The (Oliver) Twist

I finished reading Oliver Twist for the first time over a week ago *tick another book off of the guilt list* and I still can’t get it out of my mind. In Oliver Twist  Dickens passes social commentary on the ill-treatment of orphans and the poor through the casting of Oliver as a virtually perfect child, breaking stereotypes of greed and ingratitude in impoverished, orphaned children. Yet it is Fagin, the avaricious, villainous, old master of thieves and pickpockets who pushes his way to the forefront of the narrative and takes on a depth that far outstrips many of the other primary characters. Though a much darker character, Fagin, I think, is a more effective vehicle for Dickens’ purpose in writing the novel. Oliver and his story are boring and predictable. He is a young boy who grows up without the love or kindness of anybody but still maintains an unwavering devotion to morality and righteousness. Oliver, the perfect example of innocence and piety, meets with conveniently wealthy and equally good-hearted benefactors. The orphan’s story was always going to have a happy and affluent ending, though that outcome had little to do with Oliver’s own efforts.

Fagin, on the other hand, is a much more engaging, believable character. He is villainous, but also softens to Oliver. He warns Oliver to beware Sikes’s temper and refuses to allow the Dodger to disturb the boy’s sleep when he reflects an almost angelic peace. We get a sense that Fagin is powerful but does not boast this power, maintaining a mastery of self that is impressive to witness. Yet twice in the novel, the old man is completely overcome by his emotions. Though Fagin is a good deal less burdened by his conscious than most of Dickens’ readers (hopefully) are, these moments of softness and imperfect control allow us to relate to the thief’s humanity on a basic level. In comparison to Fagin, Oliver’s perfection makes him a difficult character to relate to or accept as realistic. From Dickens’ initial introduction of Fagin as “…a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair” readers get a sense that Fagin has always been a criminal. However, Dickens never elaborates on Fagin’s history—one of the few main characters whose past is not revealed by the author. With more information available, the character of Fagin might have served as a foil to Oliver, if he has faced a similar situation in his youth: abandoned to the mercy of the parish and brought up unloved and distrusted. Where Oliver held on to his innocence and morality in the face of cruelty and misjudgment, perhaps Fagin began to believe and embrace the opinions of his reluctant caretakers. Raised on a diet of disgust and hatred, constantly told he is ungrateful and greedy, Fagin became exactly that. By using such an enigmatic and striking character as Fagin to illustrate the more likely outcome of a Victorian Era orphan’s upbringing, Dickens might have driven home that the cruelties such children face result more often in villains like Fagin than do-gooders like Oliver.

Timothy Spall as Fagin in the 2007 BBC production of Oliver Twist, courtesy of IMDB.
Timothy Spall as Fagin in the 2007 BBC production of Oliver Twist, courtesy of IMDB.

Though the author clearly had a purpose in keeping the thief’s past a mystery, it does seem that he dismissed an opportunity to drive a twofold message of injustice home: the cruelty with which general society greets the helpless poor both harms the innocent and creates the guilty. However, by leaving Fagin’s past a mystery, Dickens allows the old man to assume any history the reader can suppose, from the simple young orphan I posited to a gentleman’s son gone rotten with his spoils and anything in between. It is possible that Dickens leaves the character largely undefined so that he may represent whatever the reader needs him to. In any case, I look forward to revisiting this novel to see if  my perspective may have changed—and if that changes Fagin.

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