Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

From Book to Film: The Semiotics of Jewishness in Oliver Twist

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

From Book to Film: The Semiotics of Jewishness in Oliver Twist

Article excerpt

Of Dickens's works, Oliver Twist (1837-39) is the most frequently adapted, numbering as many as nineteen silent film versions, four sound movies (1) and a continuing output of television and video productions (Boulton; Pointer). Despite their success, however, adaptations of the memorable story of Oliver's journey from the workhouse via the slums of London to eventual safety had to come to terms with reactions to the notorious character of Fagin, a Jewish receiver of stolen goods and leader of a gang of juvenile delinquents. Associated as it was with the history of the marginalization of the Jews, Fagin's ethnicity was the more problematic as the novel related it to crime and child abuse, a disturbing connection that has stirred sensitivities to this day. (2)

Among objections raised by Victorians, those by Eliza Davis, wife of J. P. Davis, solicitor, who had purchased Tavistock House in August 1860, stand out. Writing to Dickens on 22 June 1863, asking for a donation to a Jewish memorial, she complained about the unflattering characterization of Fagin and accused him through his creation of encouraging "a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew" (Letters 10: 269 n.). In partial amendment Dickens created Riah, the kindly Jew in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), though his attempt, weakened by characteristically Victorian contradictions regarding the cultural Other, substantially fails to frame Riah within a credible narrative and does not succeed in making him less of an outcast (Baumgarten). To further disprove anti-Semitic prejudices, Dickens also excised references to Fagin's Jewishness in the 1867 edition of Oliver Twist, beginning with chapter 32 and continuing throughout the text, except for chapters 34 and 35. (3)

The novel was illustrated by George Cruikshank, who claimed to have significantly influenced Dickens. (4) Whatever the truth of these allegations, they do reveal the illustrator's imaginative involvement in the story, which is evident in the powerful twenty-four plates he provided for Twist. When dealing with Fagin, Cruikshank fully accepted Dickens's representation of the old crook as evil, inscribing his body with the combination of stock "Jewish" traits enumerated in the text--the large hooked nose, the long matted red hair, a "revealing" expression of cowardice and cunning and the feminized garb of the flannel gown, a sort of debased caftan and an ambiguous signifier that hinted at sexual depravity. "Violating valued Victorian gender boundaries, Fagin is both paternal and maternal, ... both masculine and feminine at once" (Brosh 90). (5) As a surrogate father he provides a home for the orphaned boys, as a surrogate mother he cooks for and plays with them.

In film adaptations the rendering of Fagin's otherness is further complicated by the act of repositioning Jewishness within cultural and political contexts subsequent to World War II and the genocide of the Jews. Separated as they are by almost sixty years, David Lean's and Roman Polanski's films could be ideally envisaged as embracing the two extremes of a historical trajectory that, spanning the entire second half of the twentieth century, reaches the current century carrying Oliver Twist into full neo-Victorian mood, whereby the past is rewritten to question the present and illustrate major cultural shifts. Both films dwell on explicit as well as hidden cultural and political agendas of their society (Stern), resorting in their distinctive ways to the memory of the war and the Holocaust, a major historical trauma which influences the deep imaginative texture of the film narrative.

In David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) Fagin, played by Alec Guinness, resembles Cruikshank's illustrations but also the anti-Semitic caricatures in Der Sturmer, the weekly newspaper published by Julius Streicher in Nazi Germany (Gross). No wonder, then, that the film ignited bitter reactions in the audience when it was first shown in post-war Berlin in early 1949 (John), the city still recoiling from the trauma of the Shoah. …

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