Dickens' greatest villain: The faces of Fagin

In the latest version of Oliver Twist, one of the most controversial characters in English literature is played by a Jewish actor. But is that enough to allay the charges of stereotyping and prejudice that have dogged the footsteps of the evil old gangmaster since the day he sprang from his creator's pen? Paul Vallely reports

When Oliver Twist was serialised in 1837 it was a sensational success. And the crafty old Jew who runs a school for child thieves was central to its compelling portrait of life among the criminals and prostitutes of London's East End. It was controversial from the outset. Polite novelists did not write about what Dickens later described as "the very dregs of life". It was all a world away from the jollity of The Pickwick Papers. But it is what many have seen as the anti-Semitism running through Dickens' depiction of the menacing figure of Fagin that has made it most controversial.

The book, like all Dickens' work, has never been out of print - hardly surprising since it combines a gripping narrative with graphic characterisation, social conscience and heart-tugging sentimentality in measured proportions. The plot of Oliver Twist has been adapted for the screen more than 20 times, the latest of which by Roman Polanski opens in Britain today. But the character of Fagin has transcended the storyline to become, like only a handful of other literary figures, a character in his own right.

Members of the Jewish community were concerned from the outset. In 1854 the Jewish Chronicle was lamenting as to why "Jews alone should be excluded from 'the sympathising heart' of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed". Oliver Twist, like so many of Dickens' novels, had been a campaigning book, targeted against the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which threw huge numbers of the destitute poor into conditions of semi-imprisonment. But the book repeatedly referred to Fagin - no less than 257 times in the first 38 chapters - as "the Jew" whereas the race and religion of other villain, Bill Sikes, goes unremarked.

Even so, Dickens' response was naïve or disingenuous. "I know of no reason the Jews can have for regarding me as 'inimical' to them," he told the Westminster Jewish Free School, saying that in his Child's History of England he had expressed "a strong abhorrence" of treatment of the Jews.

But then in 1860 he put his house up for sale. It was bought by a man whom Dickens described to a friend as "a Jew money-lender" but whom he later came to describe as honest, considerate and a gentleman. Three years later, the new owner's wife, Eliza Davis, wrote to the novelist expressing surprise that "Charles Dickens, the large-hearted, whose works plead so eloquently and so nobly for the oppressed of his country ... has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew". He had done, she said, "a great wrong" to the Jewish people.

At first Dickens was defensive. Fagin was the only Jew in the story, he said, and "all the rest of the wicked dramatis personae are Christians". Fagin had been described as a Jew, he explained, "because it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew". If Jews were offended, he said, then "they are a far less sensible, a far less just and a far less good-tempered people than I have always supposed".

There was more to this than artful dodging. "Dickens was relatively free of the conventional anti-Semitism prevalent among early Victorians," says Andrew Xavier, curator of the Dickens House Museum. Even so, Mrs Davis was uncowed.

"I cannot dispute the fact that at the time to which Oliver Twist refers, there were some Jews, receivers of stolen goods," she wrote in a recently discovered letter. The professional avenues open to Ashkenazi Jews were severely limited in those days, as Ben Kingsley, who plays Fagin in the Polanski version, acknowledges: "It basically came down to ... you can buy and sell secondhand clothes, you can be a ragpicker and you can unofficially lend money."

Even so, Mrs Davis told Dickens archly: "I hazard the opinion that it would well repay an author to examine more closely into the manners and character of the British Jews and to represent them as they really are."

Dickens' response was twofold. He halted the reprinting of Oliver Twist - which was halfway through - and altered the text which had not yet been set (which is why, still today, Fagin is called "the Jew" 257 times in the first 38 chapters but in only a small percentage of the 179 references in the rest of the book).

And in his next, and what proved to be his final novel, Our Mutual Friend, he includes a major character, Riah (the word means "friend" in Hebrew) whose goodness is almost as complete as is Fagin's evil - and who offers this eloquent indictment of anti-Jewish prejudice: "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 ... 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'." Mrs Davis sent Dickens a copy of Benisch's Hebrew and English Bible, in gratitude for his atonement.

But there is more to the story of Fagin than the intentions of his creator. For Fagin has assumed a mythic status. Dickens knew no Jews when he conceived the character (it was based on newspaper reports of a real-life Jewish fence named Ikey Solomons who died in 1850). But Fagin stands on the shoulders of a long line of literary Jewish villains, the mystery-play portrayal of Barrabas, the cut-throats of Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale; Marlowe's monstrous Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's Shylock. None of these were drawn from reality - there were no Jews in England after their expulsion in 1290 until they were unofficially invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1664. But the Jew was a vilified abstraction in medieval legend and folklore. Fagin grew fully formed from this tradition.

"Fagin is no ordinary villain," says Milton Kerker, writing for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. "He is the traditional medieval Jewish bogeyman, the Jew who is not a mere vicarious atavism of Satan, but the grotesque Jew, the crafty Jew in whose heart Satan is actually lodged."

And if you think that is fanciful, read how Dickens introduces his villain - standing before a fire, fork in hand, with a villainous and repulsive face, and matted red hair. Red hair was worn by the devil in medieval mystery plays. Dickens several times refers to Fagin as the "merry old gentleman", an ancient euphemism for the devil, as is the phrase Bill Sikes uses when he says Fagin looks as if he has come straight from "the old 'un without any father at all betwixt you".

