The Portrayal of Jews in Nineteenth-Century English Literature

Fagin as portrayed in a 1948 production
Fagin as portrayed in a 1948 production

Read the following article and then discuss the portrayal of Fagin in Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist:

In nineteenth-century English literature, the most common portrayal of a Jew was a negative racial stereotype. In society, and thus in literature, Jews were often seen in terms of their “otherness”—their difference in appearance, social standing, religion and morality with respect to their non-Jewish counterparts. This is especially true of the fiction of the early nineteenth-century when the ghost of Shakespeare’s greedy, evil Shylock still haunted English literature. However, even when Jews gained political equality in England with the passage of numerous reforms and a rise in realism in fiction caused novelists writing in the mid-1800s to look increasingly to real life rather than to established stereotypes as inspiration for their writing, Jews were (aside from a few more balanced portrayals) still depicted in extreme terms: as completely evil or as impossibly virtuous; as people seeking complete assimilation into English culture or as adamantly separatist; as wealthy politicians and international financiers or as lowly impoverished immigrants. And as interpretations of Jewish life and views regarding the appropriate role of the Jew in English society were set into fiction by both Jewish and non-Jewish novelists, an increasingly racial debate was also waged, both in and out of the realm of fiction, regarding the contributions of Hebraism to English culture.

Fagin in the condemned Cell (Oliver Twist)

Certain non-Jewish novelists are discussed below for their contribution to these trends in the portrayal of Jews in nineteenth-century English literature. Sir Walter Scott produced the first novel-length treatment of Jewish characters in Ivanhoe (1819). As Harold Fisch (1971) notes, Scott (who depicted the Jew in medieval society) defended the Jews by attacking some of the nineteenth-century prejudices against Jews and by attributing negative aspects of “Jewish character” to Christian oppression. But Scott also devoted much attention to the negative qualities of the Jew, Isaac of York, and made Isaac’s daughter, Rebecca, the heroine of the story, represented as the height of beauty. Other non-Jewish writers treated Jews in similarly extreme terms. Some novelists, such as Amelia Bristow in Sophia de Lissau (1828), used their work as a platform to advocate the conversion of Jews to Christianity. But others, such as George Du Maurier in Trilby (1894) with the evil Jew Svengali, gave a portrayal of the Jew as wholly despicable that remained popular throughout the nineteenth-century. Charles Dickens produced one of the most famous examples of the stereotypical “evil Jew”—the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838). Certain novelists attempted in later novels to “atone” for a negative portrayal of Jews in earlier novels. For example, Dickens portrayed the Jewish character Riah in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) as a paragon of virtue compared to his earlier character Fagin. Similarly, Maria Edgeworth depicted the Jewish heroine in Harrington (1817) much more favorably than a Jewish character from her 1812 novel The Absentee (although, it has been pointed out that Harrington’s Jewish heroine also converts to Christianity). Against the backdrop of so many flawed portraits, George Eliot provided a portrait of the Jew in her novel Daniel Deronda (1876) that stands out as at least an honest effort at a more accurate portrayal of Judaism. And this portrait has been admired by many (including Jewish readers living at the time of the original publication of Daniel Deronda) for its faithful attempt at capturing the essence of Jewish life. As Rabbi David Philipson (1889) notes, Daniel Deronda can be identified as one of the few legitimate efforts at characterizing the Jew in fiction, in that it portrays the Jew as a follower of his religion rather than in racial terms. Yet the novel has also been criticized for the way in which the Jewish portions of the novel never fully integrate with the rest of its plot.

A recent production with ' Mr Bean' playing Fagin

Nineteenth-century Jewish writers contributed to a more realistic representation of Jews in English literature. Jewish novelist Amy Levy (1886) took issue with Eliot’s work, maintaining that, despite its “sincere and respectful attempt” at depicting the features of Judaism, the novel fails to genuinely reflect contemporary Jewish life. In Levy’s own novel on middle-class Jewish life, Reuben Sachs (1889), Levy makes several direct criticisms of Daniel Deronda, including references to the Zionism of Eliot’s Jewish characters. Levy defended her work as realistic, although some criticized her novel for presenting overly negative portrayals of Jewish life. Certain other British Jews, as Bryan Cheyette (1990) argues, felt compelled to “negotiate” between their cultural heritage and the English national culture. For example, Grace Aguilar, inThe Spirit of Judaism (1842), adopted a form of “Christianized” or “Anglicanized” Judaism, in which she urged the acceptance of Jews and Judaism as an extension of Christian values. As Cheyette contends, other Anglo-Jewish novelists—such as Julia Frankau (Frank Danby), Benjamin Farjeon, and Israel Zangwill—attempted to revise prevalent Jewish stereotypes by making them more “acceptable” to the “majority values of English culture.” However, Farjeon’s novels (Cheyette notes) are similar to those of Benjamin Disraeli in their assumption of Jewish racial superiority. In such works as Coningsby (1844) and Tancred (1847), Disraeli (the Prime Minister of England [1867; 1874-80] who had been raised as a Jew until his father had a falling out with the synagogue and had subsequently been baptized as an adolescent) continually praised the Jewish race. As Rabbi EdwardN. Calisch (1909) notes, Disraeli dubbed the Jewish race “the aristocracy of nature.”

Disraeli was a prime contributor in the argument concerning the cultural ideals of Hebraism and Hellenism. According to Michael Ragussis (1995), Disraeli’s beliefs on the significance of the Jewish race (expounded upon in novels such as Tancred and Lothair [1870]), appear to have influenced the poet Matthew Arnold. Disraeli maintained that English culture was based on Hebraism…

Ninteenth-century novelists of Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds fought, through their work, to make countless political, economic, racial, and religious statements about Jewish life, the “Jewish identity,” and the role of the Jew in English society and culture. Many such arguments and portrayals have been characterized as negative, a few are arguably positive, and most continue to be evaluated in the twentieth-century. Yet students of this period and scholars alike might agree with critic Edgar Rosenberg (1960), who makes the following observation: “the image of the Jew in English literature has been a depressingly uniform and static phenomenon.”


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