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Though popularized in childrens books and on stage, Dickens A Christmas Carol is far more than a simple vaudevillian ghost story. Indeed, A Christmas Carol is a severe and scathing attack on the social conditions of the time and the nature of man that exploits those conditions, and his standing within it, for his own gain. The dark and exploitative nature of man is embodied in the story’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter businessman whose signature expression of callousness and bitterness to the world is “Bah Humbug!” a phrase popularized in children’s literature and theater. The image of the curmudgeonly isolated man on the hill who is the antithesis of the Christmas spirit is further established as a children’s archetype through such stories as The Grinch who stole Christmas. The iconic children’s archetype and use of ghosts in A Christmas Carol nonetheless sprung up as a personification of the type of man that society could breed, a greedy isolated man who replaced human interaction and affection with material wealth, leaving him richer than others but spiritually bereft and ultimately haunted by the relationships he has forsaken. In short, Dickens is saying that the social conditions of the time devalue human relationships in the encouragement of capital gain, in a social context in which conditions were particularly brutal, and those in charge could most brutally exploit the marginalized in society, who were particularly defenseless and vulnerable at the time. Indeed, the author Dickens, a foster child himself for some time, is a tale written from experience of the underbelly of society, using devices such as ghosts to deliver the message foretelling the doom of society and humanity if it continues to maintain the values system which has corrupted the heart of those within it.
The political views of Scrooge reflect the exploitative nature of society at the time. A detailing of the way his character mirrors the images of society will be presented to demonstrate that Scrooge is much more than just a child’s anti-hero. He is the cold personification of the troubled society that Dickens was writing about-cold not only in physical sense, but in an emotional sense:
“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty (Dickens, A Christmas Carol Pg. 3).”
This characterization is presented in the interests of serving Dickens’ artistic message that a shallow, materialistic society such as England of the time can be reformed through spiritual transformation of each individual, so that the catharsis of Scrooge represents the extreme example of converting even the hardest and most extreme personification of the shallowness of the society at the time, including the imprisonment of the lower classes who were in debt to the upper classes, the ultimate injustice for Dickens in society at the time. Dickens is not saying that everyone should be nice on Christmas, as if this is a story about Christmas spirit, this is a story promoting the spirit of humanity for everyday, where if humans can maintain the Christmas spirit every day, the world and society could be a better place. The rich could help the poor, instead of imprisoning them within the social class system and laws, and people would get along instead of exploit each other, mainly by being more generous.
Scrooge is really a personification of the social ills of the time, one by one. Scrooge is the proprietor of an accounting house, which is really the British word for collections agency, in a time in which many in England were poor or struggling. He is an exploitative boss, underpaying his loyal clerk, Bob Cratchit. He is also unethical, bullying his clerk as well. He is also a supporter of the British Poor Law of 1834, allowing the poor to be interned in workhouses. In other words, he supports the law that forces poor people who cannot pay debts to be sequestered in workhouses where they are forced to pay off their debts. He also has disregarded humanity, and human relationships, with no wife or children, and dismissing the charitable invitation of his younger nephew Fred. Further, he has no social conscience, throwing out two men collecting for charity on Christmas. This is really an itemized list of the characteristic ills of society, and the means by which human beings mistreat each other within the system of society set up in Britain at the time that Dickens was writing, and that mercantilist society in general was promulgating.
This message may be embodied in the following quote, regarding the ultimate fate of man, and society that would continue to uphold the current values in society:
“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us (Dickens, A Christmas Carol 1844, Author Nancy Farmer Pg. 36).”
Research reveals how the fiction work A Christmas Carol actually reflects biographic events and conditions of Dickens’ earlier life. After Dickens lived a happy childhood being cared for by his father and reading and pursuing literature in school, Dickens was humiliated by being abandoned by his father who was imprisoned for several months while Dickens was forced into abhorrent working class conditions that humiliated him. Scarred by the experience of humiliation, abandonment, and forced labor, the effect on Dickens was a psychological scar that made him feel he had lost his former happiness, and this loss represented a scar which influenced the themes and plots of his work heavily, and is clearly visible in the presentations of the lost life of Scrooge which he at the end comes to realize he wants back, and which spurs the character transformation within him. Dickens was also influenced by other works he was exposed to as a child, such as Washington Irving’s stories of traditional Old English Christmas, and satirical essays about Christmas and more religious tracts regarding the Christmas the interpretations and observances of the Christmas holiday. In other words, A Christmas Carol is not merely the fun, lyrical or flippant children’s tale about the Christmas spirit that it has commonly been come to be known for among the unread and children, but the literary work is really the culmination of the suffering from social injustice and exposure to a wide range of readings and viewpoints on the meaning of Christmas.
By being exposed to the literature he studied, Dickens was able to develop a story about Christmas that could be a commentary on society, where the context of Christmas has universal appeal which would capture the reader’s attention in a vehicle in which to deliver his artistic message about society and the need for reformation. The social message is motivated by the terrible periods in Dickens’ childhood in forced labor and abandoned by his father where he was exposed first hand to the lives of the men, women, and children in the most impoverished areas of London and the social injustices they suffered (Douglas-Fairhust, 2006, xiii).
