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Charles Dickens

(1812-1870)


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DICKENS, CHARLES° (1812–1870), English novelist. One of his first full-length novels, Oliver Twist (1837–38), devoted to the evils of the poor-law system, introduces a Jewish villain, Fagin, a corrupter of youth and receiver of stolen goods. With Shakespeare's Shylock, Fagin is unquestionably the best-known Jewish figure depicted in the traditional canon of English literature. The young hero, Oliver, falls into Fagin's clutches but is saved from corruption by his own native innocence and by some good-hearted friends. Fagin, like the burglar Bill Sikes in the same novel, is one of Dickens' characters of monstrous evil, a literary stereotype larger than life. As for his Jewishness, Dickens claimed that "that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew," but Fagin in fact lacks any recognizable Jewish traits. Dickens was challenged about his antisemitic prejudices, and in reply, claimed that he had always felt himself to be a friend of the Jews. As if to prove this, his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864–65), featured Mr. Riah, "the gentle Jew in whose race gratitude is deep." Jews appear in other novels of Dickens, notably Pickwick Papers (1836) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). Dickens' contradictory portrayal of Jews illustrates something of the ambiguity of the Jewish image in Victorian England, and also the deep contradictions in Dickens' own complex character.


Sources:E. Johnson, Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 2 vols. (1953); M.F. Modder, Jew in the Literature of England (1939), 217–36; E. Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali (1960), ch. 5; P. Ackroyd, Charles Dickens (1990); J. Smole, Charles Dickens (2002); ODNB online.

[Harold Harel Fisch]

Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

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