Classics

The Politics of A CHRISTMAS CAROL

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There is some debate over what, ultimately, the message is in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Is it pro-Christmas and Christianity? Anti-capitalism? Socialist? People have been arguing about the politics of A Christmas Carol since its publication in 1843, and will probably continue to do so for some time. Here’s what I’ve found — and please note that this will be a mix of facts and opinions. I’ll try to keep them straight.

First, I started by actually reading this novel for the first time. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but Charles Dickens was very good at writing! I must have highlighted a good 30% of the text (I read an ebook on my phone, but to be perfectly honest I highlight my paper books, too). Because I was already thinking about the politics (for lack of a better word) of the story, the moral if you will, I read it with an eye to authorial intent.

Now. I do not think that authorial intent is the be all, end all source of meaning in any piece of writing. What the reader takes from it is just as important! Sometimes more important! And of course, Dickens has been dead for some time and cannot exactly tell us what he meant to say by writing A Christmas Carol. Perhaps he merely wanted his penny a word*.

*Dickens was not actually paid by the word, but by the installment of his serialized stories; it came out to about a farthing, or quarter of a (British) penny, per word. Adjusted for inflation, and assuming I have mathed correctly, an 1843 farthing is equivalent to something like £33 ($44 USD) today; I was paid 1¢ per word for my most recent story sale, 178 years later. Ebenezer Scrooge is implied to be the wealthiest man in his neighborhood; the wealthiest man in the world right now, Elon Musk, makes an estimated $16 million per hour. This is what we might call a wage gap.

Is it possible that A Christmas Carol is merely an ode to Dickens’s favorite holiday; that it is not intended as a morality story, but merely a moral one? I cannot say. I doubt it. But I believe he lays out at least part of his mission statement (via nephew Fred) early in the novel:

But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

Again at the end, when Scrooge wakes up and finds that he still has time to be the man he’s become on his journey, Dickens reminds us what story he is telling:

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!”

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

It seems to me that authorial intent is to show the folly of greed and selfishness by telling the story of a man remembering that he was once a person with feelings, seeing that his stifling of all such feeling in favor of greed has hurt the people around him, and wishing for more time with which to do good with what he has. Is this a Christian message? I suppose so, but not exclusively. Christmas (arguably the most Christian holiday, though I won’t argue with you over it) is the medium for the message, but it might just as well be something else.

Dickens certainly does not think the system — which boils down to capitalism, though it is different in several ways from modern capitalism — is a good one. He shows this especially blithely by having the Spirit of Christmas Present throw Scrooge’s own words in his face when he is concerned about the poor spirit children, Ignorance and Want, who cling to the Spirit:

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge. “Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

Having concluded that this was his intent as far as it was laid out in the text, I went looking for other opinions — perhaps even a few facts — and immediately found a Time article explaining that he had originally intended to write a pamphlet titled “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” inspired by a report on child labor. Indeed, this report shows up in the text in the form of Bob Cratchit’s children Martha and Peter working to help support the family.

I also found an NPR piece calling A Christmas Carol unequivocally political. The author points out that in the same decade that he wrote A Christmas Carol, Dickens, living in the United States, was a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery and for copyright laws. At a government level, what might the elimination of poverty — the real villain of A Christmas Carol — look like? Would it be charity, as represented by the prize turkey Scrooge sends to the Cratchits? Or would it be closing the wage gap, as represented by the raise he gives Bob the next morning?

Or is it simply a story about understanding one another’s humanity and showing friendship to each other?

Further Reading

A Christmas Carol: A Call For Socialism Or Compassion? @ Forbes

Tiny Tim: Complex Reactions to a Stereotypical Character

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