The depiction of Fagin in Dickens‘s novel and Polanski‘s screen adaptation of "Oliver Twist"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The depiction of Charles Dickens‘s Fagin
2.1 Appearance, language and behaviour
2.2 Fagin and the conflict of gender roles
2.3 Fagin as a Jew - Race and prejudices
2.4 Fagin as a threat to the Anglo-Christian Victorian family values

3. Polanski‘s screen adaptation of Oliver Twist
3.1 Polanski‘s and Kingsley‘s interpretation of Fagin
3.2 Differences and similarities between the film and the novel
3.2.1 Similarities
3.2.2 Differences

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Primary texts
5.2 Secondary texts

1. Introduction

“Who is Fagin?“ is not only a question one might come across when reading Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or watching one of its screen adaptations. In fact, this question has so far concerned different literary critics all approaching various aspects from his role as the „Jew“ (Paganoni, Steyn, Morse), over the question whether he is actually villainous or not, to debates concerning gender issues (Foley) and therefore asking if he fulfils either a maternal or paternal role for the children of his gang. Without a doubt there is probably no other character in Charles Dickens‘s novel that offers so many points of critique and or possible interpretations. Although the main plot of the story is about Oliver Twist, it is Fagin who‘s depiction in the novel and later on screen adaptations gets most of the attention by reviews and discussions. Consequently in my term paper I will mainly deal with Fagin in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and will focus on the way Fagin is depicted. Before going into detail on several very distinctive issues, I will analyse his behaviour, language and appearance in general throughout the novel. One of those distinctive issues is his special role for the children as he could be regarded not only as a villain figure but to a certain extent also as some caring paternal or maternal figure. Moreover the question about Fagin‘s depiction as the Jew will be taken care of in a very detailed way since this had been a extremely polarising issue throughout the ages.

Since several of those aspect also come up in Ben Kingsley’s interpretation of his role as Fagin in Roman Polanski’s film version of the novel, I will also analyse whether Polanski’s Fagin is a ‘realistic’ adaptation of the character Dickens portrays in his novel or whether Polanski and Kingsley create their own Fagin and to what extent Polanski‘s adaptation shows similarities with and differences to the novel. Nevertheless I will mainly focus on Dickens’s Fagin and his importance for the story of Oliver.

2. The depiction of Charles Dickens‘s Fagin

2.1 Appearance, language and behaviour

When it comes to analysing Fagin‘s depiction in Charles Dickens‘s novel Oliver Twist, one has to take a “superficial“ look at some features which might appear to be very evident and not very exceptional, but also have to be taken into account, when forming an opinion about the depiction of Fagin.

