Between penal reform and The Newgate Calendar: why are we made to feel for Fagin?
Charles Dickens is commonly – and justifiably – regarded as a writer of reformist fiction. One of the many social issues he took interest in was that of imprisonment, in particular solitary confinement, which he famously and vociferously condemned. His preoccupation with the subject of incarceration is already clearly discernible in Oliver Twist, in which the novelist offers an emotionally fraught depiction of the chief villain, Fagin, awaiting his execution in a Newgate cell. I argue that although the scene contains elements anticipating Dickens’s later penal critique, it can equally persuasively be interpreted in light of the moralistic rhetoric of The Newgate Calendar, and remains elusively situated between the two interpretations, simultaneously inviting and resisting both of them. Thus, this essay proposes to see ‘The Jew’s last Night alive’ as an instantiation of what David Paroissien identifies as the insoluble ambiguity of Dickens’s attitude towards crime and criminals, at once disparaging and sympathetic.
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