In A Christmas Carol, an allegory of spiritual values versus material ones, Charles Dickens shows Scrooge having to learn the lesson of the spirit of Christmas, facing the reality of his own callous attitude to others, and reforming himself as a compassionate human being. The reader is shown his harshness in the office, where he will not allow Bob Cratchit enough coal to warm his work cubicle and begrudges his employee a day off for Christmas, even claiming that his clerk is exploiting him. In the scene from the past at Fezziwig’s warehouse, Scrooge becomes aware of the actions of a conscientious, caring employer and feels his first twinge of conscience. The author suggests an origin for Scrooge’s indifference to others as Scrooge is portrayed as a neglected child, the victim of a harsh father intent on denying him a trip home for the holidays and only reluctantly relenting.
The ghost of Marley teaches his former partner the lesson of materialism, as Marley is condemned to drag an enormous chain attached to cash boxes: “I wear the chain I forged in life,” the ghost explains. “I made it link by link.” Marley warns Scrooge that he is crafting a similar fate for himself and that the three spirits are coming to give him a chance to change. Marley is filled with regret for good deeds not done. This theme is repeated when the first spirit exposes Scrooge to phantoms wailing in agony, many of whom Scrooge recognizes. The phantoms suffer because they now see humans who need their help, but they are unable to do anything: It is too late; they have missed their opportunity.
The novel contains important social commentary. As the two gentlemen are collecting for the poor on Christmas Eve, Scrooge contemptuously asks, “Are there no prisons?” One of the gentlemen says that many of the poor, rather than go to the detested workhouses, cruel and inadequate residences for the destitute, would prefer to die. Scrooge replies that “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” a reference to Thomas Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), a treatise predicting that population would soon outstrip food production and result in a “surplus population” for which society could not provide. Later, in response to Scrooge’s plea to allow Tiny Tim to live, the Ghost of Christmas Present throws Scrooge’s words back at him: “What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Observing two ragged children clinging to the skirts of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge asks about them and is told, “They are Man’s. . . . This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.” The spirit has a warning: “Beware them both, and all their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” This warning suggests that those who do not share in the prosperity may in time prove dangerous to society. The revolution in France half a century earlier may have been on Dickens’ mind. An important idea that the author stresses is that humans are responsible for their own destiny, both as individuals and as a group. He is writing in the tradition of a religion that teaches that people will one day have to answer for their failure to fulfill their responsibility.
Tuesday Dec. 10, 2013
MANHATTAN -- Written 170 years ago, Charles Dickens' classic novella "A Christmas Story" still resonates with people today, according to two literature experts at Kansas State University.
The latest example of Dickens' enduring popularity will also be a nod to one of his most enduring works. A new film about Dickens' life, "The Invisible Woman," starring Ralph Fiennes, will be released on Christmas day.
"A Christmas Carol" features the penny-pinching, Christmas-hating Ebenezer Scrooge and his dramatic transformation after a timely visit from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
Naomi Wood is a Kansas State University professor of English who specializes in children's and Victorian literature and culture. She says that "A Christmas Carol"has remained popular because of its observations about the holiday and its central theme that a person can always change.
"'A Christmas Carol' is a compelling story about the Christmas holiday not as a religious observance, but as an aspect of the social contract: the time when those who 'have' experience joy in sharing with those who 'have not,'" Wood said. "It's also a story of transformation. Scrooge's story offers the possibility that one can change for the better, become a better person and grow a bigger heart."
Dan Hoyt is a Kansas State University assistant professor of English who teaches Dickens' work. He said that "A Christmas Carol" also accurately captures sentiments that many people feel around the holidays, and gives a refreshing message amidst the commercialism that surrounds Christmas today.
"Much of Dickens' work, including 'A Christmas Carol,' has comic touches and is intensely sentimental. Just about everyone can appreciate those qualities during the holiday season," Hoyt said. "It champions generosity and compassion, and when Christmas feels commercialized in so many ways, that message is powerful and comforting."
Wood said that its compelling characters, as well as elements of the spooky and supernatural, add to the intrigue of "A Christmas Carol."
"The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come are wonderful devices for thinking about our lives and what we want our legacy to be," Wood said. "The story also features a sweet and pathetic kid in Tiny Tim, as well as both a happy and unhappy ending. The double ending helps emphasize that we have a choice in how we affect the lives of others for better or worse."
"A Christmas Carol" has been adapted to many film versions, which Wood says would have pleased the author.
"Dickens was an avid theatergoer and was quite used to his novels being dramatized -- sometimes even before they were finished," she said. "He enjoyed seeing his work come to life on the stage, and I think if he would have lived long enough, he would have loved movies. He adapted his own work for public performance, and was renowned for his effective readings."
"Dickens' work still speaks to us on an emotional level," Hoyt said of the author's enduring popularity. "That's evident from the continual retellings and resurrections and re-imaginings of his fiction. 'A Christmas Carol,' for example, has been turned into everything from a ballet to a Broadway musical."
While many screen and stage versions of "A Christmas Carol" are quality adaptations of the novella, Wood said the one thing they sometimes leave out is the social criticism that is a prominent theme in the novella.
"The story is a feel-good parable about the joys of individual charity, but the book also demands its readers look at the vast economic system that produces 'want' and 'ignorance,' which Dickens personifies as society's hideous and starving children," she said. "Dickens wanted his readers to care about the 99 percent, and even more for the 47 percent -- the people who aren't served by the moneyed and privileged 1 percent."
"A Christmas Carol" was Dickens' first Christmas story. He made sure the book was published in time to sell for the holiday season in 1843, the year it was written. He would go on to write four more Christmas-themed novellas, as well as numerous shorter Christmas stories for magazines. Wood said Dickens was a big fan of the Christmas holiday and loved hosting parties with plenty of food, drinks, dancing and magic tricks.
"Dickens delighted in Christmas and having a big and roistering celebration with lots to eat and drink," she said. "He would have a big party for both kids and adults, and danced wildly with as many guests as possible. He was an enthusiastic amateur magician and loved to amaze his guests in made-up characters, such as 'The Unparalleled Necromancer Rhia Rhama Roos.'"photo credit: Portland Center Stage via photopincc