Fagin is the old man who provides shelter to 0liver on his arrival in London.The Artful Dodger who meets Oliver on the outskirts of the capital takes him to Fagin. Fagin is the leader of a gang of young pick-pockets, who also deals in stolen goods and is quite willing to undertake any other villainy that might offer him some material benefit. The Dodger, Charley Bates, Tom Chiding and later Noah Claypole work for him. All these boys are enaged in pickpocketing. With Sikes, he plans robberies. It is Fagin who is entrusted with the job of converting Oliver into a criminal by Monks.
When we first hear of him, he is referred to as a merry old gentleman and later a number of other epithets like kind, merry, pleasant or playful are applied to him. The initial inference is reinforced by his habit of calling everyone my dear. But Fagin is one character who is painted in different shades on different occasions, Frying sausages over the fire in the filthy room of a dark house on a slum street, he appears a very old, shrivelled Jew, whose villainous looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.
Throughout the novel Fagin is described in terms of animal imagery. In chapter 19 Dickens writes, “As he glided, stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search, of some rich offal for a meal.”The expressions glided stealthily, creeping, loathsome reptile, slime and darkness remind us immediately of Milton’s serpant, the ultimate corrupter of mankind, the evil incarnate. So for Dickens, Fagin is the very essence of evil. As Satan corrupted Adam and Eve and caused their fall from paradise,Fagin corrupts innocent children, converts them into thieves and pickpockets and permanently condemns them to the accursed underworld. In chapter 44, Sikes calls him a wolf and in chapter 47 when we see him biting his nails,he discloses among the toothless gums such fangs as should have been a dogs or rats. When he is ultimately arrested and put into the prison, he is badly distracted and rocks from side to side with a countenance more like that of a snared beast than the face of a man.
Apart from being described as a beast, Fagin has also been portrayed as a creature of darkness, who lurks in the streets by night and spends the day indoors. It is remarkable that we rarely see him in daylight. In chapter 18,Oliver explores his house and he finds all the windows tightly closed and“the only light which was admitted, stealing its way through the round holes at the top: which made the room more gloomy, and fined them with strange shadows.” In chapter 12 when Fagin goes to visit Sikes, it seemed just the night when it befitted such a one as the Jew to be abroad. The only time he appears by day, it is when Oliver is half asleep at the Maylies and he finds Fagin and Monks peeping through a window as if in a dream.
Dickens has made Fagin a Jew and throughout the novel he identifies himself as a Jew. This might give one a feeling that Dickens was against the Jews.He was himself once questioned on this point. But he said that he had no such feelings of antisemitism. Fagin was the only Jew in the novel, but he was not the only criminal. All other criminals are Christians. Besides, Fagin is never attacked as a Jew, he is attacked as a criminal. Dickens simply takes it for granted that a typical receiver of stolen goods in London at that time would be a Jew.
Fagin is the focal point of the criminal activity with a number of juvenile delinquents hovering around him. On the surface he talks very politely, but basically he is a heartless schemer. When he finds it difficult to stand the humiliating behaviour of Sikes, he decides to make Nancy an instrument of his destruction. He sets Noah Claypole as a spy on Nancy and when he realises that Nancy has disclosed some of the vital secrets to Mr Brownlow,he incites Sikes to murder her. The tact with which he provokes Sikes is an evidence of his scheming nature. He also contrives a scheme to convert Oliver into a thief. He doesn’t trust anyone and he has no sympathies for anybody.
Angus Wilson says that Fagin is the evil spirit that always keeps hovering around Oliver. “With Fagin are associated three of the principal atmospheric devices that have given the novel its unique power. It is his appearance with Monks at the country cottage window which lies at the centre of the Kafkaesque nightmare effect of a net enclosing Oliver wherever he may be.Not only does Fagin seek to keep Oliver for ever by making him an accomplice in crime but it also seems that he has supernatural powers to seek him out wherever his good friends may hide him. It is this sense of pervasive evil embodied in Fagin that has made Mr Graham Greene characteristically describe the novel as Manichean. Then again it is Fagin ever on the move from one squalid, half ruined hideout to another, scuttling along corridors, squatting in rooms that were once tenanted by ordinary respectable people, who give that extraordinary sense of the criminal gang as a population of rats, vermin living among us without our knowing it. And at last Fagin at his trial is the culmination of the many passages, mostly associated with Oliver himself. Fagin whom Dickens himself called such an out and outer “I don’t know what to make of him”, makes nonsense of an easy moral view of life. Fagin is our perpetual human conscience, for Fagin too, as Oliver and the Dodger uncomfortably remind us, was once a boy. As Mr Leslie Fiedler has entitled an essay What Shall We do with Fagin? It is one of Societies’ more uncomfortable questions and Dickens, like many of us, finds it easier to suggest that he is the devil.