A Christmas Carol is the second most told story in film, falling only behind Robin Hood as the most told cinematic story. Every year, playhouses across the country faithfully perform the play. Dickens' classic novel was released in 1843, yet we still perform the play in 2018. What about this story sticks with American culture, despite being over 170 years old and set in Victorian England?
Greed and selfishness are attacked at the heart of the story. These vices easily translate across time, especially through the capitalist society. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge, for all his faults, represents a side of humanity that is despicable beyond belief. If we take only the first half of the book, it seems appropriate that Scrooge's surname morphed into a term used to denote someone who is a curmudgeon and doesn't enjoy the holiday season. The willingness to let someone freeze to death, rather than give them a six-pence for a song, is a kind of cruelty few of us can imagine. Though we likely have never intentionally caused someone this kind of harm, we certainly let this kind of harm happen all of the time.
When a panhandler asks for change, there is little doubt that he will be largely ignored, regardless of the genuine need he might have for a little pocket change. When asked for donations to fight poverty, homelessness, starvation, and more, many of us withhold donations in favor of buying products we may not necessarily need. New clothes, perfume/cologne, jewelry, books, restaurant meals, expensive alcohol, and more take precedence over charity. I am just as guilty of this as anyone, a fact that doesn't sit well when I reflect upon it. Even the measly 2% of my income I donate could be upped, were I to give up a few luxuries. The holiday season is the one of the few times of year when masses of Americans pull out their wallet and donate to a cause (this is why you are getting so many letters asking for donations right now). The most charitable among Americans donate 10% of our income, a pittance when compared with what is wasted on commercial items that we don't need. We are still the nation that gives the most in the entire world, yet avarice abounds.
Dickens recognized this in his own time as well. Rather than feed the needy and clothe the poor, the wealthy Victorian Englishman withheld their money and spent it on frivolous items for one's self and one's family. Early in the story, Scrooge thinks that he has met his societal obligations simply by paying his taxes, which fund the 'prisons' and 'workhouses,' horrible institutions that are ineffective at taking care of the poor. When Scrooge is presented the image of the Tiny Tim and other woeful children by the Spirit of Christmas Present, his heart softens. His own words bite back when the Spirit of Christmas Present throws them at Scrooge later in the story.
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
- Chapter 1, A Christmas Carol
This kind of nonchalant attitude towards the needy is something I wouldn't imagine myself hearing in my own lifetime. However, with the tragedies in Puerto Rico and California, I've seen blatant cruelty and dismissiveness of the struggles of living through hurricanes and forest fires by our president, and many other radically minded individuals.
Whenever discussion of healthcare reform comes up, I've heard mention of the idea that 'healthcare is not a right.' Whenever I hear this talking point, I can almost imagine the speaker hoisting his walking cane and walking away in Scrooge's distasteful manner. It seems absurd that healthcare, anymore than food or shelter, shouldn't be a necessity and a right to one's own countrymen. Even though we don't meet the ideals of food security for all of our citizens, as a society we tend to all agree that food is a basic human right. Yet conservative commentators point to the fact that we will inevitably fail in providing universal healthcare, and so we shouldn't even try.
In the story of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is written to be intentionally mean, cruel, and selfish. We are meant to gaze at his original behavior in horror, and imagine the individual who would think or say or do the things he does. Yet Dickens' portrayal of Scrooge was meant to be a mirror to Victorian society and the excesses of wealth and mistreatment that the economic elites often displayed for poorer classes. By taking the attitudes of the day and putting them into the mean, old, ugly man of Scrooge, Dickens' was trying to convey exactly how the actions and ideas shaped the man, and how it was shaping society as whole.
Even though the story starts off on a negative, haunting note, A Christmas Carol is by no means a pessimistic story. It shows that even the most morally corrupt individuals can be redeemed and saved, if given the right motivation and experiences. Scrooge despises love and family and close relationships, until he peers into the home of the Cratchits. When the ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge to the house of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's assistant, he sees a family who lives on the edge of poverty, but manages to make