The antihero of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is the “villainous-looking and sinister” Jewish moneylender, Fagin. Fagin is referred to as “the Jew” 257 times throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, often in the context of him doing something nasty, salivating over his gold, or beating poor Oliver.
While working on the final third of the novel, however, Dickens forged a friendship that would change the course of his writing—or at least, that is, his writing about Jews. He bought a house from a Jewish couple he would later befriend, and the wife, Eliza Davis, wrote to him reprimanding him over Fagin’s character, saying he’d “encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew.” Dickens eventually agreed, and excised every inclusion of the word “Jew” from the book’s final 13 chapters. In a public reading of Oliver, he omitted every stereotypical description of Fagin, and in his later novel Our Mutual Friend, he created several Jewish characters, all of them sympathetic.
Despite Dickens’s stab at reform, the legacy of Fagin endures. In 2003, Will Eisner published a book, Fagin the Jew, which wrestles with the figure; and last year, a historian claimed that the real-life model for Fagin wasn’t Jewish at all, but–just as disastrously–was black.