OLIVER TWIST was to have controversy as well as success following it after Dickens published it in 1837. His picture of life in the urban ghettos was something shocking and new, and his making the central figures of the novel include criminals was another innovation.
One day he was walking in London and passed a young woman he had been friendly with. He said hello, but she was rather stiff with him. He could not understand this. A few days later they met again, and he asked what he had done to upset her. "Well, if you must know, I did not like your last novel.", she said. "Really, everyone else thinks highly of it." He was puzzled: "What's wrong with it?" "Oh, Charles," she said, "I'm Jewish. How could you make up such a character like Fagin?!" He had not expected this: "Well...you know that trial last year of Ikey Solomon, the thief trainer. He's a model for Fagin and he was Jewish."
Dickens found that did not settle things. "Yes," she replied, "He got what he deserved. But Charles, they did not call him "Solomon the Jew" like you call Fagin "the Jew"! Moreover, Solomon did not plan a murder. Fagin does." Dickens had to admit that he might have gotten carried away. He left thinking about what she said.
Oliver Twist was published in several editions. Dickens tried to improve on Fagin a bit. Then he got an idea. He reworked the chapter called "Fagin's Last Night Alive", showing the fears in the man as he faced hanging. He also added some additional details.
He let his female friend know about his resolve to change Fagin. A day or so later he met her at a friend's house. She looked at him as though he was crazy. "Didn't you like the changes?", he asked. "Charles, what changes - he's still a vile villain called "the Jew"!", she replied. "Yes, I did keep those in, but didn't you see how frightened he was in the death cell in prison." The young woman had noticed this, but felt that he was so vile he deserved to be suffering such fears. "Ah...then I was right about that...and did you see the little details I added?", he asked. "What details?", she replied. "When you first see Fagin now he is cooking himself dinner...you read that?", Dickens looked at her expecting a sign of recognition. Instead the lady looked confused. "I read he was at the fireplace, but I must have skimmed the passage." Dickens smiled as though he was brilliant, "He is cooking a pork sausage for his dinner." "A what!"she exclaimed. "He's eating pork, my dear...see - he's not a good Jew!" His friend looked at him, shook her head, and to his dismay left their friend's house. She didn't speak to him for years.
Dickens never totally shook off his own bigotries, but the situation did lead to a partial attempt at amends in his last completed novel. In OUR MUTUAL FRIEND (1865) he has a minor character, Mr. Riah, who is used by an unscrupulous landlord to collect high rents from poor tenants. The landlord figures that Mr. Riah will be blamed because he is Jewish.
But Mr. Riah is a good man. He is a very good man. He is a very, very, very, very good man - so good as to be unbelievable. If Fagin saw Mr. Riah in action he'd probably chase him away with a stick.
The anti-Semitic image of Fagin lingers to this day. It is a measure of Dickens' genius as a writer that the novel overcomes it. However, in presenting the story on film it still causes problems for screenplay writers and directors: how, after the Holocaust, can one do a film treatment of a worthy novel without inflaming bigotry? David Lean showed how by having Alec Guiness appear in one or two scenes showing a human side and in confronting a mob at the end with true dignity. Sir Carol Reed, in his musical version of the novel did it better yet, due to a rewrite in the original musical's script.
OLIVER had been made into a West End musical hit in the middle 1960s, and then taken to Broadway where it was again a hit. With a wonderful score by Lionel Bart, including "Food Glorious Food", "I Am Reviewing the Situation", "Consider Yourself", "Boy For Sale", "Who Will Buy", "As Long As He Needs Me", it deserved it's success. Reed did well in his casting the roles, including his nephew Oliver Reed as Sykes, Ron Moody as Fagin, Mark Lester as Oliver, Jack Wild as the Dodger, Shani Wallis as Nancy, and Harry Secombe as Mr. Bumble. There had been no big musical successes in Hollywood for a decade - the last musical to win the Best Picture Oscar had been GIGI in 1958. OLIVER won it in 1968.
And Fagin - how to handle the eternal problem of the caricature? Well in the musical Fagin is not captured, tried and executed for the murder that is committed. After all, even Lean showed Fagin tried to control his confederate in his actions. But here Fagin realizes that he is getting too old to depend on this kind of chancy life. Although he loses his treasures (those stolen items he kept because he knew their value, and admired their beauty), he decides he can reform. He is allowed to do so, accompanied by his faithful acolyte, the Artful Dodger. I don't think Dickens would have appreciated the change (his female friend might have), but a modern audience certainly accepts it as fitting.
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