Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book Review: Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner

Bothered by the stereotypical depiction of Jews in classic literature, Will Eisner wrote this story of Fagin, the leader of the youthful gang of pick-pockets in Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. Fagin is frequently referred to as "the Jew" and is depicted as a money-grubbing low-life. Decades after it was published, Dickens removed most of the references to Fagin as a Jew in the 1867 edition. By then, the book was already widely read. In response, Eisner wrote and illustrated a life story for Fagin, making him a more sympathetic character.

Eisner uses a framing device of Dickens visiting Fagin on death row. Fagin explains his story since it "has remained untold and overlooked." [p. 5] He came to London as an infant when his parents fled oppression in central Europe. The community was welcoming. Jews who had fled earlier from the Iberian peninsula were already established in society. The new wave of immigrants from Germany and Poland were looked upon as lower class but they still had opportunities to rise. Fagin had quite a few opportunities in his youth. A combination of bad luck and prejudice kept him in the lower classes, winding up in a penal colony working off a ten-year sentence of servitude. He finally returned to London where the novel's plot begins, leading back to Fagin confronting Dickens over his portrayal. The anger of the scene is mollified by an epilogue giving Fagin a beautiful though hidden legacy.

I haven't read Oliver Twist; I've watched one or two movies long ago; mostly my knowledge of the story is from the musical Oliver! which has a fairly sympathetic portrayal of Fagin. Eisner's work is certainly more sympathetic. His story is founded on historical research, giving the reader a look at different aspects of society and a fuller depiction of the times. Amazingly, this story doesn't suffer from the author's agenda. Eisner weaves a fascinating tale as he builds his case for the unfair negative stereotype reinforced by the novel. Eisner's work is a great companion piece and critique. I am inspired to read Dickens' novel, which shows the corruption of the London criminal world and the horrible treatment of orphans at the time.

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