Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Told Uncomfortable Truths About Victorian Society, But Does it Have Anything to Teach Us Today?

23 December, 2013

Stephanie Allen shares fascinating insights into Dickens’ Christmas classic.

christmas carol

It’s hard to decide exactly what to call Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Short, magical, relentlessly moral, elevated to iconic status, and revived again and again, in differing forms, since its first publication in 1843, perhaps ‘fairy tale’, or even ‘myth’ might do the job best — but there again, compared to most of our other myths and fairy tales, it’s problematically new.

Adam and Eve, Hercules, Hansel and Gretel, the Prodigal Son — other stories of the same qualities as A Christmas Carol come from and are set in a lost, dreamlike, past, where horses grow human heads, a glance from a monster’s eye can freeze a man in stone, seas part to let men through and the whole world can flood over. This is not so in A Christmas Carol. In Dickens’s curious novella, the miraculous is grounded firmly in gritty, high-Victorian realism; wildly discordant elements jangle alongside each other throughout. We open in a tiny, freezing office, filthy sleet piled up against the door; travel through Victorian London’s smoggy streets to a mean little house and the stub of a candle, and in it, a man who seems to embody everything about the unyielding, relentlessly striving capitalist spirit of his time — and all this, with astonishing suddenness, is supplanted by ghostly visitations, weird spirits, the picket fences of the countryside, children’s games, and one genial Christmas party after another. The story’s very opening sentence, ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ insists on a subversion and upending of norms that will persist throughout the book, driving its reader in circles of speculation and uncertainty.

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Image shows a group photograph of workhouse children, in identical clothes with very short hair, presumably to ward against fleas.

‘A Christmas Carol’ is set against a grim background of Victorian poverty. This photo shows children at Crumpsall Workhouse in 1895.

And it’s not just the shifting scenery, the jumble of characters, the fantastic quality of that hour between twelve and one that transforms an old man for good, that leave us questioning the status of A Christmas Carol –– perhaps more interestingly, in a story that at first strikes us as straightforwardly instructive, Dickens everywhere holds in tension seemingly contradictory moral viewpoints. With the appearance of the Muppet Christmas Carol, and the decision that the book was demanding enough to be studied only to GCSE-level, we seem to have decided that the Christmas Carol is a simple, didactic tale for children — in my opinion, underplaying the subtlety and complexity of the story’s moral universe. Because the narrative that Kermit, Miss Piggy and co. present to us — a bitter old miser, after years of depression, avowed loneliness and pessimism, is transformed by a vision of his own solitude, and the human warmth and fellowship he has chosen not to share in, and born anew — seems to me to pose more questions than it solves. Is a supernatural trip down memory lane, and a speedy tour around the more jovial Christmas celebrations of one’s counterparts (of which Scrooge must surely already have known, having been to parties, and been in love, and been invited to Christmas at his nephew’s) enough to change a life dedicated to acquisition and scrimping? This question has perplexed generations of Dickens scholars: in a well-known essay, the critic Edmund Wilson described the difficulty of believing in Scrooge’s transformation as ‘the Scrooge problem’, writing:

 

Shall we ask what Scrooge would actually be like if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably, he would relapse, when the merriment was over — if not while it was still going on — into moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion. He would, that is to say, reveal himself as the victim of a manic-depressive cycle, and a very uncomfortable person.[1]

Though, mercifully, it’s no longer fashionable to diagnose fictional characters with modern mental illnesses, Wilson does touch on a question that no reader of the book can ignore — is Scrooge’s transformation believable?

Image shows Christmas dinner at the Cratchitt's, from an illustration in Harper's Magazine.

Christmas Dinner at the Cratchitt’s, from an illustration in Harper’s Magazine.

I think, and here hope to show how, some form of answer to this question lies in the weird fairy tale-ness of the story’s structure, its endless repetitions and refashionings, its replaying of old scenes, and revival of old characters, in new forms. Though Scrooge’s reform into generous, joyful benefactor is explicitly something that comes from within himself, from a capacity for compassion and kindness that has survived his miserly years, there is nonetheless a supernatural, universal quality to it. But another, related question still niggles at Dickens’s reader, one that seems to me, in a funny way, to be directly relevant to us today, during the Christmas period in a society with a widening gap between rich and poor, and a government whose rhetoric of ‘doing the right thing,’ and ‘scroungers versus strivers’ criticises the poorest in spookily Scrooge-like ways. That is, how exactly do money and greed work in a story that vociferously attacks avarice and miserliness, and in the Cratchitts presents an irresistible vision of the nobility of making-do in the face of poverty, but in which the happy, exemplary Christmas to which Scrooge finally succumbs is one of feasting, presents and excess? And, does Dickens have anything valuable to teach a modern reader?

