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Overlooked themes in A Christmas Carol still ring true today

Dr. Andrea Charise is an Assistant Professor of Health Studies at U of T Scarborough where she is the lead developer and instructor of Canada’s first undergraduate curriculum in “health humanities.” Her current book project is entitled Aging, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.

 

If there’s one story that has institutionalized the modern celebration of Christmas look no further than Charles Dickens classic tale A Christmas Carol (1843).

But how was the story we so intimately associate with Christmas written during a time that gave rise to the world’s first urban, industrial slums where disease, death and despair ran roughshod over the poor?  

Dr. Andrea Charise is an Assistant Professor of Health Studies at U of T Scarborough where she is the lead developer and instructor of Canada’s first undergraduate curriculum in “health humanities.” Her teaching and research. which focus on themes relating to health such as illness, aging and mortality, takes a humanistic approach to health studies by focusing on English literature, especially the novel and nineteenth-century British writing. Her current book project is entitled Aging, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.

Writer Don Campbell spoke to Dr. Charise about the literary climate of the Victorian period when Dickens wrote his famous story and whether any of the themes important to him have been lost on a modern audience.

Victorian England was very much a period of unprecedented innovation and progress contrasted sharply with the world's first industrial slums where poverty and disease disproportionately affected the very young and old of the lower classes.  Do any of these themes show up in popular Christmas literature of the time? 

In the second half of the 19th century, British literature was concerned with portraying matters of wealth, class, employment, and education—what we would call today the “social determinants” of health and illness. The social novel, as it was called, aimed to dramatize the effects of poverty, the Poor Laws, epidemics, dreadful sanitation, and labour conditions, all of which had become part of the new urban landscape of the industrial period. British authors like Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte joined writers from other countries including Russia’s Leo Tolstoy, France’s Victor Hugo and America’s Harriet Beecher Stowe in using realist fiction to portray and protest vast social inequities.

But it was Charles Dickens who first wove together the reformist aims of the social novel with the Christian Christmas tradition. His wildly popular short novel A Christmas Carol (1843) was an immediate success, and it’s fair to say that it’s served as the model for secular Christmas literature ever since. Perhaps the most important aspect is the moral lesson of personal salvation through financial and emotional generosity, which amount to pretty much the same thing in Dickens’s story. 

Are there other themes in A Christmas Carol that were of interest to Dickens but often get glossed over or ignored by modern audiences?

In addition to poverty, disease and death, which are the more obvious themes in the story, an interesting thread to follow is the changing meaning of “profit” throughout the story. The word is first mentioned by Scrooge’s nephew early on in the novel as he’s trying to persuade his miserly uncle to celebrate the season. Over the course of the story Scrooge’s understanding of “profit” evolves from purely financial to a more expansive meaning of profit, which includes the circulation of emotions like goodwill as the key to a healthy, wealthy and just society. Scrooge’s famous exclamation—“Bah! Humbug!”—speaks to his initial resistance to put either his wealth or emotions into social circulation.

But by the end of the book, Scrooge’s re-education involves a new appreciation for what a just economy entails; a society where “profit” is understood in terms of emotional enrichment, not just individual financial gain. Also, I’d say it’s no surprise that Scrooge’s attitude adjustment is a result of his visitation by three ghosts—three supernatural prophets that show Scrooge what profit really means. Dickens uses the poetics of speech (profit/prophet) to bear out the message of the novel itself.

At one point Ebenezer Scrooge offers the idea that if the poor die it will 'solve the surplus population' problem. Does that thought and others offer any insight into some of the ideas and biases of Victorians?

You’re referring to the famous “Malthusian” moments early on in Dickens’s story, which work to paint Scrooge as a heartless, miserly capitalist. Scrooge represents certain echelons of Victorian society that celebrated the work of early 19th-century economist Thomas Malthus, whose Essay on the Principle of Population linked population growth and decline to food supply. Although it’s more complicated than this, essentially the Victorian version of Malthusian thought confirmed the viewpoint of those who spoke out against humanitarian public policies. Such Scrooge-like persons – who are, by the way, no strangers in our own day – believed that humanitarian “handouts” would only bring misery to the people they were supposed to help.

So these anti-humanitarian views still persist in society today?

Yes. I would say what’s most interesting is not so much that certain portions of Victorian society held anti-humanitiarian views, although there’s plenty to say about that, but the way that similar views persist in our own time. Twenty-first century popular media is full of alarmist stories about “surplus populations,” be it the so-called “grey tsunami” of Baby Boomers, or refugees, or the over-production of PhDs in North America. As Dickens knew, the rhetoric of “surplus” is often a cover for public policies that are in some way invested in promoting inequality.

One thing a modern audience might learn from Dickens’s novel is that people can only be made “surplus” by the perpetuation of social rules that exclude them. For me, that’s the great secular lesson of A Christmas Carol—a simple message that’s important all the year round.

 




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