There are those, possibly a majority of those exposed to the story A Christmas Carol, who know it only for the social and literary archetypes it established, such as the figure of Scrooge, which very American family knows and was embraced by Disney and Dr. Doolittle. There is the archetype of the ghosts of Christmas, that bring not presents but insight to people, to instill in them the spirit of Christmas as the spirits of Christmas. There are also the popularized expressions, which many would say are the most significant contribution of Dickens’ story to subsequent culture. Such fundamental phrases of society as “Merry Christmas” and “Bah Humbug” actually originated in A Christmas Carol. It is for this reason that many critics argue that the most singular impact of the book is the general influence it exerted on readers, who embraced snippets of the artistic expression such as popular words or images, and then popularized them through marketing and further stylized development of themes. and the name ‘Scrooge’ and exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ have entered the English language (Dickens, 1844).
However, those that believe that the greatest influence exerted by the book is the lasting imagery perpetuated in literature and popular culture fail to realize the social impact which the book had in the more immediate time periods after the book’s release. Research reveals specific acts of social justice that bursts out in trends in society as a result of reading A Christmas Carol that make the preservation of archetypes in literature pale in comparison to the substantial and tangible social good that arose from the story, and represented the greater intention of the writer. Research points out several examples of charitable behavior that arose as a direct result of A Christmas Carol’s release and reading:
in the spring of 1844, a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain attributed to Dickens’s novella
in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson’s enthusiastic vow after reading Dickens’s Christmas books to give generously;
and the expression by Thomas Carlyle of generous hospitality by staging two Christmas dinners after reading the book (Glancy, 2005, xii-xiii)
the closing by a Mr. Fairbanks of his factory on Christmas Day and sending every employee a turkey (Douglas-Fairhurst, 2006, xx)
the Queen of Norway’s early 20th century sending of gifts to the crippled children of with a note signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love”
the raising by Sir Squire Bancroft of £20,000 for the poor by reading the tale aloud publicly
the reading by Captain Corbett-Smith of the tale to the troops in the trenches of World War I (Glancy, 1985, xiii)
Indeed, popular culture often has thought of A Christmas Carol as a story about the dark side of human nature, and see it in the literary context as a universal tale about each person. However, the tale when placed into the social contest of the time really proves to be social commentary that spurred social change. In effect, nobody understood or had a concept of the Christian spirit until the story A Christmas Carol came out, even though the story is totally non-religious and non-denominational, though obviously very heavy in Christian imagery and themes. The story is not about the spirit of Christmas, but the ideal of human nature for everyday, not just Christmas:
“It is required of every man,” the ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death (Dickens, A Christmas Carol 1844, Author Nancy Farmer Pg. 18).”
As far as the argument that the author meant to influence the world through the imagery of Christmas, they need to examine further the themes of the story and the social effect that the story had on a society that was unfamiliar with the notion of character change that came to be associated with Christmas because of this book, a spirit that was being suggested by the author as necessary not only on Christmas, but every day of a person’s life thereof. Another argument that the book was written for entertainment value has to do with the fact that it was converted so rapidly into a play. Research reveals that the novella was adapted for stage almost immediately, with three different productions opening in 1944 on the fifth of February and up to eight more by the end of that month (Douglas-Fairhurst, 2006, xx). However, the play was an adaptation of the book of course, as playwriting and novel-writing are two different things. The entertainment value of the book as a theatrical work was seized upon and capitalized upon early on, but they were made as productions for their entertainment value, and the entertainment aspects of the book played up and suggested as more powerful to present to the audience.
The book even gave rise to more literature, but the literature represented variations on the conclusion of the book, including responses to the tale by W. M. Swepstone (Christmas Shadows, 1850), Horatio Alger (Job Warner’s Christmas, 1863), Louisa May Alcott (A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True, 1882), and others who write about Scrooge in the years after his reformation (Douglas-Fairhurst, 2006, xxi). These were not fueled by the need to impose commentary, but by the need to develop and revisit Scrooge the literary character. In other words, later works that built upon the A Christmas Carol that were highly entertaining were made with the intention of providing entertainment value, and stand alone and apart from the original intentions and presentation of the earlier original work that inspired them.
In conclusion, the evidence is quite clear. Despite the entertainment value of the book and the popular culture references and archetypes that it inspired, the book is clearly a social commentary, as demonstrated to have been written to reflect the autobiographical experience and suffering of the author with the intent of suggesting to readers the need to reform the social system which had sprung up around them. The association with Christmas is ironic in that people have come to think of A Christmas Carol as a story about the Christmas spirit when it really embodies a tale of the universal human spirit which needs to be recovered, and which the protagonist Scrooge, the embodiment of the ills of contemporary society of Dickens, recovered through the character catharsis concluding the character arc driving the action of the story thereof.
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