The moment Fagin is introduced to the reader, Oliver is introduced to him by one of his boys, Dodger. From the first moment, Fagin somehow appears to be strange or misplaced in a way. His „greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare [...]“ and the way he bows to Oliver in a very humble way, do not want to fit his “villanous-looking and repulsive face [...]“ (Dickens 65). For the moment, Fagin goes on with his very accommodating behaviour towards Oliver, telling him to be “very glad to see [...] Oliver [...]“, also providing him with food (66). However, the very next moment, Fagin more or less forced Oliver to drink a glass of hot gin, which does not really match the caring behaviour a few moments earlier. The next Fagin is talking to himself a lot, while admiring his very own and precious treasure. In how far this behaviour can be regarded as feminine or not, will be discussed in detail later on (2.2). Again his talking to himself shifts from a very caring and probably proud tone to a firstly shocking statement, when he explains “[w]hat a fine thing capital punishment is!“ to ensure his own safety (Dickens 67). However, even more shocking is Fagin‘s reaction on recognising that he has been watched by Oliver. Not only does he close his box in a fury, but also threatens Oliver with a knife, asking him what he has seen (Dickens 67-68). Yet again, Fagin‘s behaviour and the way he talks to Oliver change in an instance, when he figures out that Oliver has not watched him as long as he supposed. Therefore he reassures the boy with the words “Tush, tush, my dear! [...] I only tried to frighten you. You‘re a brave boy“ (68). Still Fagin is “[...] turning rather pale [...]“ when being told that Oliver at least saw all his pieces of jewellery (68). With regard to Fagin‘s language, it is easy to notice from the beginning onwards, that he, unlike most of the other “underworld“ character like Sikes “Wot‘s it all about, Fagin? D- me, if my neckankercher an‘t lined with beer!“ (89) , Nancy or Dodger “Come, let go o‘ me, will you!“ (89), does not use slang, but mostly seems to be very aware of the way he expresses himself. Another scene which reveals Fagin ambiguous manner, is after Oliver gets caught by the police. “Where‘s Oliver?“ [...] asks “the furious [...] Fagin, “[...] rising with a menacing look“ (89), before he goes on threatening Charley Bates and Dodger with force to tell him where the boy is. On the one hand this reaction does not fit the kind, pleasant and sympathetic behaviour he showed on his first appearance and on the other hand one feels puzzled whether Fagin worries about Oliver‘s condition or if he fears Oliver “to play booty“ (67). Typically for him, his behaviour changes within a second and he tries to calm down Bill Sikes nearly the same way he set Oliver at ease again (90). Although Fagin now is aware “that [...] [Oliver] may say something which will get [...] [them] into trouble [...]“ he then stays remarkably calm and tells Sikes that it is him who gets most of the trouble if the boy starts talking (91). From that moment on, one knows who Fagin‘s concerns really are meant for: his very own fate. This is also emphasised by Fagin‘s efforts to find out where Oliver has been brought to (94-95). After the reader gets to know the true reason why Fagin is worried about the boy, he once again “[...] mock[s] humility [...]“ towards Oliver by telling him how “[d]elighted“ he is to see him “looking so well [...]“ (111). In spite of this “warm“ welcoming, it does not take him long to show once again what his real interests are about, when he starts to argue with Sikes about the money and the books (113). The moment Oliver tries to run away, Fagin even beats him with a club and only gets stopped doing so by the intervention of Nancy (115). From there on, Fagin does not try to conceal his real character by the mask of feigned kindness, but intimidates Oliver by telling him a story about a “young lad“ who “[...] had unfortunately come to be hanged at the Old Bailey one morning [...]“ after he had talked to the police (125). By doing so, Fagin wants to remind Oliver to show gratitude for having been taken and in by Fagin. Since the novel actually is about Oliver, it is mostly appropriate to analyse the depiction of Fagin by his interaction with Oliver. Though there are also passages within the novel where his depiction shifts from the the one when talking to Oliver. Especially when talking to Sikes, Fagin is presented differently. As they are somehow “business partners“, they more or less have to work together. It is noticeable, that in this relationship Fagin is depicted as “the mind“ whereas Sikes has to do the dirty work. Unlike the boys, Sikes is clearly superior to Fagin with regard to his physical strength and therefore Fagin does not try to frighten him, but often has to calm down Sikes fiery temperament (131-138). The way Fagin is depicted within the rest of the novel, follows the already explained scheme. Every time Fagin wants Oliver to do something for him, or simply needs his duties, he is very kind to the boy (139) and after Oliver got lost again, he is worried about his own life (171; 179). On that account it is advisable to skip some pages and to go directly to chapter 52, which is called “Thew Jew‘s last night alive“. In this scene Fagin depiction is completely different to the image the reader gets for the rest of the novel. Firstly, in court, Fagin is described as a very passive character who moves “mechanically“ and is so deeply lost in his thoughts about the gallows that he hardly detects anything around him (531-352). Moreover his appearance shows his bleak and wretched state, while he seams to be a living ghost, only thinking about his hanging (352). “His red hair hung upon his bloodless face; his beard was torn, and twisted into knots; his eyes shone with a terrible light; his unwashed flesh, crackled with the fever that burnt him up [...]“ (354-355) are the words Dickens contradicts to the introduction of Fagin, where is appearance seems weird but vital, his behaviour ambiguous but emotionally moving, his language eloquent and persuasive to draw a picture of a fallen man. Finally Fagin regains energy and his spirit lifts a little because Oliver came to visit him. He is only willing to tell Oliver where Monk‘s papers are hidden and also seems to draw fresh hope from Oliver‘s appearance. “Say I‘ve gone to sleep-they‘ll believe you. You can get me out, if you take me so [...]“ (356) is Fagin‘s very last effort in escaping the death penalty, before he lapses back into his absent minded state of madness.

2.2 Fagin and the conflict of gender roles

Trying to find out who Fagin really is or at least which role he plays most convincingly, one have to take a closer look at some of his maternal attributes. On the surface this approach might appear surprising at first sight when thinking about the stereotypical gender roles that had been predominantly during the time of Dickens‘s productive years, arguing that men and women are created different and thus should fulfil their respective roles.


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The depiction of Fagin in Dickens‘s novel and Polanski‘s screen adaptation of "Oliver Twist"
Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg
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fagin, dickens‘s, polanski‘s, oliver, twist
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Fabian Zschiesche (Author), 2012, The depiction of Fagin in Dickens‘s novel and Polanski‘s screen adaptation of "Oliver Twist", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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