Fagin /ˈfɡɪn/ is a fictional character and the secondary antagonist in Charles Dickens's 1838 novel Oliver Twist. In the preface to the novel, he is described as a "receiver of stolen goods". He is the leader of a group of children (the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates among them) whom he teaches to make their livings by pickpocketing and other criminal activities, in exchange for shelter. A distinguishing trait is his constant and insincere use of the phrase "my dear" when addressing others. At the time of the novel, he is said by another character, Monks, to have already made criminals out of "scores" of children. Nancy, who is the lover of Bill Sikes (the novel's lead villain), is confirmed to be Fagin's former pupil.

Fagin in a watercolour by 'Kyd' (1889)
Created byCharles Dickens
Portrayed byLon Chaney (1922)
Ivan Berlyn (1922)
Irving Pichel (1933)
Alec Guinness (1948)
Max Adrian (1962)
Ron Moody (1960, 1968, 1983, 1984)
Clive Revill (1963)
Roy Hudd (1977)
Roy Dotrice (1978)
David Swift (1980)
George C. Scott (1982)
Jonathan Pryce (1994)
Richard Dreyfuss (1997)
Robert Lindsay (1997)
Gary Farmer (2003)
Ben Kingsley (2005)
Timothy Spall (2007)
Russ Abbott (2010/11)
Noah Berry (2011)
Rowan Atkinson (2009, 2010)
Omid Djalili (2009)
Griff Rhys-Jones (2009)
Neil Morrissey (2011/12)
Harry Moore (2012)
Anton Lesser (2015)
Michael Caine (2021)
Christopher Eccleston (2022)
Elio El Hajj (2022)
Raul Esparza (2023)
Gavin Lee (2023)
David Thewlis (2023)
Voiced byDom DeLuise
In-universe information
  • The Old Man
  • The Old One[1]

Fagin is a confessed miser who, despite the wealth that he has acquired, does very little to improve the squalid lives of the children he guards, or his own. In the second chapter of his appearance, it is shown (when talking to himself) that he cares less for their welfare, than that they do not "peach" (inform) on him and the other children. Still darker sides to the character's nature are shown when he beats the Artful Dodger for not bringing Oliver back; in his attempted beating of Oliver for trying to escape; and in his own involvement with various plots and schemes throughout the story. He indirectly but intentionally causes the death of Nancy by falsely informing Sikes that she had betrayed him, when in reality she had shielded Sikes from the law, whereupon Sikes kills her. Near the end of the book, Fagin is captured and sentenced to be hanged, in a chapter that portrays him as pitiable in his anguish.

In popular culture, Fagin (or at least his name) is used in comparison with adults who use children for illegal activities.

Role in the novel


Fagin is portrayed as a criminal mastermind who kidnaps orphaned children and trains them to be pickpockets in return for sheltering and feeding them; he keeps the ill-gotten money for himself. His "wards" include the novel's title character Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates, and Nancy. He also trained the novel's main antagonist, housebreaker Bill Sikes, who later became his main source of stolen goods.

Oliver at first believes that Fagin is an artisan who makes wallets and handkerchiefs which are, in fact, stolen at Fagin's order, and goes along with his new teacher's orders. The only one in the gang to protect Oliver is Nancy, who is also Sikes's lover.

After Oliver is arrested for supposedly picking the pocket of a gentleman named Mr. Brownlow (an act actually committed by the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates), Brownlow takes pity on Oliver and brings him to his house, helping him recover from the abuse and malnourishment he has suffered. Fagin and Sikes, fearing that Oliver will betray him to the police, force Nancy to help Sikes kidnap the boy again. Oliver tries to run away, but Sikes almost beats him into submission, stopping only when Nancy begs him to show mercy while the cowardly Fagin tries to smooth matters over between the two.

