Fagin waits to be hanged.
|First appearance||Oliver Twist|
|Created by||Charles Dickens|
|Portrayed by||Lon Chaney, Sr. (1922), Alec Guinness (1948), Ron Moody (1968), Dom DeLuise (voice, 1988), Richard Dreyfuss (1997), Gary Farmer (2003), Ben Kingsley (2005), Timothy Spall (2007), Russ Abbott (2010/11), Noah Berry (2011), Rowan Atkinson (2010/11), Neil Morrisey (2011/12), Harry Moore (2012)|
Fagin // is a fictional character who appears as an antagonist of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. In the preface to the novel he is described as a "receiver of stolen goods," but within the actual story he is more frequently referred to as the "merry old gentleman" or simply the "Jew."
Born in London, Fagin is described as "grotesque" to look at. He is the leader of a group of children, the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates among them, whom he teaches to make their livings by pickpocketing and other criminal activities, in exchange for a roof over their heads. A distinguishing trait is his constant—and thoroughly insincere—use of the phrase "my dear" when addressing others. At the time of the novel, he is said by another character, Monks, to have already made criminals out of "scores" of children who grow up to live—or die—committing the same crimes as adults. Bill Sikes, one of the novel's major villains, is hinted to be one of Fagin's old pupils, and the prostitute Nancy, Sikes's lover, clearly was.
Although portrayed somewhat humorously, Fagin is nonetheless a self-confessed miser who, despite the wealth he has acquired over the years from the work of others, does very little to improve the squalid lives of the children he takes in – even allowing them to smoke pipes and drink gin "with the air of middle-aged men." In the second chapter of his appearance, it is shown (when he is talking to himself) that he cares less about those children who are eventually hanged for their crimes than about the fact that they do not "peach" (inform) on him and the other children. Still darker sides to the character's nature are shown when he beats the Artful Dodger for not bringing Oliver back, making Charley cry for mercy; in his attempted beating of Oliver for trying to escape after the thieves have kidnapped him; and in his own involvement with various plots and schemes throughout the story. He also indirectly but intentionally causes the death of Nancy by falsely informing the ill-tempered Sikes that she had betrayed him and Fagin, when in reality she had shielded Sikes, loving him despite his violent personality. This results in Sikes beating her to death. Near the end of the book, Fagin is captured and sentenced to be hanged, in a chapter that portrays him as pitiful in his anguish, waiting for the moment he will be led to the scaffold which is being prepared outside.
Dickens took Fagin's name from a friend he had known in his youth while working in a boot-blacking factory.
Fagin's character was based on the criminal Ikey Solomon, who was a fence at the centre of a highly-publicised arrest, escape, recapture, and trial. Some accounts of Solomon also describe him as a London underworld "kidsman" (a kidsman was an adult who recruited children and trained them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for goods the children stole). The popularity of Dickens's novel caused "fagin" to replace "kidsman" in some crime circles, denoting an adult who teaches minors to steal and keeps a major portion of the loot.
Fagin is noted for being one of the few characters of 19th century English literature, let alone any of Dickens's pieces, who is described as Jewish. Fagin has been the subject of much debate over antisemitism both during Dickens's lifetime and up to modern times. In an introduction to a 1981 Bantam Books reissue of Oliver Twist, for example, Irving Howe wrote that Fagin was considered an "archetypical Jewish villain." The first 38 chapters of the book refer to Fagin by his racial and religious origin 257 times, calling him "the Jew", with just 42 uses of "Fagin" or "the old man". In 2005, novelist Norman Lebrecht wrote that "A more vicious stigmatisation of an ethnic community could hardly be imagined and it was not by any means unintended." Dickens (who had extensive knowledge of London street life and child exploitation) explained that he had made Fagin Jewish because "it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the 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..."
In later editions of the book printed during his lifetime, Dickens excised many of the references to Fagin's Jewishness, removing over 180 instances of 'Jew' from the first edition text. This occurred after Dickens sold his London home to a Jewish banker, James Davis in 1860, and became acquainted with him and his wife Eliza, who objected to the emphasis on Fagin's Jewishness in the novel. When he sold the house to them, Dickens allegedly told a friend, "The purchaser of Tavistock House will be a Jew Money-Lender" before later saying, "I must say that in all things the purchaser has behaved thoroughly well, and that I cannot call to mind any occasion when I have had moneydealings with anyone that has been so satisfactory, considerate and trusting."
Dickens became friendly with Eliza, who told him in a letter in 1863 that Jews regarded his portrayal of Fagin a "great wrong" to their people. Dickens then started to revise Oliver Twist, removing all mention of "the Jew" from the last 15 chapters. Dickens later wrote in reply, "There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not willfully have given an offence." In one of his final public readings in 1869, a year before his death, Dickens cleansed Fagin of all stereotypical caricature. A contemporary report observed, "There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted."
