LARRY MCGEHEE: 'Christmas Carol': Something New to Learn
Each year at this time, since 1989, we have reread Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the classic written in 1843, and never yet failed to find in it some new dimension -- humor, use of light and color images, word choices (such as "gruel") -- upon which to reflect.
Reading this year, we were jarred by the oft-neglected appearance mid-book of two grotesque children under the robe of the Spirit of Christmas Present:
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable.
"Oh, Man! Look here. Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
"Spirit! Are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.
"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. 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 written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!"
"Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.
"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"
This is the passage most readers of the book prefer to skip. The ghastly grotesqueness of these two suffering children is almost unbearable, and its reason for being there, like an unexpected pothole in a road, certainly is not clear. (It took us 18 readings to get a meaning.)
The misery of the real-life characters in the surrounding story pales in comparison to this imagery.
We have, for years, delighted in what we thought to be Dickens' intended message. We have thought that the meaning of "A Christmas Carol" lay in the pilgrimage and transformation of Scrooge from "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" at the beginning to "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world."
We had thought, in short, that this story -- with Scrooge as its focus -- was a way of retelling the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son's return. Dickens' point seemed to be that every lost sheep -- like the one the shepherd sought while leaving 99 behind -- is worth saving, even a wealthy but worthless Scrooge, and that Christmas celebrations can be conversion experiences.
But these two maimed children, Ignorance and Want, who will grow up into Doom, make us aware that Dickens is actually casting a wider net than tracing the salvation of one old Scrooge miser and one young Tiny Tim cripple. The focus of "A Christmas Carol" is not Scrooge, but all the world's children.
In a bleak and dismal and divided world, Dickens delighted in children. The hope he saw for rescuing the entire world rested in its children. If they were reared in ignorance and in poverty, they would become callous and capricious adults. "As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined."
So Dickens here is waging class warfare. The innocence and unshaped souls of all children clash with the jaded and jaundiced cynicisms and selfishness of Man, and the greed and corroded atmosphere of adults clash with the Christmas idealism of thinking of and giving to others before serving self, and the captains of business clash with the common masses of people.
Humanity is blind to its need for salvation of its soul, and the only way to save Mankind from itself is by focusing itself upon its children. Spare the children from Ignorance and from Want, Dickens pleads, and in doing this Mankind will itself be saved.
One way of becoming children-conscious, Dickens seems to be saying, is to return to the reason there was a child in a manger. See through and strip away the rituals, the sermons, the ecclesiastical and capitalistic and hypocritical layers of centuries of rationalizing power and self-centered focusing. Return to the children. Man's own worst enemy is Man. Beware especially of those who disguise their baser motives in the robes of religion.
In Stave Three, Scrooge goes on the offensive against the Ghost of Christmas Present by accusing the Christianity it represents and celebrates of actually harming the poor. The response from the Ghost (which could easily describe "religious" voices conspicuously heard today in national affairs, executive offices and polling places in recent years) is chilling:
"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."
The trappings of modern times are precisely that: trappings. We are trapped by habits, and institutions, and attitudes centuries in the making -- chains and coffer boxes like those Marley is doomed to wear in eternity. We must, Dickens warns, divest ourselves of most of what we think defines us. We must save the children from ignorance and from want, and we must become wise and caring children ourselves. Our own rebirth will come when we focus upon children, not upon ourselves.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story