Fagin forces Oliver to help Sikes burgle a house owned by the wealthy, elderly widow Mrs. Maylie. After breaking into the house, Oliver is shot in the arm and Sikes abandons him while he makes his own escape. Mrs. Maylie and her niece Rose take Oliver in and raise him in a polite society. Fagin later meets with a fellow criminal, the mysterious Mr. Monks, and plots with him to destroy Oliver's newfound reputation.

To make sure Oliver never learns of his true parentage, Fagin and Monks conspire to buy a locket and a ring left to the boy by his late mother from Mr. Bumble and his wife, the former Mrs. Corney, and Monks throws them in the river. Nancy, ashamed of her role in Oliver's kidnapping, tells Mr. Brownlow and Rose that Oliver is in danger, and secretly joins them in a plan to rescue him. Fagin becomes suspicious of Nancy and has Noah Claypole, who has recently joined his gang, follow her to one of her meetings with Brownlow and Rose. Upon learning what Nancy is up to, Fagin lies to Sikes that she intends to turn him over to the police, provoking Sikes to kill her.

Fagin and Monks attempt to flee London, but both are arrested. Monks, after being forced to confess his part, is given a second chance thanks to Mr. Brownlow and Oliver, but Fagin is sentenced to be hanged for his crimes. The night before Fagin's execution, Oliver visits him in prison, and Fagin rages against the entire world for the sorry end he has come to. The following day, he is hanged.[2]

Fagin waits to be hanged

Historical basis


Fagin's name comes from one of Dickens's friends he had known in his youth while working in a boot-blacking factory.[3]

Fagin's character might be based on the criminal Ikey Solomon, who was a fence at the centre of a highly publicised arrest, escape, recapture, and trial.[4][5] Some accounts of Solomon also describe him as a London underworld "kidsman" (a kidsman was an adult who recruited children and trained them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for goods the children stole). The popularity of Dickens's novel caused "fagin" to replace "kidsman" in some crime circles, denoting an adult who teaches minors to steal and keeps a major portion of the loot.[citation needed]

Other sources, such as Howard Mancing in The Cervantes Encyclopedia, claim that Fagin is assumed to be modelled on Monipodio, one of the main characters in Miguel de Cervantes' Rinconete y Cortadillo (1613). Monipodio is the leader of a criminal gang in 17th-century Seville that includes cutpurses and cape stealers.[6]

Allegations of antisemitism

Fence Ikey Solomon, on whom Fagin has often been said to be based

Fagin has been the subject of much debate over antisemitism, during Dickens' lifetime and in modern times. In an introduction to a 1981 Bantam Books reissue of Oliver Twist, for example, Irving Howe wrote that Fagin was considered an "archetypical Jewish villain."[7] The first 38 chapters of the book refer to Fagin by his racial and religious origin 257 times, calling him "the Jew", against 42 uses of "Fagin" or "the old man". Dickens, who had extensive knowledge of London street life, wrote that he had made Fagin Jewish because: "it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew".[8] It is often argued that Fagin was based on a specific Jewish criminal of the era, Ikey Solomon.[9] Dickens also claimed that by calling Fagin "the Jew" he had meant no imputation against the Jewish people: "I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them..."[10]

In later editions of the book, printed during his lifetime, Dickens excised over 180 instances of 'Jew' from the text.[11] This occurred after Dickens sold his London home in 1860 to a Jewish banker, James Davis, who objected to the emphasis on Fagin's Jewishness in the novel. When he sold the house, Dickens allegedly told a friend: "The purchaser of Tavistock House will be a Jew Money-Lender."[12]

Dickens became friends with Davis's wife, Eliza, who told him in a letter in 1863 that Jews regarded his portrayal of Fagin a "great wrong" to their people. Dickens then started to revise Oliver Twist, removing all mention of "the Jew" from the last 15 chapters; he later wrote in reply: "There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not willfully have given an offence". In one of his final public readings in 1869, a year before his death, Dickens cleansed Fagin of all stereotypical caricature. A contemporary report observed: "There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted."[13][10]

