Dickens' song for the poor

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Marley's ghost talks to ScroogeI first read Dickens' A Christmas Carol decades ago, after finding it in a dusty cupboard in my grandparents' holiday house. There I was, aged about eight, reading of snow and holly and things northern in the middle of the Australian summer with all its heat and dust. But I was transported, in more ways than one, and still am every time, despite my many re-readings of this slim but freighted volume.

A great many people consider Dickens to have been a genius, and I am one of them. Critics say his novels are too baggy, and his female characters, apart from the comic ones, wet and weedy. But Dickens was a product of his time, as we all are, and he was very conscious of meeting the demands of society and of his readership. A product of his time, yes, but his writing, at its best, is for all time in that it expresses the universal.

A Christmas Carol was originally planned as a political pamphlet entitled An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child, but Dickens, staunch champion of the poor and of children, realised that fiction would have more impact on social attitudes. In six weeks of feverish work, he rewrote the tract as a novella. First published on 19 December 1843, it was an instant success, and has never been out of print.

While Dickens reportedly hoped that his vision of Christmas might encourage the restoration of social harmony, his narrative line can also be seen as a convenient plot device, for A Christmas Carol is a deeply Christian story, not just about Christmas, but about life itself, about actions and their consequences, the need for wrongs to be made right, and the desire for hope and potentiality of renewal.

The plot of the novella owes much to Dickens' fascination with the supernatural in general, and with ghosts in particular, in at least the possibility of the tear in the veil between this world and others. The fearsome yet pitiable ghost of Marley, the miserly Scrooge's late business partner and only friend, serves as a grim warning of the dead soul the wintry Scrooge may well become: 'I wear the chain I forged in life.'

The Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come move Scrooge inexorably through the stages of life in a series of epiphanies, and force him to experience nostalgia, celebration, and dread, while his own cramped and costive outlook on life periodically comes back to haunt him.

The low points of the narrative, and possibly the most instructive, come first when the Ghost of Christmas Present grows steadily older, and eventually shows Scrooge the appalling sight of two children: wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. The boy is Ignorance, the girl is Want, and they are the offspring of humankind. The boy has Doom written upon his forehead. 'Unless it be erased,' says the Spirit.

This moment is closely followed by a vision of the future: Scrooge is taken to a churchyard, one that is 'overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying'. It is now that Scrooge swears that he is not the man he has been, and that he will henceforth let Past, Present and Future live within him, and thus be open to the lessons that the spirits of all three teach.

And then, the last Phantom's hood and dress 'shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost'. Scrooge's own, of course. And so he realises he is still alive, and with another fighting chance to change. Wintry Scrooge now courts the spirit of spring and renewal. A Christmas Carol can now be called A Song for All Seasons. And we all have another chance, in whatever shape or form.


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

 

 

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Ideal for upper primary and lower secondary students: a really excellent 15 minute cartoon of "A Christmas Carol" in Disney's "Mickey's Magical Christmas - Snowed in at the House of Mouse". A story whose values students will remember all their lives
John Wotherspoon | 29 April 2014


Spot on re the profoundly Christian message of "A Christmas Carol"! Another thing about Dickens's story is that it created the cultural expectation that the Christmas celebration has the potential to bring out our better nature, as it did for Scrooge. It's not too big a cultural jump for Christians to say that the whole incarnational Christ-event is intended to brings out our better nature of the human community.
Bob Faser | 30 April 2014


This is a splendid commentary on a much-loved Christmas tale. No wonder it is popular with people of all ages. Perhaps parents who object to religious instruction in schools- or anywhere else-could introduce this story to their children as an example of the real meaning of Christmas and its significance for all humanity.
helen | 30 April 2014


What a stroke of genius for Dickens to recast what was to have been a political pamphlet into this superb novella. It still works like a Zen sermon: it bites. Dickens could well be said to have instigated the 19th Century British celebration of Christmas which is half secular with profound Christian overtones. Genuine literature moves us in ways neither politicking nor religious sermonising do. Your article should be compulsory reading for all clergy and anyone intending to sermonise in print, Gillian. Thank you for an excellent, concise and insightful article.
Edward Fido | 30 April 2014


I've just to-day been reading on The Conversation the fifth in a brilliant series on Indigenous Australia by academic Christine NICHOLLS - this latest - on the fearful figures or monsters which have a role I thought somewhat designed to keep children (and those older) away from dangerous places (waterholes/rivers) or contexts (night-time away from others) and so on. In some way I can see that what you are saying about this beautiful tale by Charles DICKENS is related - a moral warning and chance for redemption. My maternal grand-mother gave me a set of classics when I was about 13 - among the books several DICKENS volumes - Nicholas Nickleby - and Dombey and Son - the latter I read three times. Something about reflections from my own upbringing? Many years later - in the land of my grand-father - visiting kinfolk near Chatham - my wife and I emerged from the station to a sign opposite on a house wall - declaring that Charles DICKENS had not eaten, drunk nor slept in it.
Jim KABLE | 30 April 2014


Thanks Gillian for reminding me of this profound, and for me I might add, rather nostalgic Christmas tale. I can vividly remember the first time I had heard the story, which was read to the class by a rather special teacher that we all very much respected. This occurred leading up to Christmas, in a Victorian State Primary School in the Wimmera country wheat town where I grew up. The story gripped me then and I could barely wait for the next session and another enthralling chapter. When ever I hear the story repeated my mind tends to go back to that teacher and those very precious school days.
John Whitehead | 30 April 2014


Brilliant! One of my favourites too!
Elena | 02 May 2014


This excellent piece by a perceptive author certainly made me examine my earlier opinions of Dickens and his times.Social conditions and mores may have changed but our own values and attitudes may need to be replaced by a more caring attitude to hardship and misery. thanks for the reminder .
M. McDougall | 07 May 2014


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