I had the great good fortune this year to write for Signet their introduction to the upcoming edition of A Christmas Carol. I’ll admit that I was surprised to learn that the book began life as a polemic nonfiction project: a pamphlet to be titled “Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” written to draw attention to The Second Report (Trades and Manufactures) of the Children’s Employment Commission, by social reformer Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith.
According to Fred Guida’s A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations, Dickens was “appalled and infuriated by its descriptions of the horrible conditions in which young children were being forced to work” and initially conceived the idea of a pamphlet as good way of drawing attention to their plight. But soon after, Dickens wrote to Smith with a change of plans, saying he had “reasons … for deferring the production of the pamphlet until the end of the year. I am not at liberty to explain them further, just now; but rest assured that when you known them, and see what I do, and where, and how, you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force—twenty thousand times the force—I could exert by following out my first idea.”
Around the same time and at the suggestion of one of his patrons, Dickens paid a visit to one of London’s so-called “Ragged Schools,” in one of city’s most vicious slums. Only the most destitute children were swept into these institutions. Evangelicals twinned scripture with rudimentary education, and Dickens—no stranger to misery and poverty himself—was deeply disturbed by what he saw. In Michael Slater’s recent biography of Dickens, we learn that Dickens said he had “‘very seldom seen … anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children.’”
As Slater points out, Dickens regarded the experience as both shocking and ominous: “‘In the prodigious misery and ignorance of the swarming masses of mankind in England, the seeds of its certain ruin are sown.’ Within a month or so of writing this Dickens would be creating those two child-monsters, ‘horrible and dread,’ Ignorance and Want, whose apparition, ‘yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish,’ so appalls Scrooge.”
Why does this slight book have such an enduring presence?
Many adaptations attempt to satisfy an audience by reducing the number of complicated psychological overtones, transforming Scrooge into a kind of misguided practitioner of Conservative or Libertarian politics (whose change of heart takes place via what one critic called “trickled-down salvation”) or a man more misunderstood than willfully miscreant. Disney’s version, for example, made Mickey’s Cratchit a full business partner of Scrooge’s by the end of the tale, indicating that Hollywood obviously considered Scrooge’s patronage, however indulgent, inadequate restitution for the poor treatment of his clerk. The Mouse gets stock in the company, guaranteeing him a piece of the action. (One wonders, of course, how they deal with the compensation of their own teams of animators.)
The audience, however, knows better than to accept these salvos or salves. For Scrooge to be reclaimed, he must be fully lost; for the story to work, the character of Scrooge must be as close to evil as anyone can be—anyone, that is, who can expect not only the chilly chastisement of contrition accepted but the warm embrace of mercy and reconciliation offered.
Both supernatural and emotional subtleties characterize the work, and Dickens brilliantly choreographs their interplay. The author is creator, character, analyst, and critic; Dickens’ own instinctive understanding of human nature simply presages Freud. Sigmund Freud, of course, envied the poets and writers who understood human nature instinctively and did almost automatically in their art what he did so painstakingly in his science (“If we could at least discover in ourselves … an activity which was in some way akin to creative writing!” laments the father of psychoanalysis).
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens holds high the candle whose light Freud will reflect much later with his mirror: Dickens provided ample fodder for a Freudian reading (being of the Devil’s party without knowing it?) by his emphasis on the following: 1. To understand Scrooge, we must have insight into the reasons for his behavior, which are repressed and which stem from his childhood; 2. For Scrooge to alter his behavior in the present and change patterns of behavior for the future, he must come to grips with suppressed memories, old emotions, and hidden motivations; 3. He cannot do this on his own, but must receive professional help—in his case, from the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future; 4. Like all good analysts, Marley and the Christmas Ghosts force Scrooge to review his past and to restructure both his vocabulary and his perspective.
The spirits encourage Scrooge to change his life by understanding the reasons why he acts the way he acts, and to understand that his present judgments are based on old information; he still is reacting to the past. It is through a “talking cure” offered by the spirits, permitting him to recognize his patterns of thought, that Scrooge’s conversion to full humanity is made possible.
Here’s to the spirits who work with us all, and to all the good they might do if only we allow them to do what they wish. Happy holidays, dear readers and friends.
Here is to the banishment of ignorance and want; here is to good talk and to community; here is to the past, the present, and what is yet to be; and here, from my heart, are my cheers to you!