In 1865, in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens created a number of Jewish characters, the most important being Mr Riah, an elderly Jew who finds jobs for downcast young women in Jewish-owned factories. One of the two heroines, Lizzie Hexam, defends her Jewish employers: "The gentleman certainly is a Jew, and the lady, his wife, is a Jewess, and I was brought to their notice by a Jew. But I think there cannot be kinder people in the world."[10]

The comic book creator Will Eisner, disturbed by the antisemitism in the typical depiction of the character, created a graphic novel in 2003 titled Fagin the Jew. In this book, the back story of the character and events of Oliver Twist are depicted from his point of view.[14]

Media portrayals

Oliver Twist (Jackie Coogan) held captive, by Fagin (Lon Chaney) and his criminal gang in Oliver Twist (1922 film)

Numerous prominent actors have played the character of Fagin. Lon Chaney portrayed Fagin in a silent film version Oliver Twist. Alec Guinness portrayed Fagin in David Lean's 1948 film adaptation of Oliver Twist, with controversial make-up by Stuart Freeborn which exaggerated stereotypical Jewish facial features.[15] The release of the film in the USA was delayed for three years on charges of being antisemitic by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the New York Board of Rabbis. It was finally released in the United States in 1951, with seven minutes of profile shots and other parts of Guinness' performance cut.[16]

For the BBC's at the time controversial 1962 serial, Fagin was portrayed in a fashion very faithful to the novel by Irish actor Max Adrian.

Ron Moody's portrayal in the original London production of the musical Oliver! by Lionel Bart, which he repeated in the Oscar-winning 1968 film, is recognisably influenced by Guinness's portrayal. However, the antisemitic quality of Guinness' portrayal was considerably toned down in the musical, partly because of Moody being Jewish himself; he was in fact the first Jewish actor to portray Fagin on film since Irving Pichel.[citation needed] While Fagin remains an unrepentant thief, he is a much more sympathetic and comic character than he is in the novel. His plot with Monks is deleted and his role in Nancy's death is similarly excised, and he is portrayed as being cowardly and deeply afraid of Bill Sikes. Fagin is completely innocent of Nancy's murder and is horrified when he finds out. He even admonishes Sikes saying that: "[He] should not have done that." Bart's musical also deletes Fagin's arrest and the musical ends with Fagin, faced with beginning again, pondering the possibility of going straight. The film version reverses this ending, with Fagin briefly considering reformation, but then gleefully teaming up again with Dodger to start their racket again. Moody's performance as the character is often considered the most critically acclaimed. He won a Golden Globe for his performance, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. When Oliver! was brought to Broadway in 1964, Fagin was portrayed by Clive Revill, but in a 1984 revival, Moody reprised his performance opposite Tony Award winner Patti LuPone, who played Nancy. Moody later stated: "Fate destined me to play Fagin. It was the part of a lifetime."[17]

Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Fagin in Roman Polanski's 2005 screen adaptation was also inspired by the 1948 version.[18]

In the 1980 ATV series The Further Adventures of Oliver Twist, Fagin was played by David Swift. In this 13-episode series, Fagin has escaped his hanging by pretending to have had a stroke, which has left him paralyzed (and therefore unfit to be executed) and is in hiding at The Three Cripples, tended to by Barney.[19]

In the 1982 made-for-TV movie version, Fagin is portrayed by George C. Scott. Although the character is generally portrayed as elderly, diminutive, and homely, Scott's version of the character was markedly younger, stronger, and better-looking. Also, this version of the character had him more caring of his orphan charges, feeding them well and treating them with obvious concern.[20]

Ron Moody reprised the role of Fagin in the 1983 Channel 4 television program 'The Other Side of London'[21]

In the 1985 miniseries, Fagin is portrayed by Eric Porter.[22]

