If you’re like me, you might take A Christmas Carol as a fixture of Christmas—one that is so familiar that likely it doesn’t gain much deep consideration. The tale of a miserly old man whose evening is startlingly interrupted by four ghosts who intervene to rescue him from his curmudgeonly and parsimonious ways is straightforward enough, the message fairly unobscured; after all, Dickens wasn’t interested in wrapping up the moral of the story in layers of symbolism.
But sometimes what is familiar is the least examined. Take the title, for example—A Christmas Carol. Some versions of Dickens’ story include singing, but not all Christmas Carols include, well, carols. Dickens didn’t even publish it intending it to be sung; he published it as a book. So why did he entitle it A Christmas Carol? Well, in actuality he entitled the book something other than just the innocuous A Christmas Carol: really, the novella is entitled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
Now, Charles Dickens knew how to turn a penny; he had made himself a fair amount of money as a writer and had a good business sense. So certainly his title has something to do with marketability. Who, perusing the books for sale amid other wares, wouldn’t have his eye caught by a Ghost Story of Christmas? Or, for that matter, a Christmas Carol in prose? In 1843, the year Dickens published Christmas Carol, Christmas carols were well-entrenched in English Christmas celebrations. Classics such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” had been around since the 1700s. “Silent Night” had just been penned in 1818, and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” was practically hot off the presses, being written in 1833 (although the lyrics are said to date back to the 1400s). So clearly Dickens was relying on a catchy title to capture the attention of book buyers. (His strategy, and his enduring story, worked: the book has never been out of print since its first printing in 1843.)
And, interestingly enough, because the work was entitled A Christmas Carol, he didn’t pen it in chapters, but instead, mirroring choral music structure, he divided his book into staves (the plural of staff, the system of lines and spaces onto which we write notes). It’s as if he wants us to think of the story being sung to us, or even as if we are all carolers, singing the ghost story to each other, participating in it, investing ourselves in its message. Now what’s interesting about many of the Christmas carols Dickens knew (and that we still sing today) is that they often take deep truth and express it in layered verses; each verse takes us deeper into the truths about God, or our condition, or the circumstances surrounding and significance of Christ’s birth. Perhaps this is what Charles Dickens had in mind when he decided to title his novella in a way that echoed familiar carols.
If that’s the case, then why did he choose this means? Why write a book, a story, that echoes Christmas carols in structure, depth, and even title? What was he after? Primarily, Dickens hoped to motivate readers to do more to help the poor in Britain—this is why men come around to Scrooge’s shop, collecting money for the poor (and are soundly rebuffed by Scrooge’s “Bah, Humbug!” and query about workhouses and prisons), why there are beggars on the streets, why Tiny Tim’s life is in jeopardy as his family struggles to make ends meet with paltry wages. But in order to fully appreciate these elements of the story and Dickens’ objective, we need to understand a little about Dickens’ context.
The Industrial Revolution had been underway in England since the late 18th century, so at least one if not two generations of British families had seen their situations change drastically because of the many innovations—some for the better, but many for the worst. As labor became mechanized, laborers became scarcer. And as industry moved away from the countryside and into the cities, people flocked to the cities. But there they found often hardship, lack of employment, crowded living conditions, and sometimes even destitution. Add to that a few bad harvests and mass unemployment following the end of the wars with Napoleon (defeated finally in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo), and England was facing an enormous crisis.
Old ways of helping the poor were simply unsustainable. By 1834 British Parliament passed the New Poor Law, which legislated a new way to deal with the poor: rather than merely offering them assistance as they needed it, the British system would now require impoverished people to earn help, in the workhouses. The poor and destitute had to seek help by applying to the workhouses, a place to live as well as work. Though the law was intended to keep able-bodied workers at their jobs and homes, as you might imagine, many critics of this law saw it merely as a way to penalize the poor rather than help them.
(This is Part 1 of Miss Owens’ post on Charles Dickens. Click here to read Part 2.)