Portrayal of Jews in Literature

The great medieval English works portraying Jews, notably Confessio Amantis (1390) by John Gower (1330-1408), The Vision of Piers Plowman (three versions 1360-1400) by William Langland (1330-1396) and Prioress's Tale (one of the Canterbury Tales, 1390) by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) were composed about a century after Jews were expelled from England. The figure of the Jew was almost certainly drawn from imagination and popular fiction.

The evil stereotype of the Jew, which was clearly attributed to the Christian account of the crucifixion of Jesus, provided the basis for the portrayal of the Jew in the early mystery or "miracle" plays. The medieval fantasies about Jews habitually killing Christian children provided the starting point for The Jew of Malta (1589) by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and The Merchant of Venice (1596) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

In addition to fear and hatred, the Jew also aroused awe, even admiration. An early Christian tradition carrying undertones of admiration and awe is that of the Wandering Jew. In later romantic literature, in poems such as Queen Mab (1813) by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and Song for the Wandering Jew (1800) by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) the Jew symbolized universal wisdom and experience. There was some change in the way the Jews were portrayed after the Jews resettled in England after 1656 and in view of the new undogmatic character of 17th century Anglicanism. In 18th century drama, the Jew continued to be portrayed as either completely virtuous or utterly evil and depraved. Both types were often produced by one dramatist, such as Charles Dibdin (1745-1814) in The Jew and the Doctor (1788) and The School for Prejudice (1801). The portrait of the Jew kept its duality in the 19th century, while in the 20th century there was an attempt to abandon the old stereotype, with Jews being depicted in natural, human terms.

The Jews in American literature have various social positions and vocations reflecting their real role in the United States at the time. During the years when the United States was emerging as a nation, Jews were portrayed as bankers who served as negotiators between the Barbary piracy and Americans. In the frontier novels of John Beauchamp Jones (1810-1866) in the 1850s, the Jew was mercilessly caricatured. Around that time, the Jew in fiction was often portrayed as a pawnbroker or secondhand clothes dealer on Chatham Street in New York, where Jews were found in reality.

In medieval French literature, Jews typically appear in an unfavorable light. Throughout the 19th century, literature reflected the Jew's growing importance in French society. There were some anti-Semitic novels at the turn of the century, in response to the wave of nationalist feeling aroused by the Dreyfus case, a political scandal that divided the nation. It involved a French officer of Jewish descent receiving a life term for treason. However, the Dreyfus case also inspired a number of like-able Jewish characters presented by Emile Zola (1840-1902), Anatole France (1844-1924) and Roger Martin Du Gard (1881-1958).

Medieval German drama presented a cruel and abhorrent image of the Jew. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the dominant literary image of the Jew was characterized by hostility and ridicule. The first favorable presentation of Jews was given by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) in his comedy Die Juden (1749) and the internationally famous Nathan der Weise (1779). The struggle against Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) encouraged virulent anti-Semitism. At the end of the 19th century, non-Jewish writers sided with the Jews in their battle for self-preservation. With the triumph of Nazi ideology in 1933, literary, stage and radio censors suppressed all favorable images of the Jew.

In the world of theater and film, Jews have often been portrayed in a more favorable light. Fiddler on the Roof is based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem and focuses on the plight of a poor Jewish peasant. The 1964 musical won a Tony award and acclaim from Broadway critics, while the film was a hit in 1971. In contrast, the portrayal of villain Fagan in Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) led to accusations of anti-Semitism. The wife of a Jewish banker wrote to Dickens in 1863 condemning him for the "vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew." It has been argued that the book was revised to paint Fagin in a more positive light and debate continues about his portrayal in musical theater.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From Early Republic to Mass Immigration
Louis Harap.
Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974
The Jew in the American Novel
Leslie A. Fiedler.
Herzl Press, 1959
The Jew in the Literature of England to the End of the 19th Century
Montagu Frank Modder.
Jewish Publication Society of America, 1939
The 'Jewish Question' in German Literature, 1749-1939: Emancipation and Its Discontents
Ritchie Robertson.
Oxford University Press, 1999
James Joyce's Judaic Other
Marilyn Reizbaum.
Stanford University Press, 1999
The Truth about Shylock
Bernard Grebanier.
Random House, 1962
Shylock: The History of a Character
Hermann Sinsheimer.
Benjamin Blom, 1963
The Golden Scapegoat: Portrait of the Jew in the Novels of Balzac
Frances Schlamowitz Grodzinsky.
Whitston, 1989
Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction
Malcolm J. Turnbull.
Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1998
Miriam and the Conversion of the Jews in Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Marble Faun
Kolich, Augustus M.
Studies in the Novel, Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 2001
Realists and Jews
Carter, Everett.
Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring 1994
Obstinate Hebrews: Representations of Jews in France, 1715-1815
Ronald Schechter.
University of California Press, 2003
Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry
Paul Breines.
Basic Books, 1990
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