Shakespeare’s quill created some of the most stunning representatives of humanity – Lear, Hamlet, Othello – but it was Charles Dickens who gave us people. The tragic heroes of Shakespeare are archetypal; they are universal figures and belong to every man. Dickens’ characters though are not tragic heroes; they are people who live in the world around us, unique, idiosyncratic, and ultimately, they belong only to themselves. And they are never stereotypes, as sometimes certain critics would suggest, because the very nature of stereotypes is that they are reproducible in the same mould. The magic of every Dickens character is that they are their own individual and special creation.
It hard to imagine Dickens capable of writing a man as complex as Hamlet or Lear and it is virtually unthinkable that Dickens could ever have written a woman as emotionally raw as Lady Macbeth. However, it is equally impossible that Dickens could have created a character as dull and boring as Horatio or Kent. Or sisters as indistinguishable as Goneril and Regan (these sisters, as with Horatio and Kent, are their dramatic function, and although one sister is more unpleasant than the other who can remember which one is which?). Even Dora’s two aunts in DAVID COPPERFIELD, despite their suggested similarity of mind, both have more life as individuals than either of Lear’s two wicked daughters.
Dickens’ characters are said not be psychologically real, meaning, in the modern sense of being driven by contradictory motivations. Nor are they on the whole altering in the way modern dramatists draw a character arc of development across the development of a story. On this point G. K. Chesterton famously said that Dickens’ characters “live statically, in a perpetual summer of being themselves”. His characters are indeed written in broad strokes, often unchanging. E. M. Forster says “Dickens’ people are nearly all flat… Nearly everyone can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth”.
There are exceptions to the unchangingness of the Dickens characters, of course, and these are usually the heroes of the stories, Pip, Copperfield, for example, and another such is Ebenezer Scrooge. But the characters surrounding the hero often do fit into the more traditional way of seeing a Dickens’ character.
In describing each of his individual assemblage of characters, Dickens likes to concentrate and exaggerate one or other particular manner or foible – in came Mrs Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. Walter Bagehot writing in 1858 summoned up this process as one of ‘vivification’, where characteristics are inflated to a point where the idiosyncrasy takes over the whole character and essentially becomes the character.
Related to this point is that Dickens often uses his characters in oppositions. Scrooge is referred to in terms of ice – The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue... a frosty rime was on his head... he carried his own low temperature always about with him – whereas Fred is described in terms of fire – He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again. Marley is described as chained, the Ghost of Christmas Present is free. Even pairs of characters in Dickens contrast with each other; the perverse Murdstone brother and sister partnership in DAVID COPPERFIELD is balanced by the perfect ‘brother/sister’ relationship of David and Agnes. So in Dickens one not only gets extremity of character but extremities between characters.
‘Vivification’, as described by Walter Bagehot, is also a very useful phrase when considering the characters of Dickens because they stay so vividly in the mind. We know them in the same way that we think of or remember the people around us from our early youth. Dickens’ people then are more concepts of what people are or should be than real people, yet ironically, that is the very thing that makes them more vivid, more ‘real’. And the greatest trick that Dickens played on us was that because they are real to our imagination as we read, we care.
How did Dickens do it? What was it about the man that led to such character creations? Dickens had the advantage of all great observers of characters: social mobility. He was never quite at home in either the world of Peggoty or the world of Miss Haversham. Social outsiders make great observers. Dickens was also a great mimic and a talented actor. He knew and understood the rhythm of speech. In his early writing career he learnt short hand and could also recreate the sound of speech. His travels abroad showed him that which wasn’t English and so on returning to these shores he was able to keep a vision of that outsider’s eye. Most important of all was that when he took his long walks he also took in what he was seeing. He was an incorrigible empathiser.
Shakespeare may have understood mankind more fully than Dickens, but Dickens surely knew human beings, those who lived and breathed around him, as well, if not better, than any other writer who ever lived. What’s more, his love and feeling for them, to a fault perhaps, is therefore all the more generous and deep. No wonder readers laugh and cry longer and harder with Dickens than perhaps any other writer.
It is worth noting with specific reference to the characters in A CHRISTMAS CAROL that when his five major Christmas stories were collectively published in 1852 as CHRISTMAS BOOKS, Dickens wrote in his introduction: The narrow space within which it was necessary to confine these Christmas Stories when they were originally published, rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty, and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery. I could not attempt great elaboration of detail, in the working out of character within such limits. My chief purpose was, in a whimsical kind of masque which the good humour of the season justified, to awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land.
