Christmas Carol • Charles Dickens
A Christmas Carol
166 pages • Chapman and Hall • 19 December, 1843 [HB]
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the definitive Christmas story. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life may try each year to nudge it from its place at the top, but Dickens’ Victorian fairy tale reigns triumphant. (The fact that it has been adapted so many times for film, television, stage and radio gives it an advantage.) Yet when A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, the idea of Christmas as we know it – the essential winter holiday steeped in Victoriana – had yet to be invented. Christmas was a one-day holiday. Christmas cards were not introduced until 1846, and crackers did not appear until the mid-1850s. It is nigh on impossible to imagine an English Christmas without A Christmas Carol. That may be because it was present at the beginning of creation, as it were.
In 1843, Dickens was struggling. The sales of his serialised American novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, were not good, and he was worried, as he so often was, about money. He was in debt to the publishers Chapman and Hall, and did not want to end up in the debtor’s prison as his father had. He also worried over the twin dangers of Ignorance and Want, who would appear as characters hiding under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. In an education reform speech delivered in Manchester, he warned that ignorance was “the most prolific parent of misery and crime”. And from those fears the subject of A Christmas Carol was born.
The tale of Scrooge, who is visited on Christmas Eve by his long-dead business partner Jacob Marley and told he will be haunted by three spirits, is a morality tale against greed and miserliness. “Bah, humbug,” says Scrooge of Christmas, and he sends his clerk Bob Cratchit home with a warning to be in good and early on the 26th. There is a great air of exaggeration in the prose. It is written to be performed. (Dickens’ reading tours were, after all, lucrative.) The description of Scrooge, his cold world, and his cold heart, rises and falls like a biting wind, and the very image of Scrooge tumbles from the page as if blown in from a storm. “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.” This cold Scrooge is the man the ghost of Marley visits to tell him to mend his ways so that he does not spend eternity in chains, a victim in death of his own miserliness in life.
The first of the spectres, the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge back to his childhood, to a time of innocence before he is corrupted by greed. Scrooge is a self-made man, and he is opposed to charity. In the opening chapter he dismisses two men who want to raise money for the poor. The poor can die for all he cares, and it would reduce the population. Yet after the second spectre, the Ghost of Christmas Present, shows him the Cratchit Christmas and the suffering of poor crippled Tiny Tim, Scrooge despairs and asks if little Tim will live. The image of Tim’s unattended crutch is invoked, and the hard-hearted Scrooge crumbles under the emotional weight of the tableau.
Dickens believed in the self-made man; but unlike most self-made men – and Conservative politicians – he was acutely aware that it was not possible for everyone to achieve this standing. He did not think less of the man who was not self-made, or that he simply wasn’t trying hard enough, which is so much easier than thinking outside of the capitalistic box that serves self-made men and Tory politicians so well. In the process of becoming self-made, Scrooge strips out his own humanity, and he lays an emphasis on money, and money alone. When he despairs for the life of Tiny Tim, the Ghost tells him to “forbear that wicked cant”. Precisely. “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” The Ghost has you there, Scrooge. And here Scrooge comes to represent the England of the poor houses, the debtor’s prison, and a deep inadequate education system.
The Cratchit Family Christmas nonetheless unfolds with good cheer until Bob mentions Scrooge. A mocking toast is proposed by Mrs Cratchit. Even Tiny Tim, that Paragon of Good, has trouble swallowing that one. “The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes.” Five minutes! Perhaps attention spans haven’t dropped that much in the last century after all. Everywhere Scrooge is led there are scenes of joy, no matter how poor the celebrants. Dickens lays this on thick. Yet the family background of the Cratchit family is similar to Dickens’ own. Tiny Tim was originally called Fred, the name of Dickens’ brother who died at the age of two. There is an autobiographical undercurrent to the tale, which is in the Cratchit family as well as Scrooge himself, and therein lies the source of its passion.
The death of Tiny Tim, which Scrooge is shown in a possible future, is pure Dickens. It is awash with despair and sentiment. “Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God!” cries the narrator. One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Tiny Tim without laughing, as Oscar Wilde said of The Old Curiosity Shop’s Little Nell. (As with so many things, Wilde approached literary criticism with the attitude of the superior queen.) Yet Dickens is teaching Scrooge to have a heart. He is also aware that self-interest is a powerful motivator, so the Ghost of Christmas Future then shows Scrooge his own death, which is sad and lonely. No-one cares. And so the visions come to an end.
From that vision of death, Scrooge is reborn. He wakes on Christmas morning determined to change the future. He pays a passing lad to buy a gargantuan turkey that he sends anonymously to the Cratchit family. And the following day, when Bob Cratchit is fifteen minutes late for work, he increases his wages. “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!” And so the tale ends.
It is interesting to note that the Almighty rarely gets a look-in throughout. The only reference of Jesus is as “the mighty founder of Christmas”. Dickens was interested in the idea of Christmas as a time of reflection rather than its religious significance. Religious dogma had, as he saw it, furthered the cause of Ignorance. He found its applied use in what little schools there were at the time to have had a damaging effect.
And so, in A Christmas Carol, Dickens founded his tale on our common humanity. This elemental of Christmas stories, told at a time when the idea of Christmas was being reinvented, looked toward to a future of hope for all people to share, not just those who believed in the story of Christ’s birth. Therein lies the immortality of the story, and the immortality of Charles Dickens.