Is there any complexity to Fagin's character? Use Add > Comment to explain why you think Fagin is or isn't a character with a certain amount of depth.
It seems like it would be easy to pin Fagin down as a one-dimensional, "loathsome reptile" -- a weird, wrinkly, fanged villain who is somehow less than human. I don't think that any of the "kindness" shown by Fagin stems from generosity of spirit, and I don't think that we can paint a picture of Fagin as a character whose complexity stems from any sort of conflicting or unclear motivations.
Fagin is out to serve Fagin. He doesn't treat people as ends in themselves; he objectifies the boys as means to an end -- profit. The boys who serve Fagin are treated like tools, and Fagin doesn't leave his tools out to rust. However, whatever care Fagin takes of his tools is ultimately and intentionally for the benefit of Fagin. He is less concerned about his boys being hanged, and more concerned that they do not turn him over to the authorities.
Any ambiguity about Fagin's character probably comes from the fact that he takes relatively good care of his tools. The boys do better with Fagin than they might have on the street, and he's fairly nice to Nancy. Still, in spite of how often Fagin says "my dear," it's hard for me to imagine that anyone at all is actually "dear" to him.
Inherent in the character of Fagin all things horrible. Bound within Fagin's villainous character is anti-semitic sentiments as he is frequently referred to as the "Jew," described at Oliver's first sight of him as "a very old shriveled Jew, whose villanous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair" (65). More horrifying, however, than the scary descriptions of Fagin, are his disturbing visions right before his is hanged and the "hideous apparatus of death" that is to be his fate (357).
Dickens portrays Fagin as a nasty, old criminal, essentially being the epitome of evil. I think it is easy for the reader to play into this characterization of Fagin, but when discussing the morality of a character, I believe everything should be viewed relatively. As a middle-class, white, educated college student, I see Fagin's character as evil and repulsive. Yet, if I were to place myself in the position of some of the younger boys Fagin takes in, I might not have that same view point. If I were a poor boy on the streets, where my only other alternative was starvation, I would be grateful for Fagin's "generosity" in taking me into his house. Fagin's might be portrayed in one particular way, but I think the audience is just as important when reviewing the morality of this character.
It is difficult to see Fagin as anything more than a villain because even in moments when he shows the tiniest bit of kindness to Nancy or to Oliver when he first teaches him the game of pocketpicking it doesn't seem to be a result of genuine feelings. Rather, it seems to be more about keeping the peace in order to continue to operate business as usual or luring young Oliver into a false sense of security about his new surroundings. Either way, it is solely for his benefit and not stemming from a motivation for human compassion. Also, the fact that Dicken's constantly refers to him as "the Jew" sort of dehumanizes Fagin and makes him seem to lack the complexity of a normal human being.
Fagin's actions do consistently characterize him as a villain, but his relationships with the boys and Oliver give his character more complexity. Upon meeting Oliver, Fagin feeds, takes care of and dresses Oliver well, which serves as an interesting contrast to the Workhouse workers and parish personal who claim to be doing what is best for Oliver while really starving him and the poor to death and taking money from the share that’s been allotted to them. While Fagin is certainly a villain he does do more for Oliver than the government does.
While Fagin is the quintessential villain of the piece, from a broader standpoint, he can be seen as something of a symbol for the discussion of environmental effects on character within the novel. That is to say, Fagin is someone who understands the system very well, and understands how to manipulate it to its most villainous end. I think Fagin is complicated (at least more than the other adult characters who starve and deprive Oliver) by the fact that he has a very keen understanding of how to earn the trust of these boys. He understands that their fundamental desire is to be cared for and accepted, and this knowledge, and the abuse thereof, speaks to an underlying complexity that makes him more than a one-dimensional villain.
Fagin is the standard villain in terms of an antagonist but through the narrator's constant reference to him as "the Jew," the way the reader perceives him is inextricably bound by the stereotypes connected to his ethnic identity. But he is more than that. The way Dickens and the narrator characterizes Fagin, it is seen that he is the embodiment of the fear and villainy most children would identify him as being. When Oliver sees him in the haze between sleep and waking, its almost as if Fagin's presence produces this sort of nightmare and Oliver naturally remains asleep in order to not draw Fagin's attention. But in the 52nd chapter, the gallows seem to embody the same type of fear in Fagin that Fagin himself is depicted as being, suggesting that death is the ultimate qualifier in terms of fear and making Fagin seem more human than "loathsome reptile."
Instructive, I think, are the facts of Fagin's conceptual origins. The name comes -- candidly enough, due to Dickens' attribution in the original preface -- from a childhood friend in the proverbial bootblack factory, presumably Irish; the concept of the character comes (firstly) from the author's perceived reality of usually-Jewish "kidsmen" and fences corrupting London's youth and (secondly and quite topically) from the sensational figure of Isaac "Ikey" Solomon. Dickens, in novel and performance, cleaved pretty closely to the press' stereotypical depiction of the Famous Fence, and I wonder if a great deal of the frankly offensive descriptions of "the Jew" could have been attempts to get a roman a clef cultural reference more easily recognized. Giving him an Irish name is a bit of a mystery, though.
I can accept Fagin as a stock character and an embodiment of evil, and I think the seemingly redeeming qualities of this man serve only to undermine his claims at sympathy. Textually, the fact of Fagin's despicability is hard to deny, and the 'kindnesses' he offers -- feeding, housing Twist; being the first person to actually play with him -- seem all the more sinister for their insincerity: the intimacy of his criminal seduction, juxtaposed with the completely legal negligence of Mr. Bumble, reinforces the fact that life in the underworld was truly an unavoidable one for young Parish-boys like our hero.
I understand the possible arguments that Fagin is more a more complex character than simply the embodiment of evil in Oliver's life. He does at one point make Oliver laugh about one his tales of pick pocketing a person, and it cannot be denied that Fagin offered Oliver food and shelter. However, I do not believe that Dickins intended Fagin to be anything more than an evil and manipulative character. All of the actions listed above that Fagin carries out are ultimately for his own selfish purposes. Fagin is trying to steal Oliver over to his side, (or the bad side), and he understands that in order to do this he must give Oliver what he most desperately needs. Fagin offers Oliver an opportunity to join his forces, and one of the best ways to do this is to make Oliver feel a connection between the two of them.While Fagin may have provided for Oliver, I believe his intentions were far from good.