What Dickens means by great elaboration of detail is perhaps the lack of detail in some of the character’s history or ‘back story’, including that of Scrooge. We go into Scrooge’s mind in the present as often if not more often than most Dickens’ characters. Despite being an autobiography, we are given less access to what David Copperfield is thinking than that granted to us inside Scrooge by the narrator of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. However, there are unanswered questions about the death of Fan, Scrooge’s father, the exact nature of Tiny Tim’s disease and so on. Perhaps that makes the characters even more real because the reader has to fill in the gaps.
Scrooge’s nephew Fred is the first visitor to the counting-house and in a very subtle way Fred initiates the story of Scrooge’s regeneration. The unsettled mind of Scrooge that leads to his regeneration is first disturbed by Fred.
Scrooge clearly has no time for his young nephew. There is a distinct undercurrent of dislike on the part of Scrooge. Dickens, with a clever hint of comic subtlety, tells us that Scrooge even tells Fred ‘to go to Hell’: Scrooge said that he would see him – yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.
Yet Fred will never give up on Scrooge. He says to his young friends at the Christmas party, witnessed by Scrooge in the Ghost of Christmas Present sequence: “I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him. He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can’t help thinking better of it – I defy him – if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you. If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that’s something.” Fred adds: “I think I shook him yesterday.” By the time we hear this claim we have a better understanding of why and how Fred shook his uncle Scrooge at the counting-house.
In the counting-house scene there is a clear indication that Scrooge resents Fred. Why should this be so? Dickens tells us Scrooge asks Fred why he got married and Fred replies because he fell in love. Scrooge suggests Fred’s choices in life are hardly economically sound. Christmas time finds Fred a year older but not an hour richer.
However, the significance of Fred, his life-style and his marriage are not made clear until the second stave of the story, when we learn both of the early death of Fred’s mother Fan, Scrooge’s sister, and of Scrooge’s sweetheart’s rejection of him because of Scrooge’s “pursuit of wealth”. Perhaps the resentment comes from Fred reminding him of the sister he loved and lost.
The narrator tells us that Scrooge seemed uneasy in his mind when Fan’s child is spoken of by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Maybe that unease was always there in the company of Fred. Many adaptations versions go as far as to suggest that Fan, a “delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered”, lost her life in giving birth to Fred, which would of course enhance Scrooge’s resentment. This change was made in the famous Alastair Sim version made in the 1950s.
Perhaps also Fred’s happy marriage is a source of unspoken and unconscious resentment; for Fred, unlike Scrooge, is happy despite choosing to marry without money behind him. These feelings in Scrooge are never explicitly presented nor fully explained or expanded upon. Yet if the action of the story is the conversion of Scrooge then Fred’s early presence in the story and all he represents could be said to have shook Scrooge and awoken in him thoughts of his sister and of his lost sweetheart, memories that will eventually lead to his regeneration.
Many adaptations of A CHRISTMAS CAROL prefer to have Fred unmarried. They change the situation so that Fred cannot afford to marry until his uncle changes heart (the rich uncle frustrating the poor nephew is also, of course, the dramatic situation at the centre of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY). In doing this Fred’s station in life then develops as an integral issue in the resolution of the story. Part of Scrooge’s conversion becomes his willingness to give Fred money in order that he may marry. Such adaptations are often found in American versions of the tale, where the ideal of the American Dream seems to require the advancement and elevation of a worthy outsider. There is even a silent version made in the US in 1910 by the Edison Manufacturing Company where Fred is even made a partner in Scrooge’s business.
However, this change of the plot line loses the significance of Fred loving (and marrying), and being happy, without money. Scrooge asks what reason has Fred to be merry, you’re poor enough. Fred replies, “What right have you to be dismal? What right have you to be morose? You’re rich enough”. Dickens notes: Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah! Humbug!” This is one of the few times in the story that Scrooge is totally lost for words. Scrooge’s reasoned economic connection of wealth and happiness – and the lack of wealth to unhappiness – is woefully misguided. Make Fred dependant on wealth to wed and “mortal money”, to borrow a phrase from the Ghost of Christmas Past, takes on an unworthy significance in the story.
