A Christmas Carol: The Political Backstory

Woodcut illustration from American Notes

Woodcut illustration from American Notes

Charles Dickens is a character much loved for his great contribution to English literature in the Victorian era. His thrilling stories, vivid characters and exhaustive depiction of contemporary life in the mid 1800s left a lasting impression on audiences around the globe. A Christmas Carol was a political and emotional message to the masses of Europe at the time. Charles Dickens own story is one of rags to riches, born in to poverty he began his literary career as a journalist and with new contacts in the press he was able to make a name for himself. A Christmas Carol was written during a pivotal point in Dickens’ life. First, there was a wave of a nostalgic interest in pre-Cromwell traditions in Victorian England following the publication of Some Ancient Christian Carols by Davies Gilbert, William Sandy’s Selection of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, and The Book of Christmas by Thomas Hervey. On the verge of complete and utter poverty he wrote the novel as a political message commenting on the enormous gap between the rich and poor in Victorian Britain utilizing the wave in popular demand of Christmas themed novels.

A Christmas Carol was written in late 1843 during a career crisis, he found himself actually owing his publishers money even after his immense success with his earlier literary works. Dickens had first achieved popularity with the reading public with his first novel known today as the Pickwick Papers which appeared in serialized form from mid 1836 to 1837. Dickens great fame then proceeded with his popular novels, Oliver Twist written in 1838, Nicholas Nickelby in 1839, and The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841 among many others. After Dickens had finished writing The Old Curiosity Shop he visited America for several months in 1842. Dickens did not enjoy his visit to America much and wrote very negative observations in his book American Notes, which alienated a large chunk of his audience across seas. Proceeding this fame, Dickens was in a great deal of debt with his publisher and fearful that his career was declining, Dickens desperately wanted to write something that would redeem himself and be very popular with the public. A visit to the grimy industrial city of Manchester motivated Dickens to tell the story of greedy businessmen who would be transformed by Christmas spirit. Besides Dickens’ personal reasons for writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens felt a strong need to comment on the enormous gap between the rich and poor in Victorian Britain.

In 1843 Dickens gave a speech in Manchester England at a benefit to raise money for an organization that aimed to bring education and culture to the working masses. Dickens was deeply affected after he addressed the working class, he took a long walk after his speech and while thinking of the plight of exploited child workers he conceived the idea for A Christmas Carol. Industrialized victimization of the masses in this industrial era was valued more than human values such as charity, benevolence, humility, etc. Dickens wanted to express Christmas ideals, that the holidays are a spiritual time for humility and charity, not about money. Ebenezer Scrooge epitomizes the industrial ideals of Europe, a man consumed with work and money that is changed by the realization of his destructive past and the Christmas spirit. Not only is A Christmas Carol a metaphor to the current economic situation, it also contained many references to Dickens childhood.

Scrooge’s recollections of his unloved boyhood evoke Dickens’ own past and illustrate his preoccupation with the insidious effects of a warped childhood. When the ghost of Christmas past approaches Scrooge and shows him scenes of his childhood he reminisces on a life filled with regretful decisions. After the ghost shows him a scene of an argument with the lost love of his life Scrooge becomes very upset, “’Spirit!’ said Scrooge, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?’” Scrooge ultimately cannot stand the misery that the ghost brought upon him and uses a giant extinguisher cap to escape the reproachful haunting of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Since none of the living can get through the calloused heart of Ebenezer Scrooge gets a visit from these ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come in order to remind Scrooge that his wealth could do a world of good to those suffering around him.

Scrooge’s miserliness is symptomatic for Dickens of the way in which his society ignored, exploited, and abused its poorest and most vulnerable members. Scrooge’s objection to charitable donations in the opening of A Christmas Carol exemplifies this idea, “’Are there no prisons?’…’And the Union workhouses?’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?” Scrooge dismisses the poor as “surplus population” which was a phrase coined by the laissez-faire economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who represented a “hands-off” school of thought to which Dickson objected (Hearn 24). Such cynical and calloused refusal to share is, for Dickens, an outrage. The clearest call for social justice in the book occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Present warns Scrooge to beware of ignorance and want, forces which, if left unchecked, can spell doom not only for the poor but for the whole of society. Dickens stresses the humanity common to all people, and demands that those who “have” act.

Amazingly, Dickens completed A Christmas Carol in 6 weeks to be finished in time for the holiday season, a time characterized by giving and good fortune and charity, when in fact the Victorian society expressed everything but. Dickens, having a first hand experience with poverty, strongly advocated for a change in the attitude of the government and wealthy handful of society, he did so throughout many of his works but it became a very apparent theme throughout A Christmas Carol.

 

 

 

 

Dickens, Charles. “A Christmas Carol.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, volume 2A, fourth ed. New York: Longman 1999. 1373-1430. Print.

 

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