“Standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.”
I mentioned before that now that I don’t have to read classics for school, I sometimes delve into them for my own growth. I truly believe that the “classics” are better when you aren’t being forced to read them, and it couldn’t be more true with “Oliver Twist.”
We all know the story, whether it be from having the book forced down our throats in high school or from the musical which we sat through at least on one occasion. But reading it now, as an adult, I am taken with some of the characterizations and it made me think: Could Charles Dickens even write “Oliver Twist” in today’s society and, if he did, would it be as celebrated as it was in the 19th century?
One of the most indelible images from literature which ranks up amongst the most memorable of characters, is that of the character of Fagin. The hooked nose, the shrivelled skin, the matter hair, the wicked sneer. Of course, now we look back and think of the characterization as comedic and satirical, but back then, Dickens was a social satirist utilizing his literature as a way to criticize and attack English society. Come on, we all learned that Dickens’ father was in a debtor’s prison and so much of his novels were aimed at disparaging English society and its actors. So I am not so sure that Fagin was an exaggeration, but may actually be how Dickens perceived Jews.
Take another example: The character of Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” This characterization of the moneylender has so resonated for centuries that the term “Shylock” is still used to describe and demean a Jew.
(Please do not take this as me focusing only on the anti-Semitic portrayals; I simply do not know my Shakespeare well enough to examine other portrayals. Although I am fairly certain that Othello was a moor, not a moop.)
Could either of these pieces of literature (for it is indisputable that these pieces are amongst the greatest works ever written) be written in the 21st century, with our society of political correctness?
Look– I am not a Shakespearean scholar nor am I a Dickensian pundit. All I know is that society has changed and satirical characterizations of ethinc groups is simply taboo these days.
Consider this: Just 2 decades ago Michael Crichton wrote a book called “Rising Sun” which examined Japanese and American relations, centering around the murder of an American woman in a Japanese corporation’s board room. You might remember the movie with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. An interesting piece of trivia of which you may not be aware. The villain in the novel was a Japanese man; in the movie, the villain was changed to an American man, simply because of concern for the negative portrayal of the Japanese man.
I am not using these illustrations to claim that literature today is suffering because it is politically incorrect to satirize ethnic groups. I am simply questioning whether these pieces of literature (and I am sure countless others) are viewed with rose-colored glasses because of their ability to stand the test of time and do we have a responsibility to criticize them for their anti-Semitic, or racist, or xenophobic features?
One last example– one of the greatest movies of all-time, “Gone With The Wind.” I confess, I have never seen the movie, but I do recall that one of the characters, Mammy, appears to be a fairly over the top portrayal of an African-American house servant. “Gone With The Wind” was a celebrated novel first. Could you write “Gone With The Wind” today?
All I know is, you couldn’t make “Blazing Saddles” today, could you? Can you imagine the uproar? Who will argue that “Blazing Saddles” is not a classic?
“Excuse me while I whip this out.”
Have a great week.