What do we appreciate about the work of Charles Dickens? Dickens wrote fantastic, unbelievable stories about everyday urban life and social reality in the Victorian England hellscape. He used the lives of women and children (and their labor) to highlight the horrors he was observing in his time. Many have pointed out that the streets of London that inspired A Christmas Carol are the same streets which form the backdrop of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Marx would go on to say that Dickens and his contemporaries “have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”
If Moby Dick was an allegory about the doomed soul of mid-19th century America, then the works of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol no doubt among them, are about the doomed soul of an ascendant industrial capitalism in Western Europe. But the similarities seem to end there; A Christmas Carol is ultimately about one person, Scrooge, and as its topic suggests, the religious overtones are far from subtle. Although Christ figures appear in many of Dickens’ novels, where good often triumphs over evil through a complex testing of a character’s integrity, nowhere is it as central as in A Christmas Carol. Some might call it his most overt of Christian novels. Edmund Wilson, literary critic and Dickens commentator, remarked “the reform of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol shows the phenomenon [of salvation] in its purest form.” It is also the most widely read piece of his works to feature a supernatural element in the form of “ghosts.”
Here, my own Judaism haunts me. The traditions of dead generations weigh like ghosts of Christmas past on the brains of the living. I’m not so much talking about Judaism the religion, but a particularly American Jewish worldview represented by the demand that the world be secular for you. However, from Platoon to The Matrix, I love a good Christ figure in my storytelling. At times, I find it cheap and underhanded, but when done right, you can’t deny the power that themes of redemption and salvation bring. In A Christmas Carol, this is spoiled on Scrooge, a figure so undeserving of rehabilitation. However, we might be able to save A Christmas Carol itself from its own simplicity if we open ourselves to all its messages.
My suspicion is that we find comfort in such stories because most of us are capable of both kindness and malice, but in the end, we hope the former will prevail over the latter. This can drive good drama, it can also render it incredibly boring if not supplied by dynamic characters, an intriguing backdrop, or anything else drawing you in. The worst thing about a Christ arc is that it takes good traits and makes this an extraordinarily inhuman thing by obscuring the source, this kind of messianic worldview is quite a pessimistic view of the species. In a Christmas Carol, this risks trading the redemption of an entire social order for the redemption of one obscure man.
It’s here we might point out that A Christmas Carol represented a historical innovation for Charles Dickens, for which he is called “The Inventor of Modern Christmas” by various British nerds. The holiday was not originally celebrated amongst many urban English until the mid-Victorian era. The book was wildly popular, selling out several pressings in one year, and influencing much that we understand about Christmas today. New traditions were in flux and a new commercialization was setting in, making many Scrooges of reasonable people, A Christmas Carol was to remind readers of its true meaning. However, in reading Wilson’s classic analysis The Two Scrooges, we’re given the revelation that in his own ways, Dickens was a bit of Scrooge himself. He certainly celebrated Christmas and hated poverty, but to the people in his life, his wife, his children, his mistress, he was more than equipped to use the kind of shrewd cruelty that Scrooge was known for. To Wilson, it seemed clear that Dickens had written his own nightmare into A Christmas Carol, that it was an earlier example of his use of psychological trauma that would develop many of his characters to come.
I’m reminded of the wisdom of my wise Jewish grandmother, who scorned gifts for occasion’s sake, who instead preferred gifts to simply satisfy the compulsion of wanting someone to have something you think they would like. You see a shirt you must see a friend in, or a book they must have, and if you can, you make it so. For her, it was the idea of waiting for a holiday or birthday that was absurd. Such sentimentality ruins gifts. Meanwhile, my wise Christian grandmother dismissed Christmas as a pagan holiday, and yet she partook in it nonetheless despite her devotion. It is easy to see why, because of Dickens. The idea of “being a Scrooge” is culturally ubiquitous, sometimes we need the naïve optimism that Dickens supplied. I have my own reasons to hate Christmas, as not all the Christians in my family were so devout as my grandmother. Resentful of my mother’s Jewish marriage and issue of Jewish children, an aunt exclaimed to my Christ-killing ears that I should return her Christmas gift to the tree at age 8 for my crime. I bring this up because it often makes me wonder about the strings we attach to “gifts”, the quid-pro-quo of it all, but also of how easy it is to spoil the gift of A Christmas Carol.