Fred is significant too in developing a major theme in A CHRISTMAS CAROL and that is an understanding of Time. For Scrooge all time is measured by seconds, weeks, months and years. He asks Fred: “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ‘em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?” Fred’s reply denies Time measured by the clock: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – part from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; 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.” Time is a feeling, a thought, a memory. This way of understanding Time will be essential for Scrooge in his journey in order that he may fully understand and live in time “Past, Present and Future”.
Fred is described in terms of images of fire, Scrooge in terms of ice.When Fred entered the counting-house he had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
There is in the story another opposing contrast between Fred and Scrooge: laughter. Fred’s laughter, according to the narrator, is the most remarkable he knows: If you should happen, by any unlikely chance, to know a man more blest in a laugh than Scrooge’s nephew, all I can say is, I should like to know him too. Introduce him to me, and I’ll cultivate his acquaintance. The description is very physical: holding his sides, rolling his head, and twisting his face into the most extravagant contortions. Scrooge, in contrast, does not laugh. Until Christmas morning: Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs. Where before there was contrast there is now symbiotic similarity.
The three spirits are usually referred to as ‘Ghosts’ but they are not the spirits of dead people: they are the incarnations of Christmas. Scrooge asks the first spirit who and what he is to which the spirit replies “I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.” “Long past?” inquires Scrooge. “No. Your past” replies the ghost. More specifically then the Ghosts are the embodiment of Scrooge’s experience of Christmas. Or lack of it.
Before the ghostly visitations, Scrooge is closed to his own memory and the past, he is indifferent to the world around him in the present and he lacks the will and hope to change the future. Put simply he is ‘dead’ to his Past, Present and Future. The Ghosts, though, put life back into his past by awaking memory. They make him engage in the here and now by giving him social awareness and they offer hope for the future by showing Scrooge’s absence in it. As Scrooge says as soon as he realises he is in his own bed on Christmas morning, and says it ‘ repeatedly ‘ according to Dickens: “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The Spirit of all Three shall strive in me.” He is alive again to life.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is described as like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. The hair is white as if with age, yet the face has no wrinkles. The Spirit holds a branch of fresh green holly in its hand yet its dress is trimmed with summer flowers. Scrooge looks more closely and sees that the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts.
The Ghost of Christmas Past, like memory, is both young and old, winter and summer, ever changing, and ever fluid.
From the crown of the Spirit there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible. Scrooge asks the Ghost to cover his crown with the cap he carries. The Ghost replies, “Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow.” The cap is the refusal of Scrooge to see into his past. The Spirit knows that to change, Scrooge needs the light of memory for he has too long lived in darkness.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is really the Ghost of Christmas Memory, and memory is a strong recurring theme in the work of Dickens. The Ghost is an incarnation of past sorrows and joys. The spirit of memory not surprisingly finds it “strange” that Scrooge has forgotten his past for so many years. Some of the memories are cheering, the Fezziwig party, for example. Some are more painful. Seeing and being forced to recall the breaking up of his engagement to his sweetheart Belle is simply too much for Scrooge – “Show me no more!” he cries. Yet the Ghost “pinioned him in both his arms, and forced him to observe”. Memory is a force to be reckoned with and even the most painful of memories, once revived, are not easy to put aside, nor should they be. Yet these scenes are presented not to torture but to renew. Scrooge needs to be reminded of who he has become by showing him who he was, and who he could have been.
The action of the Ghost in the second stave of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL is to put Scrooge back in touch with himself. Once he is able to feel the hurt, the joy, the hope of memory, he will once again be alive to himself. From there, the next step will be to feel the hurt, the joy and hope of others. It will be the action then of the Ghost of Christmas Present to put Scrooge in touch with the world around him.
The second Ghost is the Spirit of Christmas Present. Just as Scrooge is unseeing of his past, he is also unseeing of his Christmas present and the society and world about him. The Ghost of Christmas Present first offers Scrooge a view into the homes and houses of the people he knows. He lets ‘the Founder of the Feast’ see the effect that low wages has on the Cratchit family. Scrooge hears, too, how he is seen by others, who do not know him, especially the friends of his nephew. The Ghost also takes him into the dwellings of people he does not know in the almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge. These are the people he has only read about as statistics, the famous ‘surplus population’. In the action of the third stave these people become real to him.
