Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Ode to A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a story written with not only a clear theme in mind, but stands out as a masterwork born of deeply held personal beliefs and a strong political agenda.

A Christmas Carol, the classic tale of the redemption of the misanthropic Ebenezer Scrooge by the Three Ghosts of Christmas, has never been out of print. It has been adapted to film, opera, stage, and is a staple of the culture of Christmas to this very day. You cannot turn on a television without seeing one of its many manifestations, and countless writers of drama have riffed on the three ghosts with their heartwarming -- and heartwarning -- message.
The times in which Charles Dickens lived were dichotomous. The Victorian Age held the promise of modernity -- technology and manufacturing were leaping ahead, providing every convenience to the privileged classes. People at this time were experiencing a resurgence in affection for some of the forgotten traditions of Christmas, even while new fads were taking hold, such as the Christmas card, and, thanks to Prince Albert's German heritage, the Christmas tree.
Meanwhile, out of sight, people of the working class struggled in worse circumstances than ever before. Starvation, disease, debtor's prisons, a class divide as wide and as deep as despair itself.
"This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,
and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,
for on his brow I see that written which is Doom,
unless the writing be erased.
Dickens' own situation, in which he found himself working as nearly an indentured servant to pay off family debt, led him to write about the terrible living and working conditions of the working class. His work detailing the desperation of the poor seeking legal redress through a labyrinth that seemed gamed helped to enlighten the public on the machinations and byzantine bureaucracy of the British legal system. This need to communicate a social reform view culminated in the manifesto that was A Christmas Carol. The character of Ebenezer Scrooge personified what Dickens saw as a dangerous prevailing attitude toward the poor, one of willful blindness combined with a posture of sitting in judgement rather than helping. From the Wikipedia article: "Dickens asks, in effect, for people to recognise the plight of those whom the Industrial Revolution has displaced and driven into poverty, and the obligation of society to provide for them humanely."
Deftly working in the atmosphere of the age, in which a reader may very nearly taste the plum pudding, and smell the goose cooking (in more ways than one), Charles Dickens swept open the curtain upon a dreadful tableau, much as the Ghost of Christmas Present revealed the two unwanted children of Man, Ignorance and Want.
I don't know exactly what I'm trying to communicate myself, with this post. I'm up to my eyeballs in wrapping paper and cookie icing, and I swear, I swear, there is dough in my hair. But I do know this: In the same way that a thematic political statement may contain a compelling narrative, so may a compelling narrative contain a very visible theme. (Try that, vampire mystery writers tying their novel to themes of teenage alienation.) And that once there was a writer out there, perhaps the most heard of his and many generations, who, when considering what 'theme' he could apply to his works, not only did not flinch, but strode boldly ahead to create one of the most powerful messages to humanity ever.
Wasn't that fun? Now -- don't shrink -- go write something big.
Kate Burns


Michael MacDonald said...

The piece on Dickens brought to mind something that has troubled me for some time. Dickens is great literature and always will be admired as a writer and social commentator by those who read what he authored. My trouble is what happens to a tremendous piece of writing that is turned into a franchise, whereby the vast majority of people who recognize the name of Dickens, have never read a word he had written. I may be missing the mark but I do not believe the message in a Christmas Carol as written has translated well into film and other media where it is employed. Perhaps I am projecting because I grew up on Alistair Sim's Scrooge and had no idea of what the Christmas Carol was about until I read Dickens as an adult. Until that time it was a Christmas story with religous overtones and I am not sure I would have understood your post. I suspect that your post will entice some people to actually read the Dickens story who until that point had viewed it as unnecessary. Your post will have accomplished some of what it was advocating. It was an excellent essay.

Kate Burns said...

Thank you, Michael. That was an extra piece of insight even I may have missed. That's interesting, readers... can you think of any classics that may have been diluted in popular culture? (I'm looking at Jane Austen, here...)