What the Dickens?

dickens 1 featured

by Clarissa Hyman

I never learnt to tango or teach myself Russian (to read Tolstoy in the original, of course), nor did I excavate the loft, repaint the kitchen or sort out the old family photos. And don’t even bring up the subject of updating the website. I baked far too many loaves of banana bread, failed to keep my sourdough ‘mother’ on life support and never want to see another bunch of kale in the vegetable box. But I did at least achieve one lockdown ambition: to read the entire novels of Charles Dickens in chronological order.

David Copperfield, I am shown two interesting penitents by Phiz

Why? I had been only too glad to consign prissy David Copperfield to the dustbin of GCE history, but it seemed a grown-up, if rather pretentious, ambition and a suitable, self-imposed mountain to climb during the pandemic incarceration. Plus, I was hopefully old and wise enough to revisit and re-assess the classics I had taken for granted most of my life. And the 99p special offer on Kindle for the lot was, I confess, an extra incentive. It took me eight months, but I reckon I could now do a special subject Mastermind appearance. Well, I could if I was able to remember which character appeared in which novel.

I am no Dickens or Eng Lit scholar, and this is not the place to do justice to the cavalcade of wonderful, eccentric characters; the searing campaigning pages on the Victorian legal system, poverty and social injustices; extraordinary inventive and ground-breaking use of language, tense and punctuation; vivid descriptions of the natural world; trenchant satire of manners and mores; sublime irony and sheer hilarity of so many passages: the sort of things that keep you happily reading alongside the improbable plot coincidences, hasty endings, soppy sentimentality and excessive moralising.

Illustration from: Pears’ Centenary Edition of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Books — The Battle of Life — with 29 Illustrations by Charles Green Text reads: “‘Grace! what is it? Is she dead?’ She disengaged herself, as if to recognise his face, and fell down at his feet.”

But my self-imposed task did produce the unexpected realisation of how extremely differently Dickens depicted his two most famous Jewish characters. And to also consider whether these opposing portraits could add to my present thoughts on antisemitism.

Apart from occasional, throwaway references to ‘Jew’ in some other books or the super-creepy Uriah Heep, a scapegoat figure on a grand scale, grotesque, deviant and monstrous (not identified as Jewish but one who has all the stereotypical features), Fagin in Oliver Twist and Riah in Our Mutual Friend are the two most famous members of the tribe to appear in the repertoire. When I started to actually read Oliver Twist and was able to blot out the pick-a-pocket earworm wriggling through my brain I was, frankly, truly and horribly shocked.

This may not come as news to many but it was, for me, an oy gevalt moment that revealed how far Fagin’s image was sanitised and softened through Lionel Bart’s musical which presents him as (almost) a loveable rogue in the colourful street life of Victorian East London. Ron Moody, in the cinema version, played him for laughs, the overtly offensive Jewish aspect dampened down if not altogether jew-washed, and the finale sees Fagin waltzing away with the Artful Dodger to scam the punters another day.

Two panel illustration showing a distraught Charles Dickens standing with another man behind the door to his hotel room, on the other side of which is a group of people portraying characters from Dickens’ novel, “Martin Chuzzlewit”; the man behind the door responds to the “acquaintances'” entreaties by stating that Mr. Dickens is “not at home”.

It was seen in its day as an improvement on, at least, the David Lean version that had Alec Guinness go for broke in a grotesque caricature, joke-book hook nose and all. It raised, and still does, the question of the extent to which such adaptations should be faithful to the original, however unpleasant, or re-interpreted in such a way as to accept modern sensibilities while keeping the main themes of the book intact.

The awful truth is that Dickens’ actual language in Oliver Twist is piercingly vicious, offensively brutal and unmistakably antisemitic.

Our first introduction depicts ‘a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.’ Later he is described ‘with a face so distorted and pale, and eyes so red and blood-shot, that he looked less like a man, than like some hideous phantom, moist from the grave, and worried by an evil spirit… absorbed in thought, his right hand was raised to his lips and as… he hit his long black nails, he disclosed among his toothless gums a few such fangs as should have been a dog’s or rat’s.’

Illustration from: Pears’ Centenary Edition of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Books — The Battle of Life — with 29 Illustrations by Charles Green Text reads: “This village Inn had assumed, on being established, an uncommon sign. it was called The Nutmeg Grater. And underneath that household word was inscribed, up in the tree, on the same flaming board, and in the like golden characters, By Benjamin Britain.”

The lust for gold is also soon introduced. Fagin looks at his secret hoard of gold and jewels with a ‘hideous grin’ that distorts every feature. Discussing a proposed robbery, ‘his face wrinkled into an expression of villainy perfectly demoniacal’.

The terms ‘vile and repulsive’, the evil leers, the hideous smiles, the rubbing of hands, the looks of ‘earnest cunning’, everything crafty and cunning, sordid and mean are projected on his bony body clad in tattered rags or greasy robes. It makes the term ‘wily old jew’ almost complimentary. Not that his menace is always overt: his frequent mode of address to his ‘dears’ is threateningly passive-aggressive. The schmooze is spine-tinglingly false. Often referred to as ‘the merry old gentleman’ I was puzzled over the irony until I learnt it was once a traditional name for Satan.