The Spirit is a social ghost in every sense. His aim is to connect Scrooge to the society from which he is isolated. The first step is the easiest, with scenes of people he knows, the next stage is scenes with people about him he does not know, then it is on to people he will probably never ever meet. He must empathise with all to fully understand society.
Dickens’ Spirit of Christmas Present is not just a social spirit he is also the embodiment of an economic philosophy where economics is not driven by a supposedly and assumed limited supply but by responding to need and demand. The economics of the Ghost is of abundance. Instead of a mind-set that assumes scarcity it assumes the potential of plenty. The appearance of piles of food in Scrooge’s house is magical of course, but behind it lies a belief that it is possible to be economically self-sufficient in food. Abundance though should not be confused with excess, over-indulgence or greed. The Ghost’s abundance is about feeding people, not consuming endless consumer goods. In the world of the Ghost of Christmas Present created in Scrooge’s own home the world has learnt somehow to feed itself. In this world there is no ‘surplus population’ cut off from the dining table.
The Ghost of Christmas Present offers a contrast with Marley. Just as characters are juxtaposed and in opposition, Dickens often relates opposites in character traits to thematic opposites.
A constant theme in Dickens’ fiction is the ‘world-as-a-jail’. In HARD TIMES Tom Gradgrind describes life at home as staying in jail. Oysters, therefore, on this theme, are a favourite image for Dickens. In HARD TIMESTom says “he knew no more about life, than any oyster does”. Scrooge is described as as solitary as an oyster. His grave is walled in by houses. However, it is the chained Marley and all the other phantoms that offer the strongest image of confinement: The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is not chained or imprisoned. In fact the exact opposite: This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. At the end of the Ghost of Christmas Future sequence, Scrooge will fight for a similar freedom.
The Ghost of Christmas Future, as with the future itself, is silent. Most of the scenes of the future are set at night, in the dark. Scrooge anticipates that the images he will see of the future are of himself, as a changed man. Scrooge seems to think that once he has seen his new self all he need do is replicate that behaviour. But the ghost of Christmas Future has other plans.
As the scenes progress, Scrooge claims he is confused in not seeing his future self. What he sees are people, including those he knows in the city, talking about the ‘Man’ who has recently died. These scenes are then followed by a visit to a den, where some who knew the dead man have taken some of his goods to sell on to a ‘fence’. In this vision of the future at old Joe’s are those who knew the ‘Man’: the laundress, the charwoman, the undertaker. These people have found at last some benefit from him. Ironically, their financial benefit is of the sort Scrooge gained from Jacob Marley, as a result of his death. Scrooge, the stern man of business, is used in death as he once used others in life: for gain.
He then sees the dead ‘Man’, alone in a room, unwatched, unwept, uncared for. Of course, he is seeing himself, and scenes about himself after he is dead. But he seems to deny to himself the connection with himself. What Scrooge doesn’t seem to want to accept and learn is that the old Scrooge must fully die before the new one can be reborn.
Motioned by the Spectre to remove the sheet that covers the dead ‘Man’, Scrooge replies, “I have not the power”. The power of the Ghost is in not speaking. The Spirit of Time Past can help him recall, the spirit of time present can show and aid him to see others but the spectre of the future must be dark and silent, for Scrooge’s future must be learnt from inside himself.
Death is the central theme of the fourth stave. In essence the situation is that Scrooge is dead, yet denies it to himself. But the death of the ‘Man’ is not the only death in the fourth stave. Tiny Tim, as predicted by the Ghost of Christmas Present, is no longer among the living. Scrooge sees the Cratchits in mourning. This is then followed by a visit to a churchyard, and Scrooge’s own grave. The two deaths are connected. One gives life to the other. This is how life, eternal life, is possible on earth and it is a lesson that was learnt in an instant as Scrooge resisted revealing the face of the dead man for we are given a moment of Scrooge’s mind:
Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion. But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike. And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!
No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge’s ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts. Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares. They have brought him to a rich end, truly.
Scrooge resists the Ghost at the end of the sequence. He does not want to die for now he knows how he can live. It is not the Spectre that captures him, it is Scrooge who captures the Spectre:
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate aye reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Death turns to life:
The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”
Seven years was the traditional limit to file a claim and so it is appropriate that Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s business partner, returns on the seventh anniversary of his death.
