Sunday, November 4, 2007

Can Dickens be defended?

Charles Dickens was a great, great writer. He is the author of a number of famous works, including Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and Oliver Twist. It is this last work which I would like to comment on. In it, one of the main villains - a master thief and employer of young pickpocketing boys - named Fagin is a Jew. Not only is he a Jew, but he is constantly known as "the Jew" throughout the novel, making it sound extremely antisemitic and giving Jews a bad name.

I adore Dickens. It really bothers me that he seems to have anti-semitic tones in his novels, especially in Oliver Twist, and in searching around for some article in his defense, I only found one trying to defend him but realizing that there isn't that much to defend. He did write a novel, Our Mutual Friend, with a Jewish protagonist instead of villain, but that's about it. Here is the article, though it is on JSTOR so not everyone will be able to get to it, I don't think. Anyway, here it is for you all to read at your own convenience, but I just want to know, how can I adore Dickens if he was such an anti-semite? I feel bad doing it, but I love his work! It's so awful.


haKiruv said...

Maybe he changed his view of Jews later in life or something.

Daniel said...

George Orwell wrote a famous essay on Dickens (called simply Charles Dickens) where he said that, by the standards of the time, Dickens was pretty free of racial and antisemitic prejudice:

"It is true that he takes it for granted (Oliver Twist and Great Expectations) that a receiver of stolen goods will be a Jew, which at the time was probably justified. But the 'Jew joke', endemic in English literature until the rise of Hitler, does not appear in his books, and in Our Mutual Friend he makes a pious though not very convincing attempt to stand up for the Jews."

I'd question the bit about fences being Jews, but I think the rest is true. Compared with some other literature of the period or even later (e.g. The Thirty-Nine Steps, written during World War One, or some of T. S. Eliot's poetry), Dickens is pretty tame.

Madd Hatter said...

I know they wrote at very different times, but Shakespeare in Merchant of Venice is guilty of exactly the same thing. The thing is, with authors, you have to take into consideration the context within which they are writing. at the time, ant-semitism was the prevailing attitude whether or not you actually knew any jews. It's like being upset at all the early American writers because they were racist.