Imagining “the Jew”: Dickens’ Romantic Heritage

  • Efraim Sicher


Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is usually read as an expression of the author’s anti-Semitism or, alternatively, as an attempt to create a “representative” Jew,1 while Riah, in Our Mutual Friend, is understood to be Dickens’ attempt to correct the “bad” Jew in the earlier novel. From this perspective, Riah can be viewed as either an expression of contrition and atonement, or a reflection of changed attitudes toward the Jews and their improved socio-economic position in the period between the two novels.2 This chapter attempts to avoid the fallacies of these approaches to the literary text by restoring the context of cultural discourse in nineteenth-century Britain in which the construction of “the jew” bolstered a class-determined ideology and contained response to the horrific conditions among the outcasts of London and other major cities at the height of triumphant capitalism. There were diverse and conflicting descriptions of the Jew, and these variously position “the jew” within racist and misogynist perceptions of the other, the female, the Irish, and the filthy disease-ridden inhabitants of “criminal” dens and promiscuous “sinks of iniquity.” The figure of the Old Clothes Man in particular locates “the jew” within the larger anxieties of contamination of nationhood, class, and domesticity, but it is also associated with the legendary Wandering Jew, whose condemnation to eternal banishment is open to Romantic readings such as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner or Byron’s Cain.


Jewish People Cultural Discourse Romantic Ideal Christian Ideal Comparative Literature Study 
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  1. 1.
    For the post-war debate on Dickens’ anti-Semitism, see: Leslie Fiedler, “What Can We Do About Fagin?” Commentary 7 (1949): 411–18;Google Scholar
  2. Edgar Johnson, “Dickens, Fagin, and Mr. Riah,” Commentary 8 (1950): 47–50; Lauriat Lane, “Oliver Twist: A Revision,” Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 1951, 460. Lane continued the debate with “Dickens’ Archetypal Jew,” P. M. L. A. 73 (1958): 94–100, to which Harry Stone responded in “Dickens and the Jews,” Victorian Studies 2 (1959): 223–53. Montagu Frank Modder takes an empirical approach in The Jew in the Literature of England (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1939; reprint, Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960), 217–36. For a psychological standpoint on anti-Jewish prejudices in Dickens,Google Scholar
  3. see Anne Naman, The Jew in the Victorian Novel (New York: AMS Press, 1980), 57–95.Google Scholar
  4. See also Milton Kerker, “Charles Dickens, Fagin and Riah,” Midstream 45, 8 (December 1999): 33–6; Deborah Heller, “The Outcast as Villain and Victim: Jews in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend,” in Jewish Presences in English Literature, ed. Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 40–60. A methodological discussion can be found in Mark H. Gelber, “Teaching ‘Literary Anti-Semitism’: Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Freytag’s Soll und Haben,” Comparative Literature Studies 16, 1 (1979): 1–11. The following editions will be used for this chapter: Little Dorrit, ed. John Holloway (Harmondsworth: Penguin English Library, 1967); Oliver Twist, ed. Peter Fairclough (Harmondsworth: Penguin English Library, 1966); and Our Mutual Friend, ed. Stephen Gill (Harmondsworth: Penguin English Library, 1971). References to the novels will be indicated parenthetically in the text, with large Roman numerals indicating book, small Roman numerals chapter, and arabic numerals page numbers.Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    David Philipson, The Jew in English Fiction, 5th ed. (New York: Bloch, 1927), 88–106; see Stone also. Jonathan H. Grossman mounts a resistance to the mimetic fallacy in “The Absent Jew in Dickens: Narrators in Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, and A Christmas Carol,” Dickens Studies Annual 24 (1996): 37–57.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    See G. K. Anderson, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1965).Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    See James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996);Google Scholar
  8. and Michael Ragussis, Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” and English National Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  9. 5.
    On the femininity of Fagin and Riah, see Murray Baumgarten, “Seeing Double: Jews in the Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot,” in Between Race and Culture: Representations of “the Jew” in English and American Literature, ed. Bryan Cheyette (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 52–3. On feminization of the Jew’s body,Google Scholar
  10. see Sander Gilman, The Jew’s Body (London: Routledge, 1991).Google Scholar
  11. 6.
    On Romantic constructions of nationhood, see Marlon B. Ross, “Romancing the Nation-State: The Poetics of Romantic Nationalism,” in Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism, ed. Jonathan Arac and Harriet Ritvo (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1991), 56–85.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Steven Marcus, “Who is Fagin?” in his Dickens from Pickwick to Dombey (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965), 358–78.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    John Fisher Murray, The World of London (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1843), 1:255.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See Charles Bosanquet, London: Some Account of its Growth, Charitable Agencies and Wants (London: Hatchard & Co., 1868).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See David Feldman, Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840–1914 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 72–82;Google Scholar
  16. and David S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England, 1485–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). For a survey of Victorian attitudes to race,Google Scholar
  17. see Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge, 1995). On the racialization of “the jew” in a later period,Google Scholar
  18. see Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of “the Jew” in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 22.
    Goldie Morgentaler, in Dickens and Heredity: When Like Begets Like (London: Macmillan Press, and New York: St. Martin’s, 2000), points to the confusion of racial definitions of the Jews as being of ancient Hebrew stock and of mixed Caucasian origins (152–3). 23. See Harold Fisch, The Dual Image: The Figure of the Jew in English and American Literature (London: World Jewish Library, 1971). One thinks of Abigail and Jessica, but also Scott’s Rebecca; her father, like Shylock, stops to think (if only momentarily) of his ducats when his daughter is in danger.Google Scholar

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© Sheila A. Spector 2008

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  • Efraim Sicher

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