In 1865, in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens created a number of Jewish characters, the most important being Mr. Riah, an elderly Jew who finds jobs for downcast young women in Jewish-owned factories. One of the two heroines, Lizzie Hexam, defends her Jewish employers saying, "The gentleman certainly is a Jew, and the lady, his wife, is a Jewess, and I was brought to their notice by a Jew. But I think there cannot be kinder people in the world."
The comic book creator Will Eisner, disturbed by the antisemitism in the typical depiction of the character, created a graphic novel in 2003 titled Fagin the Jew. In this book, the back story of the character and events of Oliver Twist are depicted from his point of view.
Film, theatre and television
Numerous prominent actors have played the character of Fagin. Alec Guinness portrayed Fagin in David Lean's movie adaptation of Oliver Twist with controversial make-up by Stuart Freeborn which exaggerated stereotypical Jewish facial features. The release of the film was delayed for three years on charges of being anti-Semitic by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the New York Board of Rabbis. It was finally released in the United States in 1951, with seven minutes of profile shots and other parts of Guinness's performance cut.
Ron Moody's portrayal in the original London production of Oliver! and in the 1968 film is recognisably influenced by Guinness' portrayal (although the supposedly "anti-semitic" quality of Guinness's portrayal was considerably toned down in the musical), as was Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Fagin in Roman Polanski's 2005 screen adaptation.
Moody's portrayal of Fagin is noticeably different in Oliver! While Fagin like in the novel and other film versions is a crook he is actually one of the film's supporting protagonists and serves as a comic-relief character such as dancing with a quill on his head and parasol. He is also more sympatric towards Oliver and even sticks up for him twice against Bill Sykes. It is implied Fagin may be a pacifist as he hates violence and seems to fear Bill as Bill in a running gag threatens to beat up him up. Also unlike the book and most film versions Fagin doesn't die but instead restarts his life of crime with the Artful Dodger. Fagin is also arguably the most popular character in the musical.
In the 1980 ATV series The Further Adventures of Oliver Twist, Fagin was played by David Swift. In this 13-episode series, Fagin has escaped his hanging by pretending to have had a stroke leaving him paralyzed (and therefore unfit to be executed) and is in hiding at The Three Cripples, tended to by Barney.
In the 1982 made-for-TV movie version, Fagin is portrayed by George C. Scott. Though the character is generally portrayed as elderly, diminutive and homely, Scott's version of the character was markedly younger, stronger, and better looking. As well, this version of the character had him more caring of his orphan charges, feeding them well and treating them with obvious concern.
In 1994, Oliver! was revived in London. Fagin was played by many noted British actors and comedians including Jonathan Pryce, George Layton, Jim Dale, Russ Abbot, Barry Humphries – who had played Mr Sowerberry in the original 1960 London production of Oliver! – and Robert Lindsay, who won an Olivier Award for his performance. The different actors playing Fagin were distinguished by their different costumes, especially their coats. Pryce used a patched red and brown coat, while Lindsay used the traditional dark green overcoat seen in the 1968 film version.
In Disney's 1997 live action television production, Fagin is played by Richard Dreyfuss.
In the 2007 BBC television adaptation Fagin is played by Timothy Spall. Contrary to his appearance in the novel, he is beardless and overweight in this version. He is also a more sympathetic character.
In December 2008, Oliver! was revived at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London with Rowan Atkinson playing the character. This role was taken over by Omid Djalili in July 2009. Griff Rhys Jones took over the role from Omid Djalili in December 2009. He was succeeded by Russ Abbot in June 2010.
- Ackroyd, Peter (3 September 1990). Dickens. Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd. pp. 77–78. ISBN 1-85619-000-5.
- Sackville O'Donnell, Judith (2002). The First Fagin: the True Story of Ikey Solomon. Acland. ISBN 0-9585576-2-4.
- Montagu, Euan; Tobias, John J (28 March 1974). The Prince of Fences: Life and Crimes of Ikey Solomons. Vallentine Mitchell & Co Ltd. ISBN 0-85303-174-6.
- Dickens, Charles (22 January 1982). Oliver Twist (A Bantam classic). Bantam USA. ISBN 0-553-21050-5.
- Lebrecht, Norman (29 September 2005). "How racist is Oliver Twist?". La Scena Musicale. Retrieved 2009-02-08.
- Howe, Irving. "Oliver Twist - introduction". Retrieved 2009-10-21.
- Johnson, Edgar (1 January 1952). "Intimations of Mortality". Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 8 February 2009.
- Nunberg, Geoffrey (15 October 2001). The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 126. ISBN 0-618-11603-6.