Close Analysis: Fagin's Trial

Something strange happens between Fagin's arrest and his trial; Dickens loses control of our response to him. In his preface of 1841 he writes of the 'last fair drop of water at the bottom of the weed-choked well', arguing for the possibility of reform that we should allow all criminals. This approach is emphatically absent where Fagin is concerned. Held to be the devil incarnate up to his arrest, henceforth he seems merely a pathetic criminal, victim of a howling public uninterested in justice, demanding retribution rather than the rehabilitation supposedly central to Dickens' concept of morality. Indeed, Dickens anticipates Fagin's demise earlier by causing him to reflect '"what a fine thing capital punishment is! Dead men... never bring awkward stories to light!"' as if to justify his own subsequent execution. Like Nancy's death, however, Fagin's last, pathetic scenes tug Dickens' genius back into focus and remind us how consummate he is when not on sentimental or moral autopilot.

Fagin's trial and detention prior to execution are rendered in, vivid, voyeuristic and beautifully observed detail by Dickens, who is always at the height of his powers when describing low-lives at their lowest. His literary apprenticeship as a court reporter is brought acutely to bear as we are given numerous minutely human insights into the appalling fate of a man who hitherto has only been animalised. 'The court was paved', we are told, 'from floor to roof, with human faces'. Immediately a sense of Fagin's smallness is established; he is merely live entertainment for the bloodthirsty. Described merely as 'the Jew', his identity is stripped away to the barest reference to his race. We are told that 'he seemed to stand surrounded by a firmament, all bright with gleaming eyes' - he is no longer a hunter, but prey. We hear that 'he had scarcely moved since the trial began', and it is suggested that he is transfixed by the burden of antipathy towards him. Yet Dickens seems unaware of the pathos of Fagin's situation. 'In not one face', Dickens sermonises, '...could he read the faintest sympathy with himself, or any feeling but one of all- absorbing interest that he should be condemned'.

Like cats toying with a vole, after a brief deliberation in court the jury seek permission to retire, leaving their defendant dazedly sitting down - 'the jailer pointed [the chair] out, or he would not have seen it'. He is left to contemplate the idle pastimes of the audience. 'Some of the people were eating, and some fanning themselves with handkerchiefs', Dickens writes, and 'there was one young man sketching his face in a little note-book. He wondered whether it was like... as any idle spectator might have done'. The effect of this is not further to outrage us at his insouciance, but to engender tremendous pity for Fagin- anyone- brought so low and yet so unavoidably human. These images, and others like them, are strongly suggestive of personal observation on Dickens' part, of awareness of the humanity common to judge and prisoner. Yet for all this, no explicit criticism of the criminal justice procedure is ventured. Unusually for Dickens, to whom courtrooms are almost always comic stages (see Bleak House especially), a quiet respect for the system is preserved throughout - and this in a novel whose central catalyst is institutional neglect. Indeed, the book's only other courtroom scene is played entirely for laughs, when a rude, drunken magistrate needlessly insults Brownlow and clumsily obstructs the course of justice.

Fagin never loses sight of the fate that he is to endure- he has an omnipresent 'oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet'. Unsurprisingly 'he could not fix his thoughts on it'. Instead he falls 'to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was'. By isolating such recognisable minutiae Dickens concretises the unimaginable horror of Fagin's predicament. Such convincing psychology suggests that he keenly understands the torture of Fagin's situation, and yet he does not seem to empathise at all. When the inevitable verdict is delivered the court 'rang with a tremendous shout'- not a terrible one- 'and then it echoed loud groans, then gathered strength as they swelled out, like angry thunder'. Elsewhere in Dickens there is a sense of horror at mob mentality (Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, for example), but here the 'peal of joy from the populace outside, greeting the news that he would die on Monday' has the rubber-stamp of authority on it and thus represents no threat. When asked if he has any ameliorating remarks to make, the question has to be 'twice repeated before he seemed to hear it, and then he muttered that he was an old man- an old man- an old man', before he lapses into silence, broken by the inexorable force of Dickens' moral order.

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