In Disney's animated version, Oliver & Company (1988), Fagin is a kind-hearted but poor man living in New York City. He lives in poverty with his five dogs and is desperately searching for money to repay his debts to a ruthless loan shark. This version does away with the moral quandary of child exploitation as all the characters are dogs who have no real need for money and genuinely want to help their owner. Informed by earlier portrayals, he retains a large nose, red hair, and a green coat, but his racial characteristics, religion or "Jewishness" play no role in his character. He is voiced by the Italian-American Dom DeLuise.[23]

In 1994, Oliver! was revived in London. Fagin was played by many noted British actors and comedians, including Jonathan Pryce, George Layton, Jim Dale, Russ Abbot, Barry Humphries (who had played Mr Sowerberry in the original 1960 London production of Oliver!) and Robert Lindsay, who won an Olivier Award for his performance. The different actors playing Fagin were distinguished by their different costumes, especially their coats. Pryce used a patched red and brown coat, while Lindsay used the traditional dark green overcoat seen in the 1968 film version.[24]

In the 1996-1997 Saban's Adventures of Oliver Twist series, Fagin is voiced by Brian George. In this version, instead of a human, he resembles a wise, old, and kind red fox.[25]

In Disney's live action television production Oliver Twist (1997), Fagin is played by Richard Dreyfuss.[26]

In the film Twisted (1996), a film loosely based on Dickens's Oliver Twist, the Fagin character is played by actor William Hickey.[27]

In the miniseries Escape of the Artful Dodger (2001), Fagin is played by actor Christopher Baz.[28]

In the film Twist (2003), a film also loosely based on Dickens' Oliver Twist, Fagin is played by actor Gary Farmer.[29]

In a 2007 BBC television adaptation, Fagin is played by Timothy Spall. Contrary to his appearance in the novel, he is beardless and overweight in this version. He is also a more sympathetic character.[30]

In December 2008, Oliver! was revived at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London with Rowan Atkinson playing the character. This role was taken over by Omid Djalili in July 2009. He was succeeded by Russ Abbot in June 2010.[31][32][33][34]

In 2015–16, BBC2's Dickensian Fagin was played by the actor Anton Lesser.[35]

In 2023, in the New York City Center Encores! revival of Oliver!, Fagin was played by Raúl Esparza and Gavin Lee.[36][37] Also in 2023, David Thewlis took on the role in the Disney+ series The Artful Dodger.[38]

In 2022 he was portrayed by Christopher Eccleston in the childrens television series Dodger.[39]