Image shows Scrooge sitting by the fire with Marley's ghost coming towards him.

Scrooge resolves to spend Christmas alone until the ghost appears.

The Ebeneezer Scrooge we meet at the beginning of the story is isolated, set apart from his fellow humans by cynicism, misanthropy and an avarice that beggars belief. To the embarrassed astonishment of the host of characters he meets in the book’s first chapter, he resolves to spend Christmas alone, counting his money. All this isn’t to say he’s not amusing — one of the many paradoxes of the novella is Dickens’s obvious pleasure in thinking up sarcastic, callous soundbites for his main character, like “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”. But when two portly gentlemen appear in his office, asking or a donation for the poor, Scrooge’s reply is entirely more sinister. He asks, ‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?’, a phrase that will return to haunt him throughout the book, at once emphasising the coldness of a rational, capitalist outlook on life, and echoing the writings of a famous near-contemporary economist, Thomas Robert Malthus (on whom, more later). Because the dangerous thing about Ebeneezer Scrooge is that his loneliness, and the generally scandalised reactions of all those he encounters to his behaviour, do not mean he is unique or even uncommon. Rather, when we meet the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s old business partner who is doomed for eternity to drag the chain of his sins, and begs that Scrooge ‘shun the path I tread’, we realise that the old miser is symptomatic of a particular generation and class of men.

Image shows a print of Euston station in 1837.

The dangers and possibilities of steam travel appear again and again in Dickens’s writing.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol at what is now considered the end of the Industrial Revolution, a period when Britain’s change to new manufacturing processes — to machines that required fewer workers, to steam trains, to water power — resulted in intense economic output, and the country rising to a position as one of the world’s economic superpowers. And Dickens was fascinated by the technological change that was occurring all around him — entire books have been written on his interest in the steam train. But he was less enchanted by a darker, crueller potential of this social and economic transformation — the inequality it entrenched in society. Britain, a nation whose wealth was growing exponentially, had the power to (and later would) put measures in place to redistribute money fairly, ensuring that the poorest members of society were looked after, and had better chances of making a living, even flourishing. But instead, draconian laws about debt repayment and penury (the very state of being poor) forced many into workhouses and debtors’ prisons. After death, criminals’ bodies were treated as fair game for anatomists to dissect in the name of medical science — the misfortune of dying in debtors’ prison could result in this final, horrid indignity.

Though it might at first seem anachronistic to assign egalitarian views to a Victorian writer, social justice was, increasingly, becoming a theme in the period. In fact, the ways in which many contemporary politicians and scholars tried to justify the status quo betrays a general anxiety about its patent unfairness. Thomas Malthus, the economist Scrooge so irresistibly evokes in his enquiry ‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?’ authored a series of now-notorious works, including an Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, that argued that catastrophic poverty and starvation were a necessary, irrefutable result of the fact that population grown would always outpace food supply. Population would always expand to the limit of subsistence, and be held there by famine, war and disease. In another, unpublished pamphlet, ‘The Crisis’, of 1796, Malthus, among other things, supported newly proposed ‘poor laws’ to install workhouses, arguing that men who were unable to sustain themselves did not have the right to live.

Image shows Tiny Tim being lifted in the air by a man (presumably Scrooge after his epiphany), waving his cane.

Tiny Tim from the frontispiece to a c.1870 edition of A Christmas Carol, by Frederick Barnard.

Dickens’s retort to Malthus’s bleak social vision is twofold. It comes in the shape of the Cratchitts, and especially Tiny Tim, and later, the strange spirits of Ignorance and Want that live under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Christmas at the Cratchitts might at first strike the reader as overly sentimental — the editor of the Chamberlain Brothers’ edition of A Christmas Carol commented, aptly, that in the family, ‘Dickens concocts a poor family who are almost wholly untouched by the degrading effects of poverty.’[2] The warmth and cheer of their celebrations, despite a palpable want of food (nobody dares say that the Christmas pudding was ‘at all a small pudding for a large family’) and gifts (Master Peter’s present is a hand-me-down shirt of his father’s), touches Scrooge, and criticises his scrounging ways both implicitly, by contrast, and explicitly, when Mrs Cratchitt unwillingly drinks to the health of her husband’s ‘odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling’ boss. Dickens offers his reader some of his most impassioned language in this scene, the space between the narrator’s breathless description and the reality of the meagre feast, where everyone has just about enough, heightening our appreciation of the simple goodness and gratitude of the Cratchitt family: ‘Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next to that! That was the pudding!’ And Tiny Tim is, of course, the most poignant emblem of the noble poverty with which Scrooge is here confronted. Dickens has the boy’s father tell us directly of his uncommon virtue; he is ‘As good as gold… and more’. What’s more, he accepts his disability bravely, hoping that his fellow churchgoers will notice his state, and be reminded of Jesus’s miraculous ability to cure the blind and crippled.

