A Christmas Carol

‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

Few will, surely, have a dry eye when they read the concluding sentence from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. For, as many will know, Dickens’ story has four ghosts visit the selfish financier Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve after which he is transformed and reconnected to society. This not only makes Scrooge a much happier man but by abandoning his individualism he also saves Tiny Tim’s life by paying his father Bob Cratchit a decent wage and becoming preoccupied with the boy’s welfare.

In our December podcast Emma and I discussed Scrooged the 1988 movie adaptation of Dickens’ novella as well as Scrooge a 1951 film version. In fact, since being first published in December 1843 the story has been retold many times and in many different ways - including by the Muppets. It is clearly saying something readers and audiences want to hear. Some might dismiss the tale as sentimental tosh, and Dickens was often guilty of indulging in that. But as a radical public figure Dickens used his fictions to advance political arguments. And A Christmas Carol was no exception.

For the story was published during a decade marked by great economic crises: Britain was being transformed thanks to industrialisation, a process produced great instability and suffering: if a few were made rich the many became poor. In response the largely working-class Chartist movement developed, its main demand being universal suffrage for men, in the hope that democracy would make society fairer.  

Dickens’ solution to Britain’s unequal society in A Christmas Carol was rather different. As Scrooge’s well-meaning nephew has it, Christmas should be ‘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.’ The desirability of recognising our common humanity on at least one day every year, was, of course, something Scrooge initially rejects as Humbug.

For Scrooge is Dickens’ version of the archetypal Economic Man, a figure who was meant to be the new ideal in Britain’s emerging industrial capitalism. So, when visited by the tortured ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley Scrooge is bemused, for Marley was in his view a ‘good man of business’. Marley replies ‘Business! … Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business’. Marley’s tragedy is that he came to realise that only after death and so he visits Scrooge to persuade him to change his attitude before it is too late. 

As we know, A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge seizing the opportunity to change, to recognise his shared humanity, and to act upon it, not just at Christmas but on every day of the year. Despite Tiny Tim’s invocation for God to ‘bless Us, Every One!’ it is an essentially secular message – references to religion as few and far between in A Christmas Carol. It is of course a highly political message, if not of the sort a conventional political party can easily turn into votes. For while the story is largely directed at readers with something to share to persuade them to help those without, it points to the need for a society based on very different principles to one emerging in the 1840s, the ones selfish Scrooge initially embodied.

It was a sentiment expressed by some of Dickens’ contemporaries. Less than two years after A Christmas Carol, the future Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote the novel Sybil. This explored the social consequences of industrialisation and in so doing coined the term ‘Two Nations’. According to Disraeli Britain was now formed by two nations, ‘between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.’ Disraeli’s solution to the problem was not quite Dickens’, and not that of the Chartists. As Prime Minister he sought to unite the nation through mobilising support for the Empire and Monarchy while modestly ameliorating some of the worst aspects of industrialisation – and giving a few working-class men the vote.

Others have exploited the desire for unity for their own ends. Nationalists do that; as do racists. David Cameron’s bogus Big Society tried to sell unity to voters while actually increasing inequality. But that does not undermine the force of Dickens’ sentiment, one that still stands as a direct criticism of the limitations of capitalism – liberal or neo-liberal – and which points to the almost universal desire for us all to feel part of a common humanity, one that transcends division.

That those on the left – who presumably genuinely believe in the sentiment expressed in A Christmas Carol - have generally failed to build on it in practical and sustained ways is perhaps the greatest indictment that can be made of them.