Chesney Wold and the Title Page

Fagin is diabolical, first seen grasping a pitchfork on which he is toasting sausages. His red hair is derived from the union of Jews and the devil as portrayed in early drama, his ‘greasy flannel gown, with this throat bare’, emphasises his alien race.

He is an evil corrupter of children in a way that recalls medieval beliefs and ancient superstitious fears of losing children. He is sub-human, a hideous old man creeping along ‘like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in some of rich offal for a meal.’

Fagin is not only hideous but hideous in a specifically Jewish way: miserly (he swallows coins to keep them away from his associates); an exotic and strange appearance; obsequious (always rubbing his hands)- and with a large nose. The stereotypes keep on coming.

The Dulwich College charity meeting at the Adelphi Theatre; from The Illustrated London News, 22 March 1856

Conspiracy theory is not far behind: Fagin is also shown to be part of a mysteriously interconnected Jewish underworld, and when Oliver has his cast-off clothes sold to a Jewish dealer it seems ‘as if all the Jews in London have an almost supernatural connection with one another, forming a sort of cabal.’

As if this were not enough, Fagin becomes even more depersonalised, indeed dehumanised, by Dickens constantly referring to him as ‘the Jew’. It is not there are no other evil and loathsome characters in the novels but it is this generic labelling that does the damage.

Paradoxically, though, it is the negative energy of Fagin that makes him a far more vivid and interesting character than any of the ‘goodies’. And he does show some positive qualities in that he demonstrates a degree of care and concern towards his gang of delinquents. He provides a home, food, community and protection to Oliver against the other boys (although later it seems he may be motivated by his perception of his pretty face as a source of future income).

Traddles, Micawber and David, characters in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Traddles, Micawber and David from David Copperfield art by Frank Reynolds.

In the novel, consciously or not, Dickens voices a Victorian mindset common to his time and place that included antisemitism puffed up with a heavy dose of religious righteousness.  Deborah Heller says Fagin not just embodied supposed Jewish characteristics of avarice, gambling and speculation, but also the semi-visible underside of urban life feared by all good, god-fearing people. Even more, according to some critics, Fagin displays the materialism and self-interest that some saw as a kind of secular Jewish faith: ‘Every man’s his own friend, my dear…..He hasn’t as good a one as himself anywhere.’ This reading refers to Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ which posits the salvation of society lies in the disappearance of the Jew and Jewishness.

Academic views differ on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Susan Meyer convincingly argues that Dickens uses the Jew as a corrective figure for the promotion of a true Christianity characterised by mercy and benevolence toward the poor (and totally unlike Mr Bumble’s cruel workhouse regime and the greed, lack of charity and unchristian behaviour of complacent, self-professed good Christians).  As the story progresses, such ‘bad’ Christians give way to ‘good’ middle-class English characters, and unchristian evil centres on the figure of the jew (and, I would add, Sykes).

Charles Dickens as he appears when reading – sketched by C.A. Barry

When finally Fagin is condemned to death, his depiction becomes, as Meyer writes, ‘progressively less human, and more and more a character used in his symbolic capacity – as a Jew who has put himself beyond the reach of Christian redemption.’ A redemption that is only offered by Dickens’s preferred New Testament: Fagin, facing the gallows refuses conversion or even to pray with fellow religionists (a curious throwaway line which seems to go against the grain of what has gone before vis a vis the Jews). Meyer adds that by the end ‘he has become the damned, soulless Jew, grovelling like a caged animal, his humanity sacrificed to the exigencies of the novel’s symbolic structure.’ In other words, Dickens makes Fagin symbolically take on the sins of the corrupt, anti-Christian forces in the story.

However, by the end, Dickens, for whatever reason either moral or dramatic, does offer some insight into Fagin’s guilt and fear and depicts real feelings and emotions. His final cry of ‘What right have they to butcher me?’ does soften the hatred stirred in the Victorian reader by the archetypal racial villain. Perhaps, as Lauriat Lane, conjectured, it shows that Fagin was not the embodiment of our unconscious fears but only a man, after all.

Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin by Cruikshank

One of the author’s main interests was, indeed, as a social campaigner, fighting for the poor, oppressed and weak, although he seems not to have been especially interested in Jews (even poor, oppressed and weak ones) or their experiences in Victorian England. He was known to have had at least one good Jewish friend and it was famously thanks to Mrs Davis, an Anglo- Jewish acquaintance who had bought his London home, that revisions to the text were subsequently made. She wrote to him to complain about the characterisation in Oliver Twist which ‘encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew’.  As a result, many of the instances in which he had used the term ‘the Jew’ were changed to Fagin’s name.

Dickens nonetheless was said to be surprised by the charge and responded by saying that although the wicked Fagin is a Jew, all the other wicked characters in the novel are Christians.  Meyer, however, notes that unlike the evil Christian characters in the opening chapters or the gang of young thieves, the Jew is not a figure of fun but one of terror and loathing. There are no jokes at his expense.

