Fagin, Bigotry, and “Cancel Culture”

Avi Woolf

3rd class Elder of Zion. Wilderness conservative/traditionalist. Buckley Club alum. Chief editor of @conpathways.

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27 Responses

  1. Curious what you think of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. I’ve often thought that was also anti-semitic, which would make sense given that Jews were banned from England at one point.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      Shylock is interesting because you can play the Merchant of Venice as a comedy or a tragedy. When Merchant of Venice is played as a comedy like Shakespeare intended, Shylock comes across as horrible because he is supposed to be the villain of the piece. Shakespeare was a very clever writer, so he didn’t totally demonize Shylock though. This made it possible for more modern productions to present Merchant of Venice as a tragedy with Shylock as the tragic lead.Report

    • Not just at one point — during all of Shakespeare’s life. He most likely never met a single Jew.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Man, I was hoping to read Oliver Twist next week!

    I’ve actually never read the original version of Oliver Twist. My knowledge of the story comes from the 1968 version of the Musical (and, then, after that, on the various children’s versions of the book that I had access to… I remember a square one with paper so low quality that you were more likely to get a splinter than a paper cut… it had illustrations opposite every page).

    Fagin’s Jewishness was not particularly obvious to me at all in the various expurgated versions I had access to.

    And now, when I go back and listen to “Reviewing The Situation”, holy cow.


    It’s right there. In the tune. I didn’t catch it when I was young.

    When I was a kid, he was a scoundrel with a heart of gold who had some serious class envy and was using his tools to address inequality.

    All of the versions that I had access to as a kid, softened the heck out of the character.Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s not hard to do because Fagan being Jewish is utterly tangential to the core plot and premise of Oliver Twist. You could make him WASP, East Indian Immigrant or Polynesian and it wouldn’t really change anything. Fagan’s portrayal says terrible things about Charles Dickens but it doesn’t really impact the mertis of Oliver itself.Report

      • CJColucci in reply to North says:

        I read Oliver Twist only recently, though I had seen the musical. I was singing Reviewing the Situation (actually a parody to the tune) in a musical comedy and, knowing that there was a Fagin issue, I asked several Jewish fellow cast members whether my portrayal was Too Jewish (hat tip to Harvey Korman). I was assured it was not, and the song was, if I must say so myself, a hit.
        The experience prompted me to read the book. I knew that Dickens knew a great deal about the London underworld, and had heard that there was a well-known Fagin-like criminal who was Jewish.
        Obviously, if you write a novel about the Mafia, it will necessarily include a bunch of Italian criminals, and rightly so. That’s who’s in the Mafia. Irish cops will likely refer to them as “Wops” and “Dagoes,” and rightly so. That’s what they do. That’s just verisimilitude. So I was prepared for Fagin being a Jew, as a simple biographical matter, and for various bad or ignorant folks to employ anti-Semitic language.
        What startled me was how unrelated to anything in the story Fagin’s Jewishness was — unlike, say, Merchant of Venice — and how often he was being called “the Jew” not by anti-Semitic characters, but by Dickens himself, as narrator. Imagine Mario Puzo, as narrator, calling Don Corleone or Michael “the Wop” frequently.Report

        • North in reply to CJColucci says:

          Yes, exactly, I am no expert on Oliver Twist or Dickens in general but that was the same gist I had gotten from it. Thank you for adding so much first person experience to the matter.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to CJColucci says:

          I have never read Twist, so this was my question – was the fact that he was Jewish intrinsically tied to his negative portrayal, or merely incidental?

          A lot of times I think critics screw this up, where they decide that an author is writing an antagonist who is bad because of a given trait, rather than said trait merely being incidental to the badness (and present because it allows the author to play with a trope or stereotype in some manner).Report

          • CJColucci in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            That’s a hard one. There doesn’t seem to be anything about Fagin’s Jewishness that is relevant either to the plot or to his evil character. In that sense, his being Jewish can be seen as incidental. He had to be something, and there may have been a Jewish real-life model. But if that were all there were to it, like mafiosi being Italian or Irish cops throwing around anti-Italian ethnic slurs, then what you would expect is that references to his Jewishness would either be early straight exposition of a biographical fact, or slurs coming from people who would be expected to talk like that. Instead, where most authors would say “Fagin” when speaking as the narrator, Dickens frequently refers to Fagin as “the Jew” in contexts where his Jewishness isn’t relevant. (The novel was published serially, and he did this frequently in the early sections, but stopped in the later installments after a protest that he seems to have taken to heart.)Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to CJColucci says:

              So it was less that Fagin was ‘bad’ because he was Jewish, and more that Dickens couldn’t stop letting his bigotry bleed through his prose (until he got enough complaints).

              Or to put it another way, if we removed all the incidents of the narrator calling Fagin ‘The Jew’, and other such bits, so that the author’s bigotry was suppressed, without otherwise altering the character, it would be less of an issue?Report

              • CJColucci in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Very likely. Fagin would then be a loathsome character who merely happened to be a Jew. And if called on it for that fact alone, Dickens’s response, that he had no desire to offend Jews and had simply modeled Fagin on real-life models who happened to be Jews, would have been more persuasive.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to CJColucci says:

                That makes sense. Thank you.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

      The musical version of Oliver Twist definitely downplayed Fagin’s evilness compared to other adaptations and the original novel. While still a pretty bad character, he manages to live at the end and is presented as less monstrous than Sykes. The musical Fagin is more of a charming rogue than anything else.Report

  3. Pinky says:

    I think the question is whether the bad opinion can be separated from the value of the work. In a work of non-fiction, the question is whether the bigoted position is essential to, coexisting with, or contrary to the central framework. In a work of fiction, the issue is more personal, whether I can enjoy the work while acknowledging a problematic aspect. Although, to be fair, the dividing line isn’t always so clear. I’ve read some 19th century Russian stuff, and partly that’s for enjoyment, but I’m also learning about the era, and encountering the authors’ ideas. There wasn’t a lot of love for the Jews (or Germans, or Catholics, or Turks) in those works. I’ve never been so offended by them that I stopped reading, but those passages do affect my assessment of the author.Report

  4. Doctor Jay says:

    Yeah, the “trigger warning” can feel a lot like a scarlet letter, a badge of shame. You have done something that might cause trauma to someone.