Jacob’s name, like that of ‘Ebenezer’, has a distinctly Old Testament air. Jacob in Genesis 28 has a dream in which he sees God’s ‘staircase to heaven’ and receives God’s promise. Jacob then seems an appropriate name for a man who heralds a visionary opportunity for reclamation during Scrooge’s night of sleep.
Marley, as dead as a door nail or even a coffin nail, like Scrooge that old screw, is physically described through the use of animal imagery and comparisons with metal. Before he arrives Scrooge sees his face coming out of the metal door knocker. When he properly enters, Marley has a connecting chain about him. His chain is notably described in animal imagery as being ‘like a tail’:
Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.
Dickens’ description of the action of Marley taking off his bandage is a perfect mixture of comic and gothic horror:
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!
But as Dickens notes on a more serious level: There was something very awful, too, in the spectre’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.
The idea here of a constant imprisonment is even more frightening than the deadly chains he wears. Sadly for Marley, he only discovered he had been ‘dead’ to life after he was dead.
Marley is first seen in a door knocker. In stories doors often feature as entries into a special world. Once double locked inside for Scrooge there will be no escape. Yet, inside this special world there is hope. Marley wishes to make amends in some way and so has procured for Scrooge the chance of reclamation and salvation. In this action, Marley is the Herald of the story by bringing the hope of change to come. The arrival of the Herald in story structure is usually where the challenge is issued for the call to adventure or the action and project of the tale. In Scrooge’s case it is his reclamation. The Herald often sets out the psychological need for change:
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, ‘that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
Marley goes to say:
“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”
Scrooge was very much dismayed to hear the spectre going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly.
“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”
“I will,” said Scrooge. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, Jacob! Pray!”
“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.”
These are the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Exactly what the Ghost means by ‘Ignorance’ is best illustrated by an extract from a contemporary police report. In 1850, nearly a decade after the publication of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, a boy aged 14, was about to be sworn on the Bible. He is said to have looked quite astonished upon taking hold of the book. This is his testimony
Alderman Humphrey. Well, do you know what you are about? Do you know what an oath is?
Alderman Humphrey. Do you know what a Testament is?
Alderman Humphrey. Can you read?
Alderman Humphrey. Do you ever say your prayers?
Boy. No, never.
Alderman Humphrey. Do you know what prayers are?
Alderman Humphrey. Do you know what God is?
Alderman Humphrey. Do you know what the Devil is?
Boy. I’ve heard of the Devil, but I don’t know him.
Alderman Humphrey. What do you know, my poor boy?
Boy. I knows how to sweep the crossing.
Alderman Humphrey. And that’s all?
Boy. That’s all. I sweeps the crossing.
The police report ends: “The Alderman said, he, of course, could not take the evidence of a creature who knew nothing whatever of the obligation to tell the truth.” VIDE TIMES Police Report of Wednesday, January 9, 1850.
In a speech at a Conversazione in aid of funds for the Polytechnic Institute in Birmingham just after the publication of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Dickens said:
“Now there is a spirit of great power, the Spirit of Ignorance, long shut up in a vessel of Obstinate Neglect… release it in time, and it will bless, restore, and re-animate society; but let it lie under rolling waves of years, and its blind revenge at last will be destruction.”
‘In many parts of Dickens’s work there is evidence of some peculiar affection on his part for a strange sort of little girl; a little girl with a premature sense of responsibility and duty; a sort of saintly precocity. Did he know some little girl of this kind? Did she die, perhaps, and remain in his memory in colours too ethereal and pale? In any case there are a great number of them in his works. Little Dorritwas one of them, and Florence Dombey with her brother, and even Agnes in infancy; and, of course, Little Nell.’
G. K. Chesterton, writing this in 1906, about such characters in Dickens, might well have added Fan from A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Chesterton is right to pick up on the many idealised women that populate the works of Dickens. Sadly for them, in Dickens’ fiction, idealised purity is not of this world and so many such young girls end up with an early death.
In answer to Chesterton’s question, did Dickens know such a girl and she did die and remain in his memory in colours too ethereal and pale? Well, the answer is, yes, and her name was Mary Hogarth.
