In a frying-pan . . . some sausages were cooking . . . and standing over them was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.
The narrator introduces Fagin, making clear that this man appears disgusting in body and, as the reader will soon learn, in spirit. Readers also learn that Fagin is Jewish—in fact, the narrator refers to him more often as “the Jew” than by his own name throughout the story. The choice of a Jewish character as the leader of a criminal gang plays upon anti-Semitic feelings in Victorian England. Fagin fulfills the negative stereotype accepted at the time of the miserly Jew obsessed with money and personal wealth.
What a fine thing capital punishment is! Dead men never repent; dead men never bring awkward stories to light. Ah, it’s a fine thing for the trade! Five of ‘em strung up in a row, and none left to play booty, or turn white-livered!
Fagin murmurs these words to himself on Oliver’s first day in his home, while reviewing his stash of stolen jewels. Fagin clearly runs a gang of thieves, and he only cares about their ability to earn him wealth. He considers the hanging of thieves for their crimes a benefit to his management of a crime syndicate—none of his number, if caught, will inform on him.
In short, the wily old Jew had the boy in his toils. Having prepared his mind, by solitude and gloom, to prefer any society to the companionship of his own sad thoughts in such a dreary place, he was now slowly instilling into his soul the poison which he hoped would blacken it, and change its hue forever.
The narrator explains how Fagin carries out his plot to make Oliver a willing member of his gang. First, he deprives him of human company, and then, he makes the boys, Dodger and Bates, become his friends. This campaign reveals Fagin to be a wily manipulator. He expects that Oliver will become so desperate for companionship that he will fall in line. Ultimately, however, Fagin lacks the perception to understand that Oliver would rather die than commit crimes.
“I had no hold upon him to make him worse,” pursued the Jew, anxiously watching the countenance of his companion. “His hand was not in. I had nothing to frighten him with; which we always must have in the beginning, or we labour in vain.”
Fagin explains to Monks that he sent Oliver on the burglary mission due to the difficulty that he had turning Oliver into a pickpocket because the boy did not respond to his usual tactics or threats. The other boys felt easy to corrupt—their circumstances rendered them malleable and desperate. Despite his own dire straits, however, Oliver protests this lifestyle. Even Fagin recognizes that Oliver’s good-hearted nature steadfastly resists conversion into criminality.
I’ll go and get you that cash, Nancy. This is only the key of a little cupboard where I keep a few odd things the boys get, my dear. I never lock up my money, for I’ve got none to lock up, my dear—ha! ha! ha!—none to lock up. It’s a poor trade, Nancy, and no thanks; but I’m fond of serving the young people about me; and I bear it all, I bear it all.
When Fagin gets an advance of money for Nancy to give to Sikes, he dissembles throughout, claiming that he has little wealth. Here Fagin attempts to recast himself as a poor, beleaguered man whose primary interest lies in taking care of the children. His words indicate that he fears that a member of his gang may try to steal from him. Clearly, no trust exists between Fagin and his closest companions.
But perhaps she would recoil from a plot to take the life of Sikes, and that was one of the chief ends to be attained. “How,” thought Fagin, as he crept homeward, “can I increase my influence with her? what new power can I acquire?”
Fagin contemplates how to get Nancy to help him achieve his goal of killing Sikes, who has become a loose and dangerous end. Since he knows that Nancy will not willingly help him, Fagin schemes to find something to hold over her head. As seen in his relationship with all his companions, the unprincipled Fagin will resort to blackmail, manipulation, deception, or murder—whatever he must—to reach his goals.
[H]atred of the girl who had dared to palter with strangers; an utter distrust of the sincerity of her refusal to yield him up; bitter disappointment at the loss of his revenge on Sikes; the fear of detection, and ruin, and death; and a fierce and deadly rage kindled by all; these were the passionate considerations which . . . shot through the brain of Fagin, as every evil thought and blackest purpose lay working at his heart.
The narrator describes Fagin’s mental reaction to learning the news that Nancy has told Rose and Mr. Brownlow all about Monks. Nancy’s disloyalty stirs up a host of negative emotions in Fagin. This stew of anxiety and anger pushes Fagin even deeper down the path of villainy, and his plan for self-preservation, which had only included killing Sikes, must now expand to punishing Nancy and preventing her from revealing his identity to Rose, Mr. Brownlow, or the police.
“I mean,” said Fagin, showing that he felt all disguise was now useless, “not too violent for safety. Be crafty, Bill, and not too bold.”
Fagin gives Sikes implicit directions on dealing with Nancy. Without specifically stating that he wants Sikes to kill her, Fagin reminds him to deal with her quietly and carefully so he doesn’t get caught. This sentiment reveals Fagin’s sneaky and vile nature. He wanted Sikes dead, but now he convinces Sikes to kill Nancy, which will bring the police upon Sikes. With one command, he will rid himself of both of his problematic partners. The depth of Fagin’s treachery reflects his self-interest.
“Outside, outside,” replied Fagin, pushing the boy before him towards the door, and looking vacantly over his head. “Say I’ve gone to sleep—they’ll believe you. You can get me out, if you take me so.”
On the last day of his life, Fagin hallucinates all the boys from his gang, but when Oliver visits accompanied by Mr. Brownlow, he incorporates the real boy into his fantasy: Oliver will help him escape jail—and the gallows. Fagin’s insistence that the guards will believe Oliver underscores the boy’s innocence and highlights Fagin’s continuous scheming. Even in his own madness, Fagin recognizes that he can profit from Oliver’s inherent goodness.
Take a Study Break
Every Shakespeare Play Summed Up in a Quote from The Office
Every Book on Your English Syllabus, Summed Up in Marvel Quotes
A Roundup of the Funniest Great Gatsby Memes You'll Ever See
QUIZ: How Many of These Literary Jeopardy! Questions Can You Answer Correctly?
7 "Crazy" Women in Literature Who Were Actually Being Totally Reasonable
Honest Names for All the Books on Your English Syllabus
QUIZ: Are You a Hero, a Villain, or an Anti-Hero?