    At the same time, people who are triggered suffer a lot, and it would be nice to mitigate that suffering. Apparently residential care units have to deal with issues such as one patient who has severe issues with Halloween decorations – they trigger them. (I have heard stories). The staff of such institutions don’t have a good answer, they have to muddle through case-by-case.

    And I don’t have a good answer either. I am fine with giving people some idea of what sorts of things they might run into during a class or a book, or whatever. And at the same time, putting trigger warnings on some stuff and not on others seems like it makes a statement that there are some humans that aren’t a problem, and I don’t really believe or accept that.Report

  5. Such a good piece! Thank you for sharing it with us!Report

  6. pillsy says:

    Good piece, Avi.

    I this the key point for me:

    It’s at this hard point where I understand the people of “cancel culture” the most – but it is nevertheless here that I also most strongly reaffirm my opposition to the same. I don’t want Oliver Twist taken off the shelves in libraries or in classrooms. I don’t even want trigger warnings put on the front cover (though responsible teachers should be prepared to discuss Fagin in a healthy and critical manner). I say all this despite having no interest in whitewashing just how loathsome Dickens’ literary act really was.

    I think we’re far more likely to have a culture where people keep books like Oliver Twist on their shelves if we acknowledge that some things can be worthwhile despite having genuinely offensive content.

    Meanwhile, we in the present (or at least the “woke” among us) are the Chosen Ones, the Enlightened Ones, the ones leaving that awful past behind towards a glorious future. Trigger warnings are a declaration of the same, a quasi-religious talisman against the sins of a (then pagan, now unenlightened) past.

    Here though, I think I dissent in part. I dislike the term “trigger warnings” because “triggering” is a specific thing that doesn’t map cleanly to “being offended by a character like Fagin”. But.

    We do have one undeniable advantage over our ancestors here, not because we’re better people or smarter people, but just because we know much more about how we live than they possibly could. I don’t know what we should necessarily do with that information, but knowing it and acting on it isn’t narcissism.

    Just time.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to pillsy says:

      In my youth, I thought that Bowdler was one of the most comic figures in history. Like, if you wanted to come up with a more absurd villain in a comic play, the guy who re-writes Shakespeare to take out all of the naughty bits would be totally near the top.

      And then I find out, today, that Fagin, in the original, was a horrible anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish villain and that the reason that I didn’t know this was because I had only consumed the Bowdlerized versions of the story.

      And, get this, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been happier continuing with my imperfect knowledge.

      Like… would we (as a society!) be better off with a less Jewy Fagin in Oliver Twist? Would future generations be better off for Fagin only being referred to as Jewish once or twice… have it be something incidental to his character rather than central? (Like, to the point where it’d be easy to miss.)Report

      • pillsy in reply to Jaybird says:

        Yeah I don’t actually know.

        And sometimes I think people shy away from the question because answer it seems to require a lot of reckoning with things on a case by case basis, maybe making yourself vulnerable to some notional (or even not-so-notional) Other Side in the Culture Wars, and maybe reckoning with what it actually means to have a culture, who that culture is for, and how we should make decisions about it.Report

  7. LeeEsq says:

    What is “cancel culture”? This is the first time I’m hearing the term.Report

    • North in reply to LeeEsq says:

      If you drive far enough into the fringe lunacy of the left you’ll find idiots who want to excise works like Oliver Twist from culture and educational curriculum because of Fagan and similar tendencies. Even more idiotically the same suspects go after Huckleberry Finn for the temerity of a white author using the N word even though Twain’s portrayal of Jim is enormously sympathetic. They also tend to peddle such idiocy as removing historical authors and philosophers because western culture is so “old white man” centered. As I understand it that’s cancel culture; ugh, and I feel slightly dumber for having even dwelled on it for a moment.Report

  8. Murali says:

    On reading great figures of the past, we need to remember two points:
    1. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
    2.Those giants were, by and large, cockeyed.Report

  9. George Turner says:

    Peaky Blinders had Tom Hardy playing the head of a 1920’s Jewish gang (mobsters) based in London, sometimes rivals and sometimes allies of the Peaky Blinders. I wasn’t aware that there’d ever been such a thing.

    I never read Oliver Twist, or even any version of it. I had enough with Tiny Tim and the ghost of Christmas whatever.Report

  10. Have you ever read The Great Gatsby? Meyer Wolfsheim (the man who fixed the 1919 World Series) is pretty loathsome as well, in stereotypically “Jewish” ways.Report

    • CJColucci in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Indeed, he is, but he is based on Arnold Rothstein, a real, loathsome, but colorful Jew. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fitzgerald weren’t at least a casual anti-Semite — that would have been the safe bet regarding any Christian of his generation if you had no other information to go on — but the loathsome Wolfsheim doesn’t tell us much about that.Report