAK HOUSE and my exposure to OLIVER TWIST came via Billy Joel and Oliver and Company.

Brian F. said...

Are you going to give DROOD a look-see?

Steve Brezenoff said...

That's really fascinating.

I always suspected Dickens of anti-Semitism for another character: Scrooge. He is obscenely miserly until he discovers the true meaning of Christmas, after all, and it just always gave me pause.

Maybe I read too much into it.

Jenny said...

Hi Moonrat!
I'm a new follower of your blog and absolutely love it! I just got Drood for my husband and he loves it (so far). I have another friend who read it and said that if you love Dickens, you'll love Drood! Thanks for always making me laugh!

Sarah Laurenson said...

I went looking for a particular article about the default race and came across this one instead.

There's this fun footnote that says a lot:
In contrast to the non-White characters, none of the White characters are racially identifi ed. Part of the reason lies in the privilege of Whiteness: “As the unmarked category against which
difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge
its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations” (Lipsitz 1). But like Lord Voldemort’s name, the omission of “The Race That Shall Not Be Named” (Woods 2) signifi es
more than merely the absence of necessity. Naming “Whiteness” brings to mind various racial
discrepancies that affect every aspect of our lives and brings awareness to racial privilege, a
process that tends to make White people feel uncomfortable (Kivel), even though there is no similar discomfort in using racial identifi ers to refer to people of color. To experience this
discomfort, I invite you to try Thandeka’s “Race Game,” in which the African-American theologian
and journalist challenges White people, for one week, to racially identify other Whites whenever making reference to them (e.g., “my White friend Ron”).

Sarah Laurenson said...

Found it.

Linda said...

Great post. Oliver Twist is one of my all time favorites (are you going to do the book review blog again this summer, Moonie? Hint-hint) and I always did pick up that Fagin was Jewish. The recent Masterpiece Theatre version of OT (which was PHENOMENAL, btw) made Fagin's Judiasm central to the story, and very powerfully at that. You must see this version. I adore the musical, but let's call it for what it is - glorification of poverty and ignorance. Oliver Twist is darksome and horrific, always leaving me with a chill when ever I read. Muckraking at its finest. Peace, Linda

writtenwyrdd said...

Fascinating. I never read OT and I only saw the movie once, so I never got the antisemitism inherent in it.

Thanks for sharing.

Whirlochre said...

I always thought Fagin was Ron Moody.

I wouldn't be surprised to find all sorts of anti-s hidden away in the literature of the past. After all, such sentiment abounded in real life, often to an unpleasant degree.

I'd check this one out, really I would, but I know I'd end up bursting into song.

sunna said...

Wow. Must go read Oliver Twist again: that one blew right by me. I read it pretty young, so it should be in the TBR pile again now anyway.

moonrat said...

Linda--I'm totally renting the masterpiece theater one now.

LurkerMonkey said...

I read the book first ... and the article is right. He's referred to as "the Jew" throughout most of the book. You should see the physical descriptions! Whew. Dickens piled on every stereotype there was. The word "simpering" hops to mind. By the time I saw the movie, the impression was cemented in my mind.

This isn't to excuse Dickens, but it really was a feature of the times -- anti-Semitism and the characterization of Jews as Fagan-like criminals was the norm.

Charles Gramlich said...

I absolutely did not know this. Wow, quite interesting.

Jo said...

Yes, I was aware of this when I first read OT and it affected my enjoyment of the book. Anti-semitism was rampant in Europe and had been for centuries. How about Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice"? Dorothy Sayers detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, is also anti-semitic.
And in another example of deeply ingrained racism, Kipling uses the 'N' word alot in "The Just So Stories."

Rick Spilman said...

There seems to have been a considerable anti-Semitism in English society during the period.

A generation later, John Masefield, who would become the poet laureate and write "Sea Fever" (and a star to steer her by), wrote in his book "Sea Life in Nelson's Time" about sailors coming off Royal Navy ships being preyed upon by "girls and Jews". To a modern eye it is very nasty stuff.

If Dickens reflected this societal bigotry and then felt badly for it I suspect that says more good than bad of Dickens.

freddie said...

I knew Fagin was Jewish, as it's all over the B&N edition of Oliver Twist that I have. I was a little worried there for a while that Dickens was some closet anti-Semitic. I'm glad to hear he tried to change the book.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Funny, it never occurred to me that Fagin was anything else other than Jewish.
Have to say though, I always thought, even as a child, that Dickens' caricature of him was more than a bit off...

Beth said...

Check out this story for more details on Fagin being Jewish:

pacatrue said...

I must say I always have huge reservations when people talk about writing the Other with a capital O. Who exactly is an Other? If a non-Jew such as Dickens writes about a Jew, he is writing about an Other, say many. So maybe he would not be writing about the Other is he only wrote about Christians. But, wait, he's a Christian man, so if he writes about a Christian woman, he is writing about the Other. So which is more Other-ey for Dickens, the Jewish male or the Christian female? Hmmm.... Hard to say. As is clear when you get into these discussions, every single other person in the world is an Other in the end.

And, yet, here's the funny part: Often we understand ourselves very little and have better perceptions of others....

So it's not clear there is any such thing as the Other, and the use of this term Other, which is intended to help analyze or present one group of people "dominating" a different group, often one with less power, instead becomes its own little prison where yet a new group of people divide everyone up into these little compartments of Otherness.

BuffySquirrel said...

I once described a character as "white", and a lot of critiquers got Very Upset. But if I only state colour when a character isn't white, surely that's assuming white as the default?

I get very confuddled about this issue. What do others think?

(and yeah, I knew Fagin was Jewish (or meant to be, anyway))

moonrat said...

Buffy--I'm with you; I specify characters are white (in my own writing). Crit groups etc have tried again and again to strike it, saying it's "awkward" and/or "unnecessary." I disagree that it is unhelpful information--being white, for example, is part of MY experience and not at all irrelevant in MY life--and furthermore, I dislike the idea that throwing the status quo into relief against something is a bad thing.

Thanks for making me feel less lonely! I wonder if there are other people who do this?