Figuring Out Fagin
By Michael Getler
February 27, 2009
A two-part, three-hour, miniseries production of the Charles Dickens classic "Oliver Twist" that appeared on PBS's "Masterpiece Classic" on Feb. 15 and 22 produced some sharply critical comments from several viewers. Not surprisingly, they are focused on the character known as Fagin, a dark, complex and unappealing character who presides over a gang of young pickpockets and thieves amid the ugly underground life of early 19th century England. And, oh yes, Fagin is Jewish.
Twist is a smart and spirited orphan boy banished from a dismal life in a workhouse and dumped into the even more dismal streets of London where he finds refuge within Fagin's band. The version that aired this month was co-produced by the BBC and WGBH in Boston, and first appeared on the BBC in 2007.
Dickens is one of the world's great storytellers and Oliver Twist is widely regarded as a masterpiece; one of several that he authored. It first appeared in 1837 in Britain, serialized in a magazine, and was an instant success. Dickens wrote more than a dozen novels and was the most popular writer of his time. His books have never stopped being popular and are still in print. But Dickens was also a social crusader who sought to call attention — through often harsh and graphic depictions and narratives, and hundreds of vividly drawn characters throughout those novels — to the evils that characterized "the dregs" of the society he knew.
His writings, particularly about the oppressed, destitute or otherwise wretched elements of his era, have remained relevant or at least still strike a chord, especially Oliver Twist, which has been produced in more than 20 versions for stage, cinema and television over many years.
And it is within the pages of Oliver Twist that one of the most controversial characters in all of English literature, that of Fagin — the crafty old Jew, as British writer Paul Vallely describes him in an article in Britain's The Independent newspaper — emerged, and keeps reappearing in various forms.
Vallely wrote this in 2005 as an earlier film version of Oliver Twist directed by Roman Polanski was debuting in London. Other critics such as Norman Lebrecht also used that same moment in 2005 to address the role of Fagin and anti-Semitism in British literature.
Vallely wrote that Fagin "stands on the shoulders of a long line of literary Jewish villains" among British masters from Chaucer's "The Prioress's Tale" to Christopher Marlowe's "Jew of Malta" to Shakespeare's Shylock in "Merchant of Venice." Yet "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," Vallely wrote, and "Fagin grew fully formed from this tradition."
A Worrisome Character from the Start
And, as he also points out, members of the Jewish community have always been concerned about the character of Fagin and the anti-Semitism it reflected and generated. In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle asked why "Jews alone should be excluded from the 'sympathising heart' of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed."
Dickens, himself, eventually had second thoughts and halted the printing of the book about halfway through so as to refer in later chapters to Fagin by name rather than the 257 times in the first 38 chapters where he is called "the Jew." And Dickens later wrote what proved to be his final novel, "Our Mutual Friend," in which a major character is Jewish "whose goodness is almost as complete as Fagin's is evil," as Vallely described it.
So now along comes BBC and PBS with still another version and, to no one's surprise, Fagin is still a cause for concern for some viewers as is the ever-evolving adaptation of Dickens' narrative.
What follows are letters from viewers who wrote to me about this, a response from Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton at WGBH, some thoughts from me, and a closing few paragraphs from Professor John Jordan, a Dickens scholar at the University of California in Santa Cruz, who I asked about some of the points raised by viewers.
Here Are the Letters
I was shocked at the blatant perversion of Dickens, in Oliver Twist. What was the goal of asking Fagin to profess Christ? Once again, PBS tries to make Christianity look wretched and the wretch look Christlike. Have I missed something in the book that this transaction between the judge and Fagin is supposed to represent?
David Ulmer, Wilmington, OH
I was dismayed to see the depiction of Fagin in the recent production of Oliver Twist on PBS. In a quaint parody of a Yiddish accent, Fagin complains that "you can't trust the goyim," toasts all manner of nefarious schemes with a "l'chaim!" and remains true in the end only to his schemes and his religion. What emerges is the medieval portrait of The Jew with all the negative stereotypes. It is amazing is that in the 21st century PBS is willing to further such prejudices.
New York, NY
The depiction of Fagin on the recent telecast of Oliver Twist was a disgraceful display of Jew hatred. Fagin being Jewish is repeatedly emphasized in references to being kosher, wearing a skull cap and being frequently referred to as Jew. The trial scene, a poor take off on The Merchant of Venice, invented for this production gives the final comment on the anti Jewishness of this production. I don't object to taking liberties with Dickens, but this is outrageous. It appears to reflect the increasing number of anti Jewish happenings in England and other European countries.
Robert Slomovitz, Plainview, NY
At a time when there is a great surge in anti-Semitism world wide it is unconscionable for you to be broadcasting the Masterpiece theatre version of Oliver Twist with its odious portrayal of the villain Fagan.
