(This is Part 2 of Miss Owens’ post on Charles Dickens. Click here to read Part 1.)
Poverty, and the disgraceful workhouses, were societal ills about which Dickens cared strongly. It was a problem that had affected him personally, and quite powerfully. When he was about 11 years old, his father became deeply indebted; though the family was lower middle class and shouldn’t have needed to worry about money, Dickens ended up suffering for his father’s incapability to spend within the family’s means. When his father was incarcerated in debtors’ prison, Dickens had to leave his school, move to a new location near his father’s prison, pawn his books, and go to work in a blacking factory: a place that produced shoe black. He earned 5-6 shillings a week. It was difficult, distasteful, and enormously embarrassing work for Dickens. In fact, he later said that his time in the blacking factory, working to pay off his father’s debts, left him psychologically damaged. Not long after this, the entire family moved into the debtor’s prison with his father. From that time onward, the plight of the poor and needy was ever on Dickens’ mind.
And so it was in the 1840s that Charles Dickens found himself nonplussed with the quality of help given to the British poor and needy. He toyed with writing a pamphlet for distribution, urging the better off to take notice of the needs around them and to give to those in poverty and destitution; to fight the demons of Ignorance and Want (personified later in A Christmas Carol). Yet he wasn’t entirely sold on the concept of pamphlet distribution. Then he visited Manchester, a northern region of England that had experienced massive population growth due to booming cotton industry. In the early 1700s about 10,000 people lived in Manchester. By 1850, 400,000 lived there, with most of the growth occurring from 1800 onward as population numbers doubled every few decades. The jobs paid well, if you could get one and keep one. And it wasn’t uncommon for many children to labor just as strenuously as adults. Dickens’s heart was moved by the state of common welfare in Manchester; it was there he found his inspiration to write not a pamphlet, but a novel expressing the same moral calling.
A Christmas Carol at its fundamental level is a call to all people (but for Dickens, specifically British people) to help those in need, and in this it represents a significant humanitarian addition to Christmas. Today we associate Christmas season with requests for funding from non-profits, or with Santa bell-ringers outside of stores, collecting money for the Salvation Army. But Christmas wasn’t always linked with humanitarian aid, with the call to help those less fortunate than ourselves. We can thank Dickens for that in part. Early in the story, Scrooge’s nephew Fred reprimands his uncle for refusing good things that don’t turn a profit, reminding him that the good might not always be profitable, in the sense that Scrooge cares about anyway, and yet the good is still good. Perhaps we can’t always put a price tag on “good”—and perhaps doing good might actually cost us something. But the message Dickens hopes we see is that not doing good costs us even more; and that the good act of giving, looking out for our neighbors, gleans us much more than a profit margin. This is a message that cuts against the grain of our American culture that wants us to give, but only if we end up giving the best gift and people know we one-upped them—our American culture that wants us to spend all of our money of expensive, trendy presents so that charity work gets the left-overs—our American culture that bedazzles us with sales and must-haves and whispers of “they’ll love this so you must buy it.” What’s profitable, and what is good?
Scrooge begins a miser, an old man who’s built his fortune partly by refusing to share it with anyone. But he doesn’t end that way. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a story of redemption and rescue; grace comes, from the outside, to work an inner change. Light and life and hope and charity intervene, but not without a good dose of painful honesty and difficult self-reflection. In order to be rescued, Scrooge must face his past, look honestly at his present, and ponder the future of a life unchanged. It’s a call Dickens makes to each of us.
Dickens’ contemporaries heard this call: in 1844 charitable giving spiked in Britain; in 1874 Robert Louis Stevenson declared he would give generously after reading the book; after reading A Christmas Carol, Thomas Carlyle invited guests over for not one, but two Christmas dinners; an American factory owner in 1867 closed his factory for Christmas and sent a turkey to the home of every employee, and in the early 1900s the Queen of Norway sent gifts to the crippled children in London, signed “with Tiny Tim’s love.”
So as we enjoy A Christmas Carol, we should consider what the takeaway is for us. Does Dickens have anything to say about American consumerism and the needs of the impoverished? What kind of futures are we building for ourselves in the way we spend Christmas? The needs are many. May we meet at least a few.