Condensed from Wikipedia…
Fagin is a fictional character in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, referred to in the preface as a “receiver of stolen goods”, but referred to more frequently within the actual story as the “merry old gentleman” or simply the “Jew”.
Whilst portrayed as relatively humorous, he is nonetheless a self-confessed miser who, despite the amount 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, 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, albeit when talking to himself, that he cares less about those children who are eventually hanged for their crimes and more about the fact that they do not “peach” 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, and 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 and intently 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 him, loving him despite his violent personality. This results in Sikes beating her to death. Near the end of the book, Fagin is hanged following capture, in a chapter that portrays him as being 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.
Fagin is noted for being one of the few Jewish characters of 19th century English literature, let alone any of Dickens’s pieces. 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 claimed that he had made Fagin Jewish because “it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that that 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.”