A Christmas Carol Revisited
It is not generally appreciated that Dickens was a bought and paid for flack for Victorian Capitalism. Admittedly, this is not obvious; his reputation, after all, is that of a critic who highlights the absurdities and cruelties of the age. All is not as it seems, though.
As Orwell points out in his essay on Dickens there are two reactions, two advocacies, that can be made in response to the evils of the world. One is to urge humanity to have better hearts; the other is to urge humanity to change the system by which it orders its affairs. Dickens, Orwell writes, chose the first course.
There is much to be said for such urgings. Systems constructed by men with evil hearts rot from the center out; their evil taints all that they touch. Good will is not enough, though; it cannot redeem a bad system. The flaw in Dickens was that he appealed to good will in men, but no good will could have redeemed the evils of Victorian Capitalism. Indeed, the reverse is true; the good will that he appealed to was no such thing; rather it was a mawkish sentimentality and, as such, served as gestures which glossed over the brutality of the system.
Whether Dickens was a conscious agent of Victorian Capitalism is not to be known; whether or no he was such, he was its de facto agent. His readership was the good people of wealth, the beneficiaries of the system; his appeals to sentiment served their interest. With this in mind, let us look at A Christmas Carol.
The overt story is simple; a miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, is redeemed and learns to celebrate life and Christmas. The story is very edifying. It is the covert story that we are interested in: That story is a disguised tract against socialism.
Early in the story we have a significant scene. Some business men, well fed and well dressed, jolly and full of Christmas cheer, are collecting funds for Christmas dinners for the poor. They approach Scrooge and solicit him for a contribution. He turns them away, saying that he contributes to the poor houses and the work houses and that is enough.
The conclusion we are invited to draw is clear; Scrooge is a miserable miser who cares nothing for others and does not know how to keep Christmas. Consider the matter more carefully. These fine well fed business men certainly know how “to keep Christmas” – they are models of conspicuous consumption. Their charity would reach a handful of people who got out of it a good meal for a day and nothing that would alleviate the sources of their poverty and misery for the rest of the year. It would, however, enable these fine gentry to feel good about themselves.
Scrooge, on the other hand, supports the work houses. Now there is no doubt that the work houses were horrors. We must consider, however, the times. In those days, in a time less overflowing with wealth than our own, the work houses were all there were in the way of a social safety net. The good, fine gentry made sure that there was no more – taxes to ameliorate the lot of the poor were money wasted which might be better spent on gourmet meals and the mounting of mistresses. It was a time when consumption was the mark of a gentleman.
Scrooge was no gentleman. We may be sure of that. He kept no mistress. He lived modestly. He worked hard. And he helped the poor, helped them as a class, helped them in a way that was meaningful rather than by worthless “feel good” gestures. He was, in short, a good socialist.
People with such sentiments were dangerous to the Victorian Capitalists; they had to be dealt with. That is the covert objective of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is depicted, of course, in the most unflattering of terms as a miserable human being – it was a necessary part of the real message: Socialists are miserable human beings.
The bulk of the story is concerned with the visit of the three ghosts. The nominal message is that Scrooge is to be redeemed to humanity. We are concerned with the real message though. It is this: Each ghost delivers a warning. The message of the first ghost is: We shall meticulously investigate your past and use every thing we find against you. The message of the second ghost is: The people are against you. The message of the third ghost is: If you do not cease and desist we shall kill you.
One of the themes of the story is the relationship between Scrooge and his employee, Cratchit, and the appealing, pathetic Tiny Tim. It was part of the ethos of the Victorian Capitialist that he treat his immediate servants with some of the indulgence that he reserved for himself. The mill owner could grind his mill hands into the dirt, could enrich himself on the labor of children, and think nothing of it. He would, however, treat his butler as a member of his family, albeit as a poor relation.
Scrooge is depicted as violating this ethos; it was part of the indictment against the socialist. Even in the midst of the unrelenting propaganda, though, we notice a curious thing. Scrooge asks no more of his employee than he asks of himself. He is there when Cratchit comes to work; he is there when Cratchit leaves. He works as hard as Cratchit, nay harder.
And then there is the matter of Tiny Tim, that icon of mawkish sentimentality. How did he become deformed and crippled? We are not told – he had one of those mystery ailments so beloved by authors dealing in sentiment. It was not spoken of. Indeed, in Victorian times there were many horrors of child abuse that were “not spoken of.” Perhaps Cratchit was not quite the loving father that he was portrayed as being.
In the end Ebeneezer Scrooge is redeemed. He becomes an indulgent and self-indulgent wastrel like his nephew, grinding out money from the poor on one hand and spending it extravagently on himself and his immediate circle with the other. He is no longer Socialist Man. He is a good Victorian Capitalist, keeping Christmas with the best of them, and no longer a threat to the world as it should be.
This page was last updated October 30, 1998.