Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I’m currently reading Oliver Twist. At least, I’m trying very hard to read Oliver Twist.
I actually already know the entirety of the story fairly well, having read and reread the condensed illustrated classics edition when I was younger, as well as seeing several scenes from the 1968 musical (I have yet to see Roman Polanski’s 2005 film adaptation, although I have heard very good things about it). But this is my first time reading the original Dickensian prose.
And I’ll say that I enjoy Dickens’ dry wit, his bemused collegiate phrasing that he employs even when he’s making points about the way society has failed its poorest citizens. And he has an excellent sense of pacing and character.
But oh my God, I can’t handle Fagin.
Now I was aware, beforehand, that Fagin was considered something of an insulting caricature of a Jew; that he was rivaled only by Shylock in classical literature as a problematic stereotype. But I had no idea how bad it truly was.
Understand, I’m not somebody who gets immediately sensitive about portrayals of minorities as unsavory people and criminals. The fact that Fagin was a loathsome criminal, possibly even a pederast, as well as a Jew, was not something that made me wary. There are in fact Jewish criminals. There are in fact Jewish pederasts. Taking umbrage at Fagin purely on those grounds is childish. I tried, very hard, to give Dickens the benefit of the doubt.
Alas, it can’t be done. The character is interesting and complex in his motivations and interactions but is also an obscenity of ethnic prejudices. I don’t know how much more often I can read variants of the phrase “the repulsive Jew” before I stop trying to read it altogether. I would not be surprised, at this point, to come across a chapter entitled–in Dickens’ typical style–“Oliver discovers the Jew drinking blood, and watches him butchering boys for their manhoods”.
I understand that these things are often a sign of the times, but I don’t know how I can finish this otherwise compelling narrative when every few pages I have to deal with the issue of Dickens’ bigotry. At least it’s harder to hear in Wagner, you know?
Coda: After writing this entry, in a fit of pique, I did some research on Dickens and Fagin. I discovered that later in life his wife convinced him that he had been incredibly unfair to Jews in general. As a result, Dickens made one of his last written characters an extremely noble and virtuous Jew, and actually went back and revised the last twenty chapters of Oliver Twist to remove the references. (Not sure why he didn’t do the whole book, but points for effort.)
I did continue reading it anyway. It’s still offensive, but the plot itself hooks you. Dickens was a master at keeping you wanting more; if he’d lived to the time of serial television he would have likely created a Lost-size hit.