Image shows Bob Cratchitt carrying Tiny Tim on a Christmas decoration.

Tiny Tim has even been commemorated in Christmas decorations.

The poignancy of this scene is established only at its end, by contrast, when Scrooge, ‘with an interest he had never felt before,’ asks the ghost whether Tiny Tim will live; the ghost replies forecasting the little boy’s death within a year ‘if these shadows remain unaltered by the Future’. Scrooge is moved to beg and plead: ‘No, no… Oh no, king Spirit! Say he will be spared.’ With an almost cruel sarcasm, the ghost quotes Scrooge’s own, irresistibly Malthusian words back at him: “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” To his deep shame, Scrooge (at the same time as his Victorian reader) is here confronted with a very human face of the abstract poverty, of numbers and statistics, that he earlier scorned and dismissed. As a brief aside, Scrooge’s new interest in Tiny Tim’s fate is very significant — the small boy in his isolation replays Scrooge’s younger self, reading books alone in a classroom while his schoolmates played. The fates of the two are weirdly, inextricably twinned: when the Ghost of Christmasses to Come later shows Scrooge his gravestone, Tim’s is in the same cemetery. And when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, Dickens is at pains to emphasise his new childishness — the old man cries, “I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.” This giddiness is telling; redemption for Scrooge is not mere compassion, but rather a sort of rebirth, a rediscovery of the innocence he has ground away, bit-by-bit, over the course of his life. In the correspondence between Scrooge and Tim, Dickens hints at a supernatural dimension to the old man’s transformation that somewhat resolves the question I posed earlier, of its believability in psychological terms.

By contrast to the heart-warming scene at Bob Cratchitt’s house, a few pages later, the spirits of Ignorance and Want that live under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present offer us a nightmarish vision of the ugly face of poverty, so easily demonised by contemporary political commentators: ‘yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.’ Where their faces should be plump in youth, ‘a stale, and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds’. The passage in which they are introduced directs us again to Malthus, as Scrooge asks whether anything can be done for the children, and the Ghost turns his own words on him for the third time, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” In both scenes, then, Dickens sets up a very clear, overtly didactic dichotomy between responses to intense poverty: Scrooge, in the process of reform, reacts to what he sees with a mixture of revulsion and compassion that exposes the cruelty of a rationalist, Malthusian response in which the victims of social injustice are somehow to blame for what they suffer.

Image shows a modern Christmas dinner, with a huge turkey in the foreground.

Scrooge asks a boy: ‘“Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there – Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.’

Now, from this perspective, A Christmas Carol might strike us as very straightforward: an uncomplicated critique of the acquisitive, striving spirit of an age, and its troubling human consequence. But Dickens’s fairy tale refuses to be resolved into such simple terms. Visions of two exemplary Christmases are offered to us — the party at Scrooge’s nephew, Fred’s house, and one hosted by his genial old boss. A perfect Christmas is here defined mainly by stuff– abundant presents, enough food, and money for everyone. Similarly, Scrooge’s transformed behaviour in the book’s final chapter is marked by a desire to enrich the lives of others through giving — his first act upon waking up on Christmas morning is to send a turkey to his poor assistant’s house. The Ghost of Christmas Present, agent of Scrooge’s transformation, sits on a throne of food, and will only live a day — like Christmas itself, a symbol of ephemeral joy. And in fact, it’s become a commonplace when talking about the book to remember that its enduring popularity is probably down to the fact that Dickens presents Christmas as a time of celebration and enjoyment, rather than a solemn religious festival. There’s one, perfunctory reference about how one should ‘venerate’ the ‘sacred name and origin’ of the festival, but this strikes me as box-ticking from a writer who isn’t primarily interested in pieties. The book can’t quite be unclasped from the economic spirit of its time.

So, finally, we’re confronted again with the strange contradiction at the heart of this story: its simultaneous existence as a magical, exemplary fable and idiosyncratic marker of the tastes and drives of an age not too long ago, and not too different to our own. And the questions Dickens poses, about the different models of responding to social and economic inequality — through rhetoric that criticises, and a relegation of the ‘deserving’ poorest to the margins of society; or through an (admittedly hazily defined and probably outdated) model of compassion — exert an irresistible pull on his modern reader. Do we have anything to learn from A Christmas Carol today? Of course we do.

References

[1] Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 53.

[2] Michel Faber, Introduction to Chamberlain Bros, A Christmas Carol (New York, 2005)






 

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Image credits: banner; workhouse; Cratchitt’s Christmas dinner; Marley’s ghost; railway; Tiny Tim; decoration; turkey

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