Chris Curtis is head of English and has taught in a range of schools and contexts. Last year his first book, and his family say last, was published: ‘How To Teach English’. Chris is regular writer for a number of publications and can be found regularly tweeting on Twitter at @Xris32.
Often, we present texts studied at GCSE in terms of binary opposites. Stories are seen in terms of clear opposites: good and bad. Young and old. Love and hate. Charles Dickens’ novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ is easily, and often, reduced to a story about the conflict between the rich and poor.
A verb that students and teachers don’t often use enough is the verb ‘wants’. What does Charles Dickens really want the reader to think? What does he want the reader to see? What does he want the reader to understand? Dickens doesn’t want us to hate the rich. Dickens doesn’t want us to pity the poor. There’s something more nuanced in the text that a simple ‘the rich are bad and the poor are good’ doesn’t sit easily.
Dickens’ visual style in the story relies on the imagery of light and darkness and I think that’s appropriate to the idea of not seeing the full picture. In the Victorian age, it is hard to see things with such clarity due to the endless fog, smog and grime and I think that places a good metaphor at the heart of the story. The fog of London is the fog of that hides the reality of a social issue. The story starts with fog, which isn’t a surprise for London, but it is metaphor for the public’s understanding of the issue: the perception of the poor. Dickens wasn’t scared to address serious issues in society and that’s certainly true of ‘Oliver Twist’ which was published prior to ‘A Christmas Carol’. Both stories echo each other: a glimpse into the seedy underworld of London. A childhood marred by neglect and rejection. A child saved by a benevolent rich man. Whereas ‘Oliver Twist’ was an angry and targeted attack, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a little bit more reserved or ‘foggy’. It is Christmas, after all. He is focused on uniting us, making us reflect rather than attack each other.
Read any Dickens story and you see the villain circle around the plot, searching for blood or money. They hunt, prey on and pester the women and children. Yet, ‘A Christmas Carol’ does not feature a clear antagonist. It could be viewed that Scrooge is our villain, but why does Dickens give him a backstory involving his sad childhood and all the best jokes in the story? Dickens gives us far more reasons to pity Scrooge than reasons to dislike him. Who has not been annoyed by people pestering them for donations for charity? Who hasn’t been annoyed by the overly cheerful and positive family member? We could even say that Dickens wants us, in part, to identify with Scrooge: identify with his world view. We can identify with a person who wants to be left alone, because we all like to escape from things and hide. It would be so easy to blame the rich and make them the villains but that’s not what Dickens is doing here. Dickens, instead, is presenting us with a broken man. A man stuck in his ways. A man who needs healing. Dickens gives us a story where the rich man needs rescuing and fixing. An interesting inversion of ‘Oliver Twist’. Yet, both are concerned with finding a place in society and their true identity or nature. The imperfect protagonist is a common trait of Dickens writing. Pip in ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘David Copperfield’ are examples of how we identify with the protagonist’s weaknesses. Pip, Scrooge and David are characters learning from their mistakes to find their rightful place in the world and society.
The portly gentleman are interesting too if we take this thread of humanising the rich. We know that Dickens writes with broad brush strokes, but it is interesting how he presents the gentlemen. He starts with them making a mistake: ‘Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Scrooge, or Mr Marley?’ Readers, thanks to Dickens’ rhetoric in the opening, know that Mr Marley is dead, so we see these two rich men making a mistake; a mistake which highlights a lack of knowledge and a lack of understanding, continuing what we are seeing with Scrooge: a man broken. There’s no malice or cruelty behind these characters and the adjective ‘portly’ encodes for us how nice and friendly these men are. The adjective ‘portly’ also symbolises how these men might be misapplying their funds. The money they seek could actually come from their own pockets; there’s a reason why they are so portly and it wouldn’t surprise us if it also involved lots of rich food washed down with a glass of port. We could easily read the portly gentleman as a symbol of Victorian hypocrisy, but that, for me, would be too reductive. These men are like Scrooge; they are not cruel and nasty, but unaware of what is really going on. But, Dickens doesn’t paint all the rich in the same light as we have Fred and Fezziwig: characters who present the rich positively, understanding, socially aware and working with others. Not all characters need to be visited by several ghostly visits to kickstart their understanding. It probably helps, however, if you are Christened with a name being with ‘f’.
If Dickens was not attacking the oblivious and unaware rich, then how does he present the poor in the story? Well, they are largely caricatures or ciphers. The novella format isn’t supportive of Dickens fleshing these characters out and the way they are viewed in the story is often is through ‘observational vignettes’ or ‘polaroid snapshots’ where Scrooge has no interaction with them. Yet, Dickens does something with them. He makes them relatable. The family sitting in the ‘circle’ at Christmas is an image that all could identify. Whereas Dickens uses humour and flaws to identify with Scrooge, but here he uses the common elements of family life to help us identify: the parents caring for their children; the eating of a meal; and the fears and worries of raising a child. These common elements combat the heavy vilifying of the poor in society by the press and politicians. Dickens presents the human dimension to the poor; the family unit. The common elements that unite us all together and it is so telling that we see a family eating.
