While one of the most famous Christmas stories of all time, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol sometimes comes under criticism for weakly addressing the problem of poverty. The complaint goes like this: Ebenezer Scrooge is but one person who learns an individual lesson, and that lesson is for private individuals to be a bit more charitable. One day a year. Thus, the Dickens classic tosses a breadcrumb to the poor, but doesn’t do a thing to address serious social ills. A sentimental tale, but a moral flop. As one historian, Penne Restad, has put it, the story of one man’s redemption urges us to celebrate “the conservative, individualistic, and patriarchal aspects” of typical Dickens novels. We are to see the problems of the world brought on by a few bad apples and solved by curing those bad apples of their badness.
Charitable giving increased the day his book came out. But did anything else change? Is Dickens only arguing that a dose of altruism once a year solves everything? And should we toss the story aside because of it?
On the surface, you’d think this was a fair critique, but all context considered, I propose a toast to Dickens for his masterful pairing of both individual and social convictions in the perfect supernatural holiday tale:
Charles Dickens was moved to write his story after seeing the conditions of children.
Shortly before writing his novel, the author toured both the Cornish tin mines and Field Lane Ragged School. Each of these visits infuriated him as he witnessed the unfair treatment of children. It wasn’t just encounters with lone misers. It was whole institutions of economic brutality that prompted his ire.
In October 5 at the Manchester Athenaum, Dickens gave a fiery talk on educational reform. But why give one speech when you can tell a story in 6 chapters?
Before it was a short story it was a pamphlet.
After his visits, Dickens wrote out a whole pamphlet addressing the issue. After reading another great pamphlet and not wanting to be redundant, he decide to do what he did best: write a compelling story instead. His story helped expose the social ills at the time, a task he originally had formed into a non-fiction piece.
The title of the pamphlet? An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child. Appealing to the population as a whole, on behalf of a people group.
Scrooge is an institution.
Around the time of the story’s publication, Dickens gave a speech on “understanding that the relations between the employer and his employee involves a mutual duty and responsibility.” While the language is that of individual relations, the context is that of societal relationships. There are the employers and the employed, and standards of proper relationship should be attended to.
While Ebenezer Scrooge is a single person who is the fixation of the author’s critique and transformation, he also represents an institution. Scrooge isn’t just a wealthy man. He’s a banker. The man’s cruelty doesn’t just extend from him not giving to charity, but also from the wholesale practices of his lending institution. His penny-pinching inflicts his employees, his debtors, and his neighbors.
Christmas itself is a tool for societal change.
In the time of Dickens, hardly anyone celebrated Christmas, let alone got off work for it. Dickens came to believe that revitalizing Christmas could affect society more than one man’s charity could. But one mans’ charity could help lead a movement.
Like early American author Washington Irving, whose tales inspired the Victorian author, Dickens shared the view that bringing back the social custom of Christmas would help restore a sense of social cohesion during the winters of a world lost to factory modernity. Sure, unions can help workers get a day of the year off, but Dickens arguably did it with a short story about a mean dude. An entire factory in America closed down in 1876 on Christmas Day because the owner read A Christmas Carol.
Scrooge is an individual who must learn to value community.
Scrooge is all to himself early in the story, cold and distant from others. His Grinch-like descriptions are of an individual isolated from society except to exchange goods and services. It is in the company of others as a whole that Scrooge is at his happiest, both past and future him. The novel is about progress, as it uses the progress of one man to encourage that of an entire society. Sure, the novel isn’t Marxist, but it isn’t Friedmanian either—and it certainly isn’t Malthusian.
The Ghosts of Christmas haunt us.
The three spirits that come to haunt Scrooge aren’t even spirits of individuals, but of ideas of progress across time. The ghosts of a public institution (Christmas) haunt an individual, eradicating his unwavering commitment to his own private self. Christmas past recalls history, Christmas present observes the wider now of a whole community, and Christmas future is a doomed prediction of the inevitable death of cold, capital-driven individuality.
The thematic context subtext is there too.
Ever heard of Thomas Malthus? Scrooge literally quotes him when he says that the poor should die and “decrease the surplus population.” Actual quote. But on the contary, as Scrooge learns, the population matters, and workhouses need reform.
Liberals are drawn to Dickens.
And they like to emulate him. While A Christmas Carol isn’t quite the linear biography we see in Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, it still follows the life of a character and how they are both shaped by and shape the forces around them.
Authors like John Irving, whose liberal stance on abortion is advocated through his novel Cider House Rules, praise Dickens for his sweeping stories of characters faced with moral crossroads. Other things Irving has in common with Dickens are the depiction of sympathetic orphaned characters, twisting plots, a touch of melodrama, and character who sacrifice their individual lives for the greater good.
Or take Dave Eggers, his journalistic pen capturing the satirical nincompoopery of life’s institutional villains while telling character-driven stories of people on hard times. His nonfiction narrative Zeitoun is from a single family’s point-of-view, but it’s about a cross-section of people groups—marginalized people suffering post-hurricane.
And it’s typically liberals who more strongly favor legislating government-funded public works and regulation of private industries to help the poor and destitute. If Dickens was all about individuals being charitably without government interference, liberals would hang him out to dry, even if they liked his writing style.
Dickens believed that society needed structural change. He just also happened to believe that individuals with strong character can move themselves and others forward in life. Those two views were not incompatible, nor should they be. Progress is by-the-person and on the society. He wrote about social ills, ones that individuals were responsible for and individuals suffered from.
As a product of his time and genre, Dickens wouldn’t advocate for social change in the manner we’d expect an author to today. But of course, neither do John Irving or Dave Eggers, who prefer satire, melodrama, and other tools. All of these authors use individuals as vehicles for stories about society’s troubles.
Why do some people want to critique A Christmas Carol? Maybe because of it’s Christian themes (which are hardly explicit anyway).
A Christmas Carol gives its protagonist a new lease on life, and gives the public a new lease on a custom. It was surprisingly secular, and can be used to advocate any number of solutions to the ill of poverty.
And if you disagree with me? Humbug.