Not so fast — if our only grievance with A Christmas Carol were its Christianity, and not its bourgeois sentimentality, we would miss out on so much fun. The story’s main problem is, as pop Marxist Slavoj Žižekputs forward rather frankly, “charity degrades and demoralizes”. Žižek invokes Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism: “it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.” The shame of A Christmas Carol is that Tiny Tim should die because of an operation that the Cratchit family could afford if Scrooge paid them a living wage. Out of the goodness of his heart, and not compelled by the Cratchits or any other working people, Scrooge decides to pay them more and reverses this terrible destiny. Meanwhile, the power dynamic between them remains unchanged, just as the other Tiny Tims of London live on in the same conditions the Cratchits have escaped as individuals. Meanwhile the prisons and workhouses that Scrooge condemns the poor to are not threatened one bit by his transformation, as we see the story out of frame, we see the pity in a story where Scrooge is both saved and savior. Does Christmas exist to help a rich guy salve his conscience, while retaining the social power to go right back to his old ways whenever the spirit moves him? The story should’ve been about the Cratchits and Tiny Tim!
And what does redemption look like for the Cratchits, were they the real subjects of A Christmas Carol? It is already there. Scrooge is not simply tyrannical, Dickens makes him pathetic, the target of everyone’s pity. What good is being rich if you cannot enjoy a winter’s fire for fear that the coal may be too great a splurge? Risk of ruin haunts Scrooge in the present, and such is not to be envied. It is a curious matter how in the story there could be any hope for him at all. The Cratchits have every reason to hate Christmas and to curse Scrooge, and yet they toast to his name, however reluctantly, and defiantly enjoy their holiday. Such resolute good-heartedness in the face of despair shows the Cratchits’ knowledge of their own worth. The point is to show them in dignity in the darkest of times, not just cast compassion onto Scrooge. I don’t think there needs to be more imagination for their redemption, this defiant dignity is potent enough.
This challenges us to not surrender to the most understandable derangement this world brings upon us. Forgive me for finding refuge in the laughter of playing children, American Chinese food and trips to the movies on Christmas day, the bed of a lover, cold beer on porches and stoops. These quiet comforts make up my vision of a dignified life. They don’t exactly denote “peace,” but more specifically solace. Solace does not forgive nor forget the Cratchits condition, it implies a temporary relief from it. Even as all is resolved, Scrooge can never really enjoy A Christmas Carol with the same solace as the Cratchits might. Their pity is our gift.
And what of Edmund Wilson, the good old literary critic whom I could only hope to channel? You must admire his scathing wordcraft, and the scorched earth policy by which he conducted his reviews. His own Scroogedom is his legacy. He lived his life not unlike Dickens, a passionate rabid genius with unsavory complexities. Some may find these writers pretentious, but we rootless cosmopolitans masquerading as mad scientists find our own solace knowing we are not alone. To cast treachery on your national treasures and traditions seems to be an indulgent delight that comes with a burden of derangement, but in the end, you just may be remembered like Hunter S. Thompson. The writer and the critic get their own Christ arc here.
Perhaps the supernatural is prominent in A Christmas Carol because Dickens, a skeptical non-believer in ghosts, could not tell the story without it. The best and most self-evident meaning behind A Christmas Carol is that it would take divine intervention for a capitalist to choose their humanity over the interests of their class. Wilson points out that Scrooge would have been likely to lapse into his old ways with the season passing, as Dickens himself could not hold true to the reformed Scrooge archetype. Even in his redemptive arc in the final chapter, Scrooge is still the boss even in jest as he delivers the long overdue raise to Bob Cratchit, and without it his cheesy joke, pretending to scold Cratchit for being late before delivering the award, would have no thrust. The purity of the Christ archetype in Scrooge would decay into more tragic subjects, like the fate of the disposable Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, who was nailed violently to the cross unlike Scrooge, dead as a door-nail.
And yet perhaps, I am overthinking it. A Christmas Carol isn’t about a capitalist who saves the world as a part of their character development. The point of A Christmas Carol is to make the reader feel good. Not every Dickens novel ends this way, many have bittersweet endings involving sacrifice, pain, and loss. It’s about enjoying the moment, being grateful, and taking stock of the little things and the people that matter to us. This is very difficult to do in this doom-laden hellscape we know as the world today, but Dickens gives us plenty of doom and gloom in his stories, but ultimately, it features in A Christmas Carol to remind us to lighten up even in the worst of times. We all deserve this; perhaps if we cannot have peace, we can have solace.
God Bless Us, Every One!