  1. ^ "Fagin Character Analysis in Oliver Twist". Sparknotes. Archived from the original on 2 February 2017.
  2. ^ "Oliver Twist".
  3. ^ Ackroyd, Peter (3 September 1990). Dickens. Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd. pp. 77–78. ISBN 978-1-85619-000-8.
  4. ^ Sackville O'Donnell, Judith (2002). The First Fagin: the True Story of Ikey Solomon. Acland. ISBN 978-0-9585576-2-7.
  5. ^ Montagu, Euan; Tobias, John J (28 March 1974). The Prince of Fences: Life and Crimes of Ikey Solomons. Vallentine Mitchell. ISBN 978-0-85303-174-1.
  6. ^ "Who Was The Real Fagin?". Londonist. 24 October 2017. Archived from the original on 24 October 2017. Retrieved 28 October 2021.
  7. ^ Dickens, Charles (22 January 1982). Oliver Twist. Bantam USA. ISBN 978-0-553-21050-7.
  8. ^ Howe, Irving (31 May 2005). "Oliver Twist – introduction". Random House Publishing. ISBN 9780553901566. Retrieved 21 October 2009.
  9. ^ Donald Hawes, Who's Who in Dickens, Routledge, London, 2002, p. 75.
  10. ^ a b c Johnson, Edgar (1 January 1952). "Intimations of Mortality". Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 8 February 2009.
  11. ^ Nunberg, Geoffrey (15 October 2001). The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-618-11603-4.
  12. ^ Lebrecht, Norman (2019). Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947. Simon & Schuster. p. 49. ISBN 9781982134228.
  13. ^ Lebrecht, Norman (29 September 2005). "How racist is Oliver Twist?". La Scena Musicale. Retrieved 8 February 2009.
  14. ^ Fagin the Jew, reviewed by John Stuart Clark, in New Internationalist; March 2006 issue; p. 18
  15. ^ "'Junior Angel' as Film Oliver Twist". e.g. The Sunday Herald. e.g. National Library of Australia. 30 January 1949. p. 5 Supplement: Magazine Section. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
  16. ^ Sragow, Michael (11 January 1999). "Oliver Twist". Criterion Collection. Retrieved 22 April 2021.
  17. ^ "Oliver! actor Ron Moody dies aged 91". BBC News. 11 June 2015.
  18. ^ "Kingsley remained Fagin off-camera in "Oliver Twist" filming". The Denver Post. 22 September 2005. Retrieved 20 October 2021.
  19. ^ Saul, Marc (22 March 2020). "The Further Adventures of Oliver Twist". Television Heaven. Archived from the original on 24 March 2020.
  20. ^ O'Connor, John J. (23 March 1982). "TV: George C. Scott in 'Oliver Twist'". The New York Times.
  21. ^ Ron Moody. "The Other Side of London". Bright Thoughts.
  22. ^ "Oliver Twist (TV Mini Series 1985)". IMDb.[unreliable source?]
  23. ^ "Oliver & Company". IMDb. Retrieved 31 January 2020.[unreliable source?]
  24. ^ "Oliver! – 1994 West End – Backstage & Production Info". Broadway World. Archived from the original on 20 October 2021.
  25. ^ Saban's Adventures of Oliver Twist, retrieved 24 September 2023
  26. ^ "Oliver Twist". Rotten Tomatoes.
  27. ^ "Twisted (1996)". IMDb.[unreliable source?]
  28. ^ "Escape of the Artful Dodger (TV Series 2001)". IMDb.[unreliable source?]
  29. ^ "Twist". Rotten Tomatoes.
  30. ^ Wollaston, Sam (19 December 2007). "Last night's TV: Oliver Twist". The Guardian.
  31. ^ Petillo, Faetra (30 October 2008). "Full Casting Announced for Theatre Royal Drury Lane's OLIVER!". Broadway World. Archived from the original on 20 October 2021.
  32. ^ Iqbal, Nosheen (11 February 2009). "Omid Djalili pockets Fagin role in Oliver!". The Guardian.
  33. ^ "Griff Rhys Jones Takes Over Oliver!'s Fagin, 14 Dec". Whats on Stage. 15 September 2009. Archived from the original on 19 July 2018.
  34. ^ Cole, Caroline (25 May 2010). "Russ Abott Returns to the West End as Fagin in OLIVER!". Broadway World. Archived from the original on 20 October 2021.
  35. ^ Burrel, Ian (1 December 2015). "'Dickensian' is the BBC's biggest Christmas offering: When Fagin met Scrooge". The Independent.
  36. ^ Gans, Andrew (23 February 2023). "Lilli Cooper, Raúl Esparza, Tam Mutu, More Will Star in Oliver! at New York City Center Encores!". Playbill.
  37. ^ Gavin Lee To Go On as 'Fagin' Tonight in OLIVER! at New York City Center
  38. ^ "TV Show the Artful Dodger is a twist on a Charles Dickens classic". ABC News. 30 November 2023. Retrieved 5 December 2023.
  39. ^ Grater, Tom (5 May 2021). "Christopher Eccleston, David Threlfall, Billy Jenkins & Saira Choudhry Starring In BBC & NBCUniversal's 'Dodger'". Deadline. Retrieved 20 October 2023.

Further reading

  •   Media related to Fagin at Wikimedia Commons