We could say that the view of the poor is slightly sentimental and romanticised, but we could also say we are presented with a theme that appears again and again in Dickens’s stories: the respectable poor. Think of Betty Higden in ‘Our Mutual Friend’ or even Oliver Twist. A character that is inherently good and trying to do their best in a world out to get them. Clothes maketh the man and that is especially true of Victorians. Clothing was a sign of sophistication and breeding. Pip transforms when wearing clothes in ‘Great Expectation’ and here we see the impact of clothes on Peter who ‘yearned to show his linen in the fashionable Parks.’ A boy that thinks he is sophisticated because he is wearing one of his father’s hand-me-downs. Dickens, aside from the ghosts, obsesses over the clothes of the Cratchits. The dresses that have had ribbons added to them and Bob’s ‘threadbare clothes darned up and brushed to look seasonable.’ These are respectable people and they attempt to look respectable even if they don’t have the means to pay for status and respectability. Dickens wants the reader to see the similarities between different types of people and he is doing that through food and clothes. Yes, they might not have the money, but they have all the other things that make the good Victorian citizens. They have pride, manners, respect and strong moral compass. In the same way that Dickens is humanising the rich with Scrooge, we can say that he is normalising the poor.
For a novella, Charles Dickens is remarkably deft at showing us all aspects of life. He then shows us several different versions of the poor in various places including ‘almshouse, hospital, and gaol’. There are two reasons why Dickens includes these. One reason is the theme that all men and women are alike. The Ghost of Christmas Present is showing through this one example how we are all connected by Christmas. We are all singing the same song or carol. We are united in our thinking and our hearts. We are all enjoying ourselves. But, another reason Dickens includes so many versions of the poor is that Dickens wants us to see how complex poverty is. It cannot be simplified. The Cratchit family are only one aspect of poverty. Through the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, we see how people have to do questionable things to survive and make a living. Mrs Dilbur has to steal and sell items because she has lost a job. Caroline is happy because she does not have to pay rent to her landlord, Scrooge. The death of Scrooge, in the future, highlights how interconnected the lives of the rich and the poor are. In the seminal ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol, Joe is played by a Muppet spider and I think that sums up the purpose of the different versions of the poor; the web of existence. We are all connected in some way. Scrooge thought he was ‘solitary as a oyster’ yet he is an integral part of the ecosystem. Without him, the others would or could struggle. Dickens threads connections across the story between Scrooge and the various characters. The various ghost don’t take him on a religious transformation, but show him his position in the world. How he fits in.
People have said a lot about the religious significance of Scrooge’s journey and redemption, but what if there is something far simpler at the heart of the story. Balance. Dickens had an interesting relationship with religion and we have evidence that whilst in America he was interested in Unitarianism, a year before ‘A Christmas Carol’ was released. Unitarianism, a religion stemming from the 1600s, dispelled ideas of original sin and promoted ideas about the power of community and diversity. Unitarianism is not concerned with original sin and sees the individual as capable of good and evil; a person is responsible for their own path and learn from their experiences. In light of this, we can see ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a different light. The story is not about Scrooge’s sins, but about his place in society and his experiences. If we look at the story, Scrooge is not overly sinful. Instead he makes some choices that isolate himself from others. There is no redemption in a traditional Christian way, but Scrooge learns to become a part of society and ultimately a better person. The final stave is the complete opposite of stave 1. Stave 1 shows us a version of Scrooge separate from society and with no place in the community. Stave 5 shows us the same scenes but with Scrooge united with a community around him. That’s what makes Tiny Tim’s lines so prophetic at the end: ‘God Bless Us, Every One.’ Everyone is united in this community as ‘One’. Experience makes Scrooge a better person and unites him in one aspect, belief and thought. The idea that diverse participants can come together in a unifying thought is a very Unitarian in principle. Dickens provides us at the end of ‘A Christmas Carol’ a world of balance: a world where rich and poor exist but they are united and working for the common good.
So back to that one little verb ‘want’. What did Dickens really want? He possibly wanted a society that worked as one. This isn’t about the poor needing help and the rich being cruel. This story is about a symbiotic relationship we all have with each other. It isn’t about one person being good or bad, but about making everybody feel part of society. The use of the ghosts is an interesting plot device because they just show Scrooge events. There is no real action from them. They show and tell, but they do not act. Yet, the ghosts’ work is not to purge Scrooge of his sins, but to show Scrooge he has the potential to do go. Unitarianism believes that man isn’t reliant on God for salvation, but has the potential within to do good. If that is the case, then maybe the ghost were just a bit of undigested food and they were all in Scrooge’s head. Then, he woke up and it was all a dream.
Recommended Further Reading
- John, Juliet (2006) Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist: A Sourcebook. UK. Routledge.
- Leavis Q.D. and Leavis F.R. (1970) Dickens the Novelist. Singapore. Penguin Books.
- Paterson, Michael. (2011) Inside Dicken’s London. Finland. David and Charles Book.
- Pollard, Arthur (1969) The Victorians. Great Britain. Sphere Books.