In 1843 Charles Dickens read a government report on the employment of women and children, and he was sickened to see the extent to which these people were being subjected to horrific work for equally horrifically lapse pay.
To him, they were – in the words of biographer, professor, and all-around Dickens expert Michael Slater – the ‘victims of the Industrial Revolution’.
And so he was inspired to try and fight back against the evils of Great Britain’s capitalist boom the best way he knew how: by writing a story. To land his ‘heavy blow’ he constructed a character which represented the miserly misery of the men who were profiting most greatly from the suffering of the working class: Scrooge. He was to be the ultimate stone-faced capitalist, a man with no joy or benevolence or mercy in his soul. Money had stripped him bare and left him crooked and cruel. His machinations laid bare the un-necessary malevolence of the industrial regime, but Dickens saw fit to show that he could change.
In A Christmas Carol Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, and through these ghosts Scrooge begins to feel again. Pity of his own past, nostalgia for his estranged friends and family, and existential fear of his own mortality break him down, and when he wakes up on Christmas morning, the ghosts fading into memory, he sees that he has a chance to build himself up once more. He becomes an icon of generosity, cheer, and holiday spirit. If even the most tight-fisted, well, Scrooge, of them all can change, then anyone can.
It was a story which was written quickly, composed in Dickens’ head as he marched the gloomy streets of London. He knew the story was to be important, and he was so confident in this that he funded the production of the book himself to ensure that it was an attractive and affordable enough prospect to get itself into the hands of as many men, women, and children as possible. Adorned with the illustrations of John Leech the book went on to become the hit that Dickens imagined, and although the many unauthorised dramatizations of the novel which filled London’s theatres in the weeks, months, and years following it’s publication did nothing to help line the authors pockets, they did help to further increase his fame, and reputation as the worlds leading story teller.
Which leads to the question that I always try and answer with each Classically Lacking edition: is this classic worth your time? Or is it simply enough to carry on with your lives knowing the basic premise (as you almost certainly do regardless of whether you have read the book or not)?
Or is it just enough to have seen one of the many cinematic adaptations that it has spawned? The simple answer is that this is worth your time. The long answer continues below, but if you wish to disappear and read it now then I cannot blame you. Christmas is but a month away, and I recommend spending some time with this novel before then to guarantee you arrive at the season in the right spirit.
I’m not A Christmas Guy. The festivities, so to speak, start far too early for me. There are only so many Last Christmas’ I can hear, only so many mince pies to eat, and apparently only so much mulled wine I can drink. I hate how early the shops fill with Christmas goods, and especially how mega-corporations battle it out for our affections with insincere adverts which wrestle for your tear ducts in an attempt to try and convince you to buy your holiday hoards from them. There is though, something about Christmas as a concept which remains appealing to me, and just about prevents me from becoming a Scrooge.
A Christmas Carol is about that something. That spirit. The smells in the air. The refreshing cold of the winter. The way the decorative lights burst like stars in the early nights.
Dickens finds a way to represent the something that keeps the spirit of Christmas alive in our commercial, cynical world in the visions of the three ghosts. He sees the basic joy and life-affirming benefits of being in good company, of being in high spirits, and of giving. But Ebenezer Scrooge is a man that needs nothing, and as far as he is concerned no one else deserves anything anyway…so why should they receive gifts any time of the year, let alone some random day at the end of it? Christmas is a waste of time to him. A con, a scam, another way that the world tries to leverage him away from his well-earned riches that he barely spends on himself, let alone anyone else! Scrooge needs nothing, and because he needs nothing he expects to receive nothing, and because he receives nothing he is of no inclination to give anything back, is he? Because that’s not good business. No deal. No thank you. He refuses to participate in the something.
Then the ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the home of one of his employees, Bob Cratchit. The family has a wonderful spirit and their run-down, overfull house is splitting at the seams with love. Combined with the renewed pity at his own upbringing, and having seen the disregard of those who have loved him, Scrooge sees and is jealous of the unfettered happiness of the poor family. But one of their number is at risk. The frail Tiny Tim, despite his charming positive personality, is unlikely to survive a winter in such conditions. Scrooge begs the ghost to tell him that Tiny Tim lives, but the ghost will not lie. When Christmas morning comes around, Scrooge donates a large turkey to the Cratchit house to try and change this fate. He ingratiates himself with the family, becoming a second father to Tiny Tim, ensuring his survival.
Now, if I was going to cynical about this book what I might say is that it takes fear for Scrooge himself to fully cement the changes in his life. The final vision is of Scrooge dying a grim and lonely death. So when he changes on Christmas morning is he not only doing it for his own selfish reasons? Is his kindness simply a vain attempt to boost the numbers at his funeral? Well, yes I suppose it is, but Dickens flicks the switch in Scrooge early on. As soon as the ghost of Christmas past takes Scrooge back through his pitiful life he begins to see the error of his ways, but the ghosts do not relent. His miserly nature is far reaching in its cold effects, as shown by the suffering of Tiny Tim, and his newly found benevolence will be just as far reaching in its warmth, as shown by Tiny Tim’s eventual survival.
The purpose of A Christmas Carol is to show the error in greed. To show that a full pocket is nothing compared to the balminess of family, and to the heart-warming effects of generosity on the end of the giver, and the receiver. Thankfully, child labour is no longer an issue in the industrial cities of Great Britain, but the message that Charles Dickens sought to send out with this book still resonates. We still need to try and find that sweet spot between engaging in corporate sponsored gluttony, and sour faced Scroogery. I feel the temptation to rally against Christmas, I understand it. I know why people want to fight back against the shallow corporate drudgery of it all by disregarding the spirit of the season completely. I think this is a mistake, and I think Dickens shows us why with this book.
Christmas can be a frustrating, overly commercial enterprise. So, if you start to feel the dark call of the Humbug during the coming weeks, please feel free to take my seasonal prescription and read A Christmas Carol, to realise that it doesn’t have to be this way.