In the literary subconscious Fagin is cast in the traditional Satanic role of corrupting the innocent, a Mephistophelean devil who seeks out Christian children. In Fagan's prison cell, Oliver offers to pray with the condemned man. "Say only one, upon your knees, with me, and we will talk till morning." But the Jew is impervious to these Christian entreaties. Whatever Dickens' intention he was peddling a myth that has poisoned the psyche of the Western world.

Historians of cinema offer an interesting commentary on that. Over the past 100 years the portrait of Jews in film has evolved revealingly. In the silent-movie era, Jews, where they were not grasping money lenders, were pictured along with the Irish and blacks as buffoons. In the 1920s there were quaint ethnic minority features with names like Frisco Sally Levy and Kosher Kitty Kelly. And the conflict between an American and a Jew was the subtext to the first real talkie, The Jazz Singer, though Jewish characters were noticeable by their absence from screens in the 1930s. Jews were there only tentatively in Second World War films and it was not until 1948 that Gentleman's Agreement confronted American anti-Semitism, though the producer Darryl Zanuck was not Jewish.

That year also saw the first significant film version of Oliver Twist (there had been an unmemorable Tod Browning low-budget version with Lon Chaney in 1922). David Lean's brooding 1948 version was greatly acclaimed at the time, but its Fagin, moodily played by Alec Guinness, raised the old controversies.

In the United States this monochrome morality tale was censored to remove the depictions of Fagin which were considered most offensive. It is an extraordinary testimony to the depth and potency of the enduring myth that it was considered possible to render such a portrait just five years after a shocked world saw pictures from inside the Nazi concentration camps and learned the awful truth about a Holocaust in which six million Jews died. Though the story has been revisited on the big and small screens many times, most versions since have been TV serials, children's cartoons or modernisations such as Jacob Tierney's Twist (set among male prostitutes in modern-day Toronto). The next major version was Carol Reed's 1968 adaptation of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! in which the Jewishness issue was side-stepped by Ron Moody's playing Fagin for laughs, leaving the menace to Oliver Reed's Bill Sikes.

The version out this week ought to avoid controversy. After all, Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor who was only 11 years old when the war ended, and whose parents were sent to concentration camps. His affinity for Oliver comes from an entirely different direction from that in previous versions. His screenwriter Ronald Harwood is also Jewish - while the actor portraying Fagin, Ben Kingsley, has Jewish ancestry on his mother's side. "I had a yellow star on three different overcoats in three different films with three different numbers on them," he says, recalling the fact that he has played Simon Wiesenthal, Otto Frank and, perhaps his most acclaimed role, Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List.

Even that may not be enough. "While Fagin is bleached of his explicit Jewishness," the film critic Saul Austerlitz complained after the Polanski version opened in New York, "Fagin is still outfitted with a comically exaggerated proboscis. . . [He] paces the floor muttering "oy, oy" to himself again and again. Fagin may not be wearing a yarmulke, and no one in Polanski's film calls him a Jew, but on a slightly more subterranean level, this Oliver Twist still engages in some fairly rancid physical stereotypes."

"Please, sir, I want some more," young Oliver most famously says. But there are plenty of people who clearly feel we have had quite enough already.

The great performances

Dickens described his creation as "a very old, shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face is obscured by a quantity of matted red hair." In George Cruikshank's original illustration, he looks middle-aged, wears a nightcap as well as a broad-brimmed hat, and sits in terrified solitude chewing his nails as he anticipates his grisly fate.

Lon Chaney (1922)

In the first Hollywood version, Chaney (who also played the Wolf Man) plays Fagin as a hunched monster - emaciated, clad in rags, with protruding teeth and claw-like hands. "I was so frightened by this man," reported seven-year-old Jackie Coogan, playing Oliver, "the only thing that got me out of it, when we started to do our scene and I got close to him, was the smell of spirit gum..."

Alec Guinness (1948)

The highlight of David Lean's dark and sinister adaptation was Guinness's grotesque caricature. Vastly hook-nosed, heavy of eyelids, straggle-bearded and indefinably filthy, this Fagin yet had a seductive side to him, announced by his alligator smile, his sleepy Levantine croak and his way of saying "My dear..." He was ancient, but still as playful as the boys needed him to be. The pederastic signals are unmistakable. But the Jewish stereotyping delayed the film's release in the US for three years.

Ron Moody (1966)

Carol Reed, the director of Oliver!, invested most of the film's evil in Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed) leaving Moody to play Fagin as a trickster, a light-fingered ne'er-do-well, glorying in his own wickedness. "There's a great deal of humour there if you look for it," commented Moody. Barely 30, he played the "very old" thief with a capering glee that brought him an Oscar nomination. And the long coat and broad-brimmed hat from Cruickshank's illustration came out of retirement.

Richard Dreyfuss (1997)

The made-for-TV Disney version of Oliver Twist was never going to risk upsetting people. Dreyfuss studied Moody's and Guinness's portrayals closely, and raided the make-up department to achieve the requisite haggardness. His Fagin is a million miles from Guinness's - a tough-minded, sometimes ruthless character with occasional (hopeful) glimpses of a loveable rogue.

Robert Lindsay (1997 and 1999)

Lindsay played the role on the West End stage in 1997, and also in the 1999 ITV mini-series directed by Alan Bleasdale. Anxious to avoid Yiddish stereotyping, Bleasdale turned him into a warm and endearing Czech magician. Lindsay portrayed him with lank hair and beard - and gave him Yiddish speech inflections anyway. No Guinness-style fake nose, though.

John Walsh

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower