Summary and Analysis Chapter 52



The courtroom is packed with people, "a firmament, all bright with gleaming eyes" — and every one fixed on Fagin. As the judge delivers his charge to the jury, the accused searches their faces in vain for signs of hope. Looking about at the spectators, he discerns nothing but unanimous desire for his being convicted. While the jury is out, Fagin's attention is occupied with trivia, although he is never completely free from "one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave . . . at his feet."

The jury returns and the verdict is delivered — guilty. There is a roar of approval from the people at the word that Fagin will die on Monday. This approval is echoed by the crowd outside. When asked if he has anything to say, Fagin can only mutter that he is an old man. While the sentence of death is pronounced, the condemned man stands dumb and motionless. He mechanically goes with the jailers, overcoming his disbelief enough to shake a fist at the prisoners' visitors, who greet him with taunts and shouts.

After being searched, the old criminal is left alone in a cell for the condemned. He sits on a stone bench and tries to collect his thoughts. Gradually the words of the sentence come into focus: he is to be hanged by the neck until dead. He remembers the men he has seen die on the scaffold, "some of them through his means." Victims of his villainy may have spent their last days in this very cell, like many others awaiting execution.

In terror, Fagin beats his hands raw against the door and walls, screaming for light. A candle is brought, and a man who is to watch the prisoner enters the cell. Through the dreadful night, the church bell tolls away the remaining hours of the old culprit's life.

When the religious come to pray with him, he repels them with curses. Saturday passes and that night Fagin is aware that he will live through but one more night after this. He is oblivious to the men who take turns standing the death watch. Most of the time he just sits, "awake, but dreaming."

As he counts off the hours of his last night of life, Fagin realizes with devastating impact the finality of his position. He becomes delirious and so agitated that two men are provided to share the evil old wretch's company.

Outside Newgate Prison, the news that no reprieve has been granted is received gratefully, and loiterers discuss with anticipation Fagin's last moments. Preparations for the execution are in progress when Mr. Brownlow comes with Oliver and presents an order admitting them to see the condemned prisoner. Brownlow agrees with their guide that it will be no sight for children, but that Oliver should endure it since the object of the visit concerns him. They are conducted through the prison to Fagin's cell.

Fagin is having hallucinations and imagines himself among his old companions. When the turnkey recalls him to his surroundings, he looks up "with a face retaining no human expression but rage and terror." As Fagin recognizes his visitors, he shrinks from them. Brownlow inquires about some papers Monks had entrusted to him. Fagin obliges by whispering the hiding place to Oliver. Then the crazed old man fancies that Oliver can spirit him out of the prison. As the visitors depart, Fagin struggles with the attendants, screeching insanely.

After this ordeal, Oliver is so undone that he is unable to walk for about an hour. When Brownlow and the boy emerge from the prison, it is dawn and a vast throng has already gathered to enjoy the spectacle of Fagin's final torments.


In this grim depiction of Fagin's last days, Dickens presents a harrowing picture of the ultimate penalty of a life of evil. Again we see excruciating isolation visited upon the criminal. In the courtroom, the accused loses all feeling except the crushing awareness that no human being has an interest in him except to see him die, just as he had so completely pursued the destruction of others. He has been an unswerving enemy of society, and now all men are united against him.

The final price of roguery is degradation and death. Here there is no dashing figure posturing bravely before admiring crowds, as some authors would have us believe. Instead, there is a complete disintegration of the living person, culminating in a ghastly death. There are no compassionate supports nor any solaces of repentance, courage, or dignity.

The visit of Brownlow and Oliver to the prison is a clever dramatic way to demonstrate that the boy and the ladies have now been told about the fates that have come to members of the gang. This is accomplished without a single mention of detail already well-known to the reader. Dickens's subtle selective touch is also apparent in his omission of the execution of Fagin. We have already witnessed the grisly death of Sikes. Given the impact of Nancy's death on the reader, Dickens may have decided that he'd gone far enough in the service of making his point.

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