Richard Gilman, Ann Arbor, MI
As a longtime literature teacher, I am always disturbed by the teachers who teach "Oliver Twist" and "Merchant of Venice." Not surprisingly they are anti-Semitic though some of them don't know it. Charles Dickens wrote "Our Mutual Friend" to offset the damage that he, too, did not know he was inflicting on his readers. I do not have your teacher's guide. But even though it may not have an adverse effect, most of your audience will not have the teacher's guide. There is no lack of books by Dickens. PBS, which has in an inordinate support of Jewish viewers, should at least be fair. Some of us are still reeling from the Bill Moyers vicious charge of a few weeks ago. Many of us will never watch him again. Too bad. He was a favorite.
Anna Sazie, Rockville, MD
I have been a supporting friend for many years. No longer. I think that James Carter's screed against Israel was disgusting and almost a call to arms against that home of my people. Then Bill Moyers had the chutzpah to accuse Jews of genetic addiction to violence. Finally, the depiction of Fagin in the BBC's Oliver Twist, as a classic Nazi and Arab disgusting portrayal of the Jew was the last straw!
Noel Hershfield, Calgary
I have watched Masterpiece Classic's presentation of Part I of Oliver Twist. I am appalled at the virulently anti-Semitic depiction of the Jewish character Dickens chose to create and demonize in the personage of Fagin. I am equally appalled that PBS would be a party to spreading this kind of anti-Semitism — be it by Charles Dickens or any other author.
Let me put it to you another way: Would PBS dare to air a production that portrayed a Moslem in such a light? Let me make it even clearer: Of course not! And I would think that any Jew might think hard and long at outrage over anti-Semitism. Believe me, a victim of the Holocaust, once it gains momentum, no Jew can hide from the scourge of anti-Semitism, no matter how hard he tries to appease his oppressors.
Irmgard Gesund, Lexington, KY
Fagin Says 'L'chaim'
Normally we appreciate and enjoy Masterpiece. However, I was shocked and amazed at the racist portrayal of Fagin in this adaptation. Fagin is acknowledged in general as an unsympathetic Jewish character in Dickens' novel. However, the portrayal of the part can vary greatly with different producers, directors and actors, as can the portrayal of Shylock, another great and unsympathetic Jewish character in English literature.
The current presentation of Fagin is highly offensive, and is either intentionally so, or is incredibly insensitive. His Jewishness is exaggerated and ugly. It would fit well in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, featuring murderous Jews using the blood of Christian children to make matzo (unleavened bread) for Passover!
Let me cite three examples of bias in this production, which are not to be found in the original novel itself.
1. Fagin offers liquor to Bill Sykes and his young band of thieves. As they drink, he toasts them with "l'chaim" ("to life") the universal Hebrew toast over alcohol. That word was probably not known to Dickens, and to my knowledge does not occur anywhere in the novel "Oliver Twist." Why, then, use it here, if not to telegraph to the audience, "This is an ugly, corrupt Jew."
2. When feeding sausage to his young acolytes, he emphasizes that he himself does not partake of pork, but they may. Pork is forbidden to both Jews and Muslims, but in European tradition from the Middle Ages onward, this dietary restriction has been used as a coded way of denoting Jews.
3. He tells his audience that "G-d will provide." This is a very traditional Jewish saying. In this context, however, it is the robbery and theft of Oliver's adoptive family, by a coerced Oliver himself, that will provide profit to Fagin.
Consequently, I believe Fagin's characterization in this adaptation in particular, is anti-Semitic. It goes far beyond the purview of the original in an attempt to stress the "Jewish aspect" of Fagin's corruption.
Obviously, none of this can be corrected now. I hope my concern reaches all those who had a hand in this travesty. WGBH, which does much admirable work, has fallen badly by letting this through.
Gabriel Koz, Williamsburg, VA
Here's what Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece, sent to me in response to these letters.
"Thank you for your letters about MASTERPIECE's recent adaptation of 'Oliver Twist.' We are sorry that you found the portrayal of Fagin anti-Semitic, and would like to explain the original intentions of the production team.
"As you rightly point out, Fagin is acknowledged as an unsympathetic Jewish character in Dickens' novel. In the book, he is a renegade, non-observant Jew, and a dark villain. Dickens understood later in life how offensive this portrayal was and created a sympathetic Jewish character in the figure of Riah in 'Our Mutual Friend.' When the production team began work on this adaptation, one of their concerns was how to create a modern version of Fagin — one in which he was clearly Jewish but also complex, ambivalent, and ultimately more sympathetic than Dickens' original.