Mary Hogarth died aged 17 in 1837, just five years before the publication of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Mary was Dickens’ sister-in-law who lived with Charles and his wife Catherine. She died suddenly, after a visit to the theatre, and in the arms of Dickens. Within seconds of her death Dickens removed her ring and put it on his own finger. There it stayed for the rest of his life. Her death even caused Dickens to miss a publication deadline. The only other death to cause Dickens to miss a deadline was his own.
Fan is Scrooge’s advocate. Fan puts herself at risk on behalf of Scrooge: “Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven. He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home.”
This is the only clear indication that we get of the nature of Scrooge’s family history. We are though told that Scrooge was left alone at school over the Christmas holidays (‘No Vacations’, meaning unwanted children need not ever be sent home is a major marketing strategy for the school run by Squeers in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY) so perhaps we can infer at the very least that Scrooge was not welcome at home by his father.
Whatever the history, Fan clearly meant everything to Scrooge. That she died young must have hit him badly. All this is there in the story, but as Dickens said at a later date in the 1852 publication of his collection of Christmas books: “the narrow space in which it was necessary to confine these Christmas Stories, when they were originally published, rendered their construction a matter of some difficulty, and almost necessitated what is peculiar in their machinery. I never attempted great elaboration of detail in the working out of character within such limits, believing that it could not succeed.” In a way the Christmas books make the reader work harder in that he or she has to piece together the motivations and conflicts from the limited background information they are given.
Fan’s presence of course is found in her son, Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. It is also found in music. At Fred’s party, shown to him by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Fred’s wife plays a tune upon the harp. It was a tune familiar to the child who fetched Scrooge from the boarding-school, as he had been reminded by the Ghost of Christmas Past. When this strain of music sounded, all the things that Ghost had shown him, came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton’s spade that buried Jacob Marley.
The Cratchit family oddly enough are not even illustrated in the original edition by Leech. The only drawing of any member of the Cratchit family is that of Bob Cratchit, as he shares some Smoking Bishop punch with Scrooge. Yet the Cratchit Christmas scene is one of the best remembered episodes of the whole story. They are the joyous beating heart at the centre of the tale. However, the presence of Scrooge is never far away:
“Mr Scrooge.” said Bob; “I’ll give you Mr Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast.”
“The Founder of the Feast indeed.” cried Mrs Cratchit, reddening. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”
“My dear,” said Bob, “the children. Christmas Day.”
“It should be Christmas Day, I am sure, said she, “on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr Scrooge. You know he is, Robert. Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow.
“My dear,” was Bob’s mild answer, “Christmas Day.”
“I’ll drink his health for your sake and the Day’s,” said Mrs Cratchit, “not for his. Long life to him. A merry Christmas and a happy new year. He’ll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt.”
Bob Cratchit has sometimes been criticised for being too servile, but the 1840s was a time of depression. The threat of unemployment was not an idle one, as this moment demonstrates:
The clerk in the tank involuntarily applauded: becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he poked the fire, and extinguished the last frail spark for ever.
“Let me hear another sound from you,” said Scrooge, “and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation.”
Bob, then, may appear to some to be too willing to accept his lowly situation but as we have seen Mrs. Cratchit proves she certainly has more spark about her, even if, like Mrs. Dombey, she remains nameless and is only defined by her relationship to her husband. Bob in his own mind is just being practical. He is a good man but knows there are many men out there that would accept Scrooge’s terms for even less than fifteen shillings a week.
The portrait of Bob Cratchit is not as rich in character or strong on detail as can be found in some of Dickens’ other clerks (compare, for example, Uriah Heep in DAVID COPPERFIELD or Newman Noggs in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY), yet there is manifestly in Bob a raw dignity and gentle warmth that is truly affecting.
The Cratchit family offer a striking contrast to the childless and fatherless Scrooge. The sheer number of Cratchits, so many that several remain unnamed, point up the barren emptiness of Scrooge’s life’s achievement. Mr. Micawber, Robert Cratchit and indeed Charles Dickens’ own father, John Dickens, never let economic circumstances stand in the way of virility and the blessings of children.
The Cratchits celebrating Christmas became the model for the celebrating of every urban Christmas from then on. The Fezziwig’s party is the old Christmas of the model, the lord of the Manor inviting all for punch and dancing. But the Cratchits is the modern Christmas, or at least to Dickens’ readers it was a modern way of celebrating the Christmas meal. In Victorian theatre productions recreations of this scene often dominated the stage time at the expense of other, perhaps more important, elements in the tale.
Side by side Scrooge and Tiny Tim are the archetypes of the Senex and the Puer, the old man and child. The child in stories often gives new life to the old man, or in some way the old man learns a new kind of life from the child. Sometimes it is a young girl and an older women, or various combinations of the sexes. Whatever way it is told the lifeless old adult and sprightly young child is a reoccurring dramatic situation in literature and can be found in SILAS MARNER: THE WEAVER OF RAVELOE by George Eliot 1861, THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett 1909, POLLYANNA by Eleanor H. Porter 1913, GOODNIGHT, MR. TOM by Michelle Magorian 1981 and even the cartoon strip LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE that became the show ANNIE. The classic Christmas film MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (based on a short story by Valentine Davies) is an inversion of the story in that a lively old man ‘Kris Kringle’, who believes he’s Santa Claus, breathes new life into an unimaginative and unhappy young girl.
Tiny Tim’s importance in the story for Scrooge is that Tiny Tim is the mathematically unwanted ‘surplus population’ made flesh. Until Scrooge sees that statistics are people, including young children, Scrooge is content to ignore their plight.
Tim has also been seen as a Christ-like figure – Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God. Tim, in church, according to his father Bob, is very contemplative of others: “Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” His crutch has also been seen as a symbol of the cross and the name Cratchit has, of course, most of the letters of ‘Christ’.
This child’s purity of spirit is a common characteristic of a particular type of child or young adult in Dickens. Most are destined to an early death, almost too pure and good to live in the world of man. True innocence in Dickens hardly gets the chance to grow old. Early deaths of the young include Little Dick in OLIVER TWIST, Jo in BLEAK HOUSE, Nell Trent in THE OLD CURIOUSITY SHOP and even Smike in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.
Tiny Tim is a strange exception. Although in the story Tim dies in the unredeemed and alternative future, Dickens makes it emphatically clear that Tiny Tim lived – Tiny Tim, who did NOT die. (This was an addition added after the first draft.)
Tiny Tim’s ailment was probably distal renal tubular acidosis (type I). Research published in the December 1992 issue of the “American Journal of Diseases of Children” made a case that it was curable even in the mid 1880s. Dr. Donald Lewis, an assistant professor of paediatrics and neurology at the Medical College of Hampton Roads in Norfolk, Virginia, suggested that Tiny Tim suffered from a kidney disease that made his blood too acidic, a disease not recognised until the early twentieth century. The effect of this disease was that his bones were none too strong, hence Tiny Tim is described as wearing leg irons. His hand is also described as withered. The Ghost of Christmas Present says that “I see a vacant seat in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.” Further challenged by Scrooge the Ghost adds: “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race will find him here.” In effect the Ghost is saying he will die within the year.
Scrooge makes it clear at the end of the tale that he wishes to help Bob and his family. Dr. Lewis consulted medical textbooks of the mid 1800s and found that Tim’s symptoms would have been treated with alkaline solutions. These alkaline solutions would have counteracted the excess acid in Tim’s blood and Tim would have recovered quite quickly.
Belle, Scrooge’s sweetheart, says to Scrooge at their time of separation: “You may – the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will – have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen.”
These words are strangely prophetic and also ironic. The young Scrooge does dismiss the recollection. However, the old Scrooge has great pain in this. Nevertheless, new life for Scrooge will come of a dream in which these very memories will lead to a new kind of life.
Belle is described as a fair young girl in a mourning-dress. It is not clear for whom she is mourning, perhaps her father (she describes herself as a ‘dowerless’ girl). Belle is very perceptive of Scrooge’s change of heart: “Another idol has displaced me... a golden one.” As ever Scrooge has a reply: “This is the even-handed dealing of the world. There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”
Belle then shows a great psychological insight into Scrooge’s character: “You fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach.” Fear of poverty leads Scrooge to his life of greed.
The Ghost of Christmas Past then shows Belle married with children:
The noise in this room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there, than Scrooge in his agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty. The consequences were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly.
The father then returns from work.
And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.
Scrooge is seeing not just his mistakes of the past but also what he has missed out on. The road he didn’t take.
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