Dickens and Censorship

Freedom to Read Week is coming up, so to round out this Charles Dickens series I looked for incidences of his work having been challenged or even banned, I was happy to have found very little. Oliver Twist, the title used for the sculpture below, was the only Dickens I could connect with any attempt at censorship. I particularly like the clever play on the Dickens’ title used for the title of the work.

O-Livre Twist by Maria G. Pisano

O-Livre Twist, an altered book, is a response to book censorship. When books are censored, culture and history are erased. The work takes the destruction of a book to the extreme, literally altering it through pulping and creating a package that no longer has legible meaning.” Maria G. Pisano

Coincidentally or not, Oliver Twist is the only book by Charles Dickens that I can find to have been challenged. There is mention of bannings in post-WWII Germany and Austria in this 1949 article regarding a Canadian film challenge. The world had become very aware of the dangers of bigotry after the war.

Notably, there were complaints of antisemitism in Oliver Twist as early as its first publication 100 years earlier. Dickens’ characterization or caricaturization of Fagan as a “fiendish Jew”, and indeed referring to him often in those early chapters as “The Jew”, offended many. The challenge in this case not only had merit but was somewhat progressive for its era. After an unfortunate response to an early complaint (source) , Dickens responded with thoughtful wisdom and may have demonstrated either cultural sensitivity or good marketing skills.

“The novel refers to Fagin 257 times in the first 38 chapters as “the Jew”, while the ethnicity or religion of the other characters is rarely mentioned.[69] In 1854, the Jewish Chronicle asked why “Jews alone should be excluded from the ‘sympathizing heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed.” Eliza Davis, whose husband had purchased Dickens’s home in 1860 when he had put it up for sale, wrote to Dickens in protest at his portrayal of Fagin, arguing that he had “encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew”, and that he had done a great wrong to the Jewish people.[73] Dickens had described her husband at the time of the sale as a “Jewish moneylender”, though also someone he came to know as an honest gentleman.

Dickens took her complaint seriously. He halted the printing of Oliver Twist, and changed the text for the parts of the book that had not been set, which is why Fagin is called “the Jew” 257 times in the first 38 chapters, but barely at all in the next 179 references to him. In his novel, Our Mutual Friend, he created the character of Riah (meaning “friend” in Hebrew), whose goodness, Vallely writes, is almost as complete as Fagin’s evil. Riah says in the novel: “Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews … they take the worst of us as samples of the best …” Davis sent Dickens a copy of the Hebrew bible in gratitude” (Wikipedia)

Fagin. Image from "The 100 Greatest Jewish Movie Moments" (#70) Click to link

“Ben Kingsley plays Fagin as Polanski brings back the anti-Semitic tropes other Dickens adaptations went out of their way to avoid. When Fagin finds out Nancy has been killed and begins to pace and mutter (“Oy, oy oy,”), the dark and problematic complexity of his character restored.” (HEEB)

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Filed under Art & Design, Books, Authors & Illustrators, What to Do With Discarded Books

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