The officer locks Oliver in a jail cell to await his appearance before Mr. Fang, the district magistrate. Mr. Brownlow, the gentleman, protests that he does not want to press charges. He thinks he recognizes something in Oliver’s face, but cannot put his finger on it. Oliver faints in the courtroom, and Mr. Fang sentences him to three months of hard labor. The owner of the bookstall rushes in and tells Mr. Fang that two other boys committed the crime. Oliver is cleared of all charges. Pitying the sickly young Oliver, Brownlow takes him into a coach and drives away.
Oliver is delirious with a fever for days. When he awakes, Brownlow’s kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin, is watching over him. He says that he feels as if his mother has come to sit by him. The story of Oliver’s pitiful life brings tears to Mrs. Bedwin’s eyes. Once Oliver is strong enough to sit up, Mrs. Bedwin carries him downstairs. A portrait of a young woman catches Oliver’s eye and affects him greatly.
Mr. Brownlow drops in to see how Oliver is feeling. Oliver thanks him for his kindness. Brownlow exclaims with astonishment that Oliver closely resembles the young lady in the portrait. Brownlow’s exclamation startles Oliver so much that the boy faints.
From today’s perspective, Dickens’s characterization of Fagin through Jewish stereotypes is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of Oliver Twist. Dickens characterizes Fagin as a “very old shrivelled Jew” with a “villainous-looking and repulsive face.” Victorians stereotyped the Jews as avaricious gold worshippers, and in accordance with that stereotype, Fagin’s eyes “glisten” as he takes out a “magnificent gold watch, sparkling with jewels.” True to the anti-Semitic stereotype, his wealth is ill-gotten—Fagin obtains it by having others do the thieving for him, and some of those others have even been hanged for doing Fagin’s bidding. Dickens’s narrator continually refers to him as “the Jew” or “the old Jew,” seemingly making Fagin into a representative for all Jews. When a Jewish acquaintance later took Dickens to task for his portrait of Fagin, Dickens responded that it reflected nothing other than the fact that a sizable number of the leaders of London thieving rings at the time were Jewish. Despite this answer, it is difficult to accept that his portrayal of Fagin does not involve a certain degree of bigotry.
Fagin also represents a harsh parody of the Protestant work ethic. Oliver is “anxious to be actively employed” because he notices that Fagin’s “stern morality” manifests itself when Charley and the Dodger return home empty-handed. Fagin rails about the “misery of idle and lazy habits” and punishes them by denying them dinner. Victorians castigated the poor for laziness, but the work ethic they preached was in some ways responsible for creating the perversion of that ethic that Fagin represents. As a result of the “stern morality” of charitable institutions, paupers have to choose between the harsh conditions of the workhouses and the harsh conditions of the streets. Because begging is a punishable offense, those who stay outside the workhouses are often forced to turn to crime in order to survive.
Oliver’s experience in the courtroom highlights the precarious position of the poor in the eyes of the law. Mr. Fang is an aptly named representative of the English legal system. The law has fangs ready to devour any unfortunate pauper brought to face “justice.” Without hard evidence or witnesses, and despite Brownlow’s testimony that he does not believe that Oliver is the thief, Mr. Fang convicts Oliver and sentences him to three months of hard labor. In Oliver’s weakened condition, the sentence is really a sentence of death.