"The writer wanted to convey the humanity of Fagin: he has fallen on hard times, feels destined for better things, and is deeply religious and in touch with his God. However, as the story demands, he is also a man with villainous traits. In an attempt to reconcile the humanity and the villainy of the character, the writer heightened Fagin's religious conviction by making him a more observant Jew, not a secular Jew and an outsider, as he is in the novel. The examples noted in one letter (toasting with 'l'chaim,' not eating the sausage, and saying that 'G-d will provide') are intended to signal this, as is the trial scene where Fagin refuses to renounce his Jewish faith. Paradoxically, these references are meant to make him appear more sympathetic — not less."
"Because of Dickens' original portrayal of Fagin, he continues to be one of his most controversial characters. We're obviously concerned by your strong reactions to this newest interpretation, and regret that it has caused offense. We have passed your comments on to the production team."
I don't think there are any "right" or "wrong" answers to the centuries-old debate over Dickens and, specifically, the role of Fagin in Oliver Twist. It is one of the most famous novels ever written. It endures in print, on stage, screen and television, and it is much healthier to argue about it than ban or censor it because it makes some people uncomfortable. This is 19th century fiction and in its original form certainly does reflect the anti-Semitism of the time and that which Dickens probably also shared personally. Adaptations over the years have been true to this in some cases, and more nuanced in others.
Indeed, one of the interesting themes in many of the reviews of this latest BBC/PBS version is that the Fagin played by Timothy Spall is a good deal kinder and gentler than the original.
"Fagin gets a makeover," writes Bloomberg.com reviewer Dave Shiflett, "graduating from sinister prince of thieves to a fairly lovable professor of pickpockets." Laura Fries writes in Variety that "Spall's Fagin represents one of the most sympathetic portrayals yet. He's opportunistic and morally conflicted but treats the children under his care with more compassion than they've ever known. This Fagin is more a peacemaker, a behind-the-scenes man" and "when he meets his eventual downfall, he seems as much a victim of the day's anti-Semitism as his own criminal history."
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara says of Spall: "With a long silky braid and an air of weary craftiness, he captures Fagin's Otherness — a Jew among Christians — and keeps the character seesawing in a very human way between caretaker and villain. It's a wonderful doomed performance, steeped in self-loathing and self-aggrandizement." There are many other reviews in many other newspapers that make similar appraisals of a much more complicated, more "politically correct" as the New York Times puts it, and multi-faceted Fagin.
My sense is that most people with a general exposure in one form or another to Oliver Twist and Fagin over the years understand its time and context. In almost any form, Fagin will grab your attention. The character clearly contributes to the worst kind of stereotypes, and it will almost certainly always make Jewish viewers uncomfortable. It is old and fiction but it is volatile.
I bring only a layman's view to this but I, too, had a reaction similar to many of the reviewers, sensing that the current version of Fagin was more complex and nuanced, less harsh and less evil, than some of the earlier portrayals.
The Views of a Scholar
I asked Professor John Jordan, head of The Dickens Project at the University of California, about some of the points raised in viewer letters and here is some of what he had to say:
"It is of course impossible to ask or expect modern viewers to view the portrayal of any Jewish character without bringing their own experience and knowledge to bear on that portrayal. And part of that knowledge will include the history of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and current events in the world. So controversy is inevitable.
"That Dickens shared some of the anti-Semitism of his time is indisputable. Dickens's anti-Semitism was hardly as virulent or offensive as that of many people in the 19th century. His views did change, and it is true that he introduced the character of Riah in 'Our Mutual Friend' partly in answer to the complaint of a contemporary Jewish woman who wrote him to express her disappointment with the character of Fagin. Riah is a sympathetic character.
"In the novel, Fagin is portrayed at times as a figure of pure evil. His first appearance shows him with a toasting fork that recalls the devil's pitchfork, and he is sometimes compared to a monster. The narrative voice consistently refers to him as 'the Jew,' though in later editions Dickens removed those references and substituted his name so as to soften the portrayal. But in the novel, Fagin is also portrayed in more sympathetic fashion. He feeds the boys, plays with them. No such food or play is available in the workhouse from which Oliver has escaped. And at the end of the novel, when Fagin has been arrested and condemned to be hanged, he is shown in his cell in ways that create sympathy once again and even, I would argue, suggest that the mob frenzy calling for his death is an example of the anti-Semitism of the period. All of this is to say that the portrayal of Fagin in the book is complex and not the uni-dimensional stereotype that many readers take from it.
"Similar kinds of analysis can, I think, be applied to the PBS film adaptation. Instead, for example, of taking Fagin's Jewishness away from him, the film makes him proud to be a Jew, and, as one of your writers notes, adapting a scene from The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock is forced to recant his religion, has Fagin refuse to abandon his faith. No such scene exists in the book, and it was almost certainly introduced to make Fagin's religion appear in a more positive light, whatever else one thinks about his character. He is, after all, a criminal. The Fagin of the film is, like the Fagin of the book, a complex character with both positive and negative qualities."