Christmas Carol: Dickens’ Slap at Victorian Morality

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Dickens’ story—like much of this great author’s body of work—packed a powerful indictment of a young, freewheeling capitalism. Notably, the villain-hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, was a moneylender, a financier, who eventually sees the light, quite literally, and mends his ways. In real life, such “epiphanies” are rare, as ruling classes, despite exceptions, put self-interest above all other considerations.  Sounds familiar?

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SOURCE: Wikipedia 

A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (commonly known as A Christmas Carol) is a book by Charles Dickens that was first published on December 19, 1843[1]with illustrations by John Leech. Dickens called it his “little Christmas Book”.[2] The first of the author’s five “Christmas books,” the story was instantly successful, selling over six thousand copies in one week. Although originally written in six weeks under financial duress to help Dickens to pay off a debt, the tale has become one of the most popular and enduring Christmas stories of all time.[3]

Contemporaries noted that the story’s popularity played a critical role in redefining the importance of Christmas and the major sentiments associated with the holiday. A Christmas Carol was written during a time of decline in the old Christmas traditions.[4] “If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease,” said English poet Thomas Hood.[5]

Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after the death of his business partner Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge and his downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit are at work in Scrooge’s counting-house. Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, arrives with seasonal greetings and an invitation to Christmas dinner, but Scrooge dismisses him with “Bah! Humbug!”, declaring that Christmas is a fraud. Two gentlemen collecting charitable donations for the poor are likewise rebuffed by Scrooge, who insists that the poor laws and workhouses are sufficient to care for the poor, and that “If they would rather die than go there, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” As he and his clerk prepare to leave, he grudgingly permits Cratchit one day’s paid holiday the following day, but tells Cratchit he must be there the morning after Christmas all the earlier—otherwise, there will be a deduction from his wages.

Scrooge returns home to his cheerless rooms in an otherwise deserted building, and a series of supernatural experiences begins. His doorknocker appears to transform into Marley’s face; a “locomotive hearse” seems to mount the dark stairs ahead of him; the pictures on the tiles in his fireplace transform into images of Marley’s face. Finally, all the bells in the house ring loudly, there is a clanking of chains in the bed and on the floor, and the ghost of Marley passes through the closed door into the room.

The ghost warns Scrooge that if he does not change his ways, he will suffer Marley’s fate, but Scrooge’s fate would be even worse. He will walk the earth eternally after death, invisible among his fellow men, burdened with chains, seeing the misery and suffering he could have alleviated in his life but now powerless to intervene. Marley has arranged Scrooge’s only chance of redemption: three spirits will visit him on successive hours that night, and they may help change him and save him from his fate. As Marley leaves, Scrooge gets a nightmare glimpse of the tormented spectres who drift unseen among the living, and now shattered, he falls into bed. 

Naturally, the term “Christmas” refers to the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a carol was originally a medieval round dance, a ring-type movement, and later was a word for a particular type of ballad.[6] By Dickens’ time, the word “carol” had come closer to its modern meaning, being a joyful hymn specific to Christmas. Musical notation is written on five staves. Dickens takes this musical analogy further, dividing the novella into five “staves” instead of chapters. However, “stave” or “staff” can also mean “letter.” A Christmas Carol, therefore, can be said to consist not only of five musical staves, but also of five letters, namely C-A-R-O-L.[7]

The novel deals extensively with two of Dickens’ recurrent themes, social injustice and poverty, the relationship between the two, and their causes and effects. It was written to be abrupt and forceful with its message, with a working title of “The Sledgehammer.” The first edition of A Christmas Carol was illustrated by John Leech, a politically radical artist who in the cartoon “Substance and Shadow” printed earlier in 1843 had explicitly criticised artists who failed to address social issues. Dickens wrote in the wake of British government changes to the welfare system known as the Poor Laws, changes which required among other things, welfare applicants to “work” on treadmills, as Scrooge points out. Dickens asks, in effect, for people to recognise the plight of those whom the Industrial Revolution has displaced and driven into poverty, and the obligation of society to provide for them humanely. Failure to do so, the writer implies through the personification of Ignorance and Want as ghastly children, will result in an unnamed “Doom” for those who, like Scrooge, believe their wealth and status qualifies them to sit in judgment on the poor rather than to assist them.

Scrooge “embodies all the selfishness and indifference of the prosperous classes who parrot phrases about the ‘surplus population’ and think their social responsibilities fully discharged when they have paid their taxes.” [12]

scroogesim

The great Alastair Sim in the classical film version of A Christmas Carol (1951)

Allusions to history, geography and science

Scrooge offends the Ghost of Christmas Present by suggesting that the Spirit’s name is linked to a recent attempt to close bakers’ shops on Sundays and Christmas Day. (Poor people like the Cratchits, who had no oven at home, took their Sunday and Christmas meals to the bakers’ to be roasted just as Dickens describes in the book, because the law forbade bread to be baked on that day. Closing the shops would deprive them of what might be their only hot meat meal of the week.) The Spirit angrily retorts:

“There are some upon this earth of yours…who lay claim to know us, and who do their deed of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and to all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” (The Ghost of Christmas Present, A Christmas Carol, Stave Three)

This is a reference to the repeated attempts during the 1830s of Sir Andrew Agnew, MP for Wigtownshire, to introduce a Sunday Observance Bill in Parliament which would have closed the bakeries and restricted many other Sunday pleasures of the poorer classes.[13] Dickens was vociferously opposed to Agnew’s plans and had attacked them in a pamphlet published under a pseudonym.[14] A Christmas Carol was the subject of Dickens’ first ever public reading, given in Birmingham Town Hall to the Industrial and Literary Institute on 27 December 1852. This was repeated three days later to an audience of working people, and was a great success by his own account and that of newspapers of the time. Over the years Dickens edited the piece down and adapted it for a listening, rather than reading, audience. Excerpts from A Christmas Carol remained part of Dickens’ public readings until his death.

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