Cruikshank – Fagin in the condemned Cell (Oliver Twist)

She also wonders why Dickens did not go further and eliminate all references to ethnic identity or at least change it to one not traditionally the target of 19th century English prejudice. She argues that Dickens ‘seems to have been using an available rhetoric, antisemitism, as a vivid and powerful part of the novel’s structure of Christian meaning, for his own social ends, namely, to improve the treatment of the English poor. His strong feelings and convictions on that subject, together with his immense literary talent produced a great novel. Unfortunately, precisely because the negative representation of the Jew is so implicated in Dickens’s passionate social critique it is a novel from which the antisemitism is inextricable.’

It was some relief, therefore, when I came to the last of Dickens’s completed, published novels, Our Mutual Friend, to find Riah, a Jew who was the yin to Fagin’s yang, the saint to his devil, the good Jew to the bad one. Although it must be noted both remain outcasts until the end of both books, the antisemitic tone is transformed into an equally extreme philosemitic one.

Johnny Kraaijkamp as Fagin in Oliver Twist

The question seems to be was Riah created in atonement for Fagin or as an attempt on Dickens’ part to rehabilitate the image of the Jew? Except it’s not so simple. As Deborah Epstein Nord notes, it is also the case that both of these characters are integral to the larger philosophical and topical concerns of the texts in which they appear: ‘In Our Mutual Friend, [it is] his fascination with forms of urban labour and his interest in the possibilities of personal and social transformation, and so cannot be explained only by the character’s usefulness in negating or exposing antisemitic thinking.’

There were almost 30 years between the publication of the two books and both the status and stereotyping of Jews in Britain had undergone substantial change. Jewish emancipation enabled them to enter professions and hold civic office. They were treated finally, though perhaps not always welcomed, as Englishmen in that they were still widely regarded as having exaggerated economic power over the money markets. More problematically, Jews and the corruptions and taints of urban life such as dirt, poverty, degradation still went naturally together. In the case of Riah, ‘Dickens struggled to cleanse his own creation of the stain of these intractable associations.’ The question is that in a novel where the main themes are transformation and redemption can Riah, a Jew whose public identity is already that of a usurer, overcome this taint and emerge as a good citizen?

Drawing of the actor Ivan Berlyn (1867-1934) as Fagin in ‘Oliver Twist’ – artist S A H Robinson (dates unknown) in ‘The Daily Graphic’ (1903)

One strategy used by Dickens was to show how Riah is an innocent victim of prejudice, rudely called ‘Mr Aaron’ by the upper-class Eugene Wrayburn who tells him to be off to ‘any engagement he may have at the Synagogue.’   There are other examples of antisemitism in action such as when another character heaps abuse on Riah: ‘Your people need speak the truth sometimes, for they lie enough.’ Some critics such as Lauriat Lane, however,  feel this shows an unwitting but deeply held bias and prejudice that runs directly counter to what the author conceived his conscious intention in the novel to be.

Dickens also overturns the conventional notion that Jews might be ‘manipulating the Christian puppets of high finance’ by Riah’s own direct denial of having any authority or power.  And where Fagin was the exploiter of young Oliver, Riah is the protector of poor, virtuous Lizzie, despite how he is seen by the rest of the world. In the book, he is sentimental and saintly, still a stereotype but a venerable one, gentle and self-sacrificing, simply too good to be true.  Ironically, the best of Christians.

London thieves

Unlike Fagin who is for himself alone, Riah carries with him ‘the whole Jewish people’ and Dickens gives him a surprisingly insightful passage on antisemitism in which he reflects on how the individual Jew is seen as responsible for society’s impression of all Jews. ‘For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’  Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough……but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say “All Jews are alike”.

So, where did this lock-down Dickensfest leave this questioning Jew? Reflecting on these two iconic literary characters was a lesson in understanding both anti and philosemitism. Of course, the latter is preferable to the former – hey, we all want to be loved – but carries its own unreality. Perfect human beings, perfect social systems, perfect countries do not exist: the individual, as well as the communal, has flaws, faults and weaknesses. Jews and the Jewish state just want to be treated much as everyone else in the fellowship of people and nations. It is a misreading or distortion of the concept of  ‘the chosen’ to believe any other way. Both Fagin and Riah are fascinating creations but neither are convincing, fleshed-out characters – or real Jews.


Clarissa Hyman writes about food, travel and culture and is the author of five books including the award-winning 'The Jewish Kitchen.' She has also twice won the prestigious Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year Award and is a former vice-president of the UK Guild of Food Writers. She is based in Manchester and belongs to the Menorah Synagogue.
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Gita Conn
Gita Conn
2 years ago

An excellent, thought provoking, well-researched and written essay.

Gloria Tessler
Gloria Tessler
2 years ago

Love this profound article on Dickens’ apparent conflict between pro and antisemitism. A really absorbing read. Thank you!

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