New adaptations of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella appear on our screens each time the holidays come around. From this year’s brand-new mini-series that’s due to be aired in the UK and the USA to the ever-popular Muppet Christmas Carol, this story is a staple of the season. In it, and after a series of visits from ghostly apparitions, Ebenezer Scrooge changes from a cold miser to a kind and gentle person, but some aspects of the role of charity in this change of heart are lost from modern adaptations.
In the 176-year-old text the call to charity is more demanding than just donating cash. Dickens focuses on personal charity as the assumption of social obligations. After his transformation, Scrooge faces up to his moral responsibilities. Famously, he buys an enormous Christmas turkey for the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. But his new-found concern for the Cratchit family goes much further than a single festive meal. He also gives Cratchit a pay-rise. And having been frightened by a premonition of the death of Tiny Tim – Cratchit’s son – Scrooge is said to become like “a second father” to the sickly child.
Nevertheless, the meaning of personal charity in the book is complex and needs a more thorough explanation. In part, Dickens includes it as a compassionate response to the conditions of the time. The ‘Hungry 1840s’ were a decade of the most extreme poverty, and Dickens is sensitive to the misery around him. So in the book, a child beggar is graphically described as “gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs.” Then, in a later and prophetic scene, a ghost shows Scrooge a vision of two emaciated children – bleakly named “Ignorance” and “Want.” Strikingly, the child called “Ignorance” has the word “Doom” written on his forehead.
For some critics, Dickens’ treatment of charity in A Christmas Carol appears motivated as much by politics as by compassion. The book was written in a period of persistent political unrest, and Scrooge’s vision of ‘Doom’ can be interpreted as the ever-present threat of revolution. The 1970s musical version of the story picks up this cue. In the film, a spirit transports Scrooge, played by Albert Finney, to his own funeral cortège. He sees his coffin paraded through the streets, surrounded by a drably-dressed but seemingly-cheerful mass of London’s working classes. The revolutionary parallel is clear: this might as well be a convoy to the guillotine.
So it is possible to read A Christmas Carol as a warning from the writer to the wealthy. Bob Cratchit can be taken to represent the whole of the working poor, and it is certainly true that before Scrooge’s change of heart, the clerk has little reason to be content with his lot. Cratchit is described as working in “a dismal little cell…a sort of tank.” On a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, Scrooge keeps Cratchit’s fire so small that it seems as if a single coal is burning. Worse, Scrooge objects to paying the clerk for missing work on Christmas Day. Dickens might be understood as saying to his readers – ‘treat the poor charitably, or they will doom us all.’
In this view, Dickens’ interest in personal charity is as much conservative as compassionate. By recommending charity as a way to stop unrest, the author is motivated to maintain existing social hierarchies. Dickens is far from a radical. His themes are socially orientated, but never seriously challenging for the powerful. Queen Victoria had been an admirer of his work since Oliver Twist appeared in serial form early in his career. With Prince Albert and King Leopold of Belgium, she is known to have attended a private theatrical performance performed by Dickens on Regent Street. Towards the end of his life, she even gave Dickens a personal audience at Buckingham Palace.