The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
We cannot take against Charley and the Artful Dodger because they are not vindictive, like Noah and Sikes, and are unaware that their way of life is immoral, unlike Fagin. To them it is merely against the law, and the law is an abstract concept whose ways are too confusing and hypocritical for them to fathom. Here we encounter a dichotomy; surely we should pity all of the poor children in the novel, and not just those singled out by Dickens for sympathy. Noah is a coward and a bully, but his background is just as miserable and deprived as Oliver's. However, he is held up first for our hatred and then for our amused contempt- but never our compassion. He has 'an ugly face' and fits squarely into Dickens' immense gallery of comic grotesques, despite his absolute lack of experience of moral rectitude through example. By extension, is it not fair to assume that Sikes, too, endured a miserable childhood? At what age did he lose our sympathy? Two? Three? Ten? Not everyone is as lucky as Oliver is in possessing instinctively perfect morals. The Artful Dodger does not enjoy the approbation of society and is transported because of that - not because he is incurably wicked.
It is ironic in a work so concerned with demonstrating the gulf between 'good' and 'bad' that every single charismatic or endearing character falls on the 'bad' side. It seems fitting, then, that the character for whom we are urged to reserve our utmost contempt is also the most fascinating, complex and carefully drawn: Fagin. Rendered demonic through carefully structured imagery, anti-Semitism and Cruickshanks's vivid drawings, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Fagin does not in fact commit any truly serious crime. Instead, he is meant to be a symbol of evil just as Oliver is of goodness. In fact, an argument can be made in his favour: he provides Oliver with his first experience of a warm community-based life, and for all that he is a fence always 'looking after number one', he seems genuinely fond of the boys under his dubious care. He feeds and houses them, albeit squalidly, and they seem perfectly content with the arrangement, greeting a joke of his 'with a boisterous shout', for example. At another juncture Charley spontaneously remarks '"What fun it is!"' and we are told of 'many uncontrollable bursts of laughter' in the thieves' den. Fagin is even moved at one point by Oliver's radiant pathos: 'the boy was lying, fast asleep... pale with anxiety and sadness... "Not now", said the Jew, turning softly away. "Tomorrow. Tomorrow."' In his condemned cell he is reduced to gibbering about the boys- '"Good boy, Charley- well done... "' he mutters, implying an affection for them that transcends their worth to him as thieves. Dickens, however, chooses alternately to demonise and animalise him.
When we first encounter Fagin he is wielding a toasting fork in front of a fire, instantly establishing a connection with the devil. Indeed, later we are told that Fagin looks 'perfectly demoniacal', and he is called the 'merry old gentleman', a euphemism for the devil. His unnerving habit of calling everyone 'my dear' and his extreme self-control create a sense of supernatural menace that reaches its apotheosis when he not only finds Oliver in his rural idyll but also apparently vanishes into thin air when observed- 'there were not even the traces of recent footsteps to be seen'. His furtive movements are like those of various animals. On a nocturnal foray he is 'like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal'. He is 'not at all bewildered, either by the darkness of the night, or the intricacies of the way' whilst prowling around London, itself presented throughout the book as a warren in which he has various burrows. Indeed, an interesting comparison can be made between the interior of Fagin's den and that of Brownlow's study. Here we can discern the simple moral difference perceived unquestioningly by Dickens between the two poles in his novel, irrespective of the differing hands fortune has dealt them.
Physically Fagin is barely human: 'he looked less like a man, than like some hideous phantom... he bit his long black nails, [disclosing] among his toothless gums a few such fangs as should have been a dog's or rat's'. His long nose places him squarely into the shameful gallery of Victorian Jewish stereotypes, and at the time of publication there was outcry from Jewish groups at such crass cliché. It should never be overlooked how closely allied are physical and moral attributes in Dickens' work. It is odd, then, that when Fagin is finally caged he is so pathetic and pitiable. In his cell his countenance is 'more like that of a snared beast than the face of a man', and when Oliver and Brownlow visit, the gaoler is moved to ask him in wonderment '"Fagin! Fagin! Are you a man?"' The ensuing dialogue absolutely confounds the moral order that Dickens so wants to believe in. As Fagin insensibly (and quite pertinently) cries '"What right have they to butcher me?"' his priggish visitors exhort him to pray. As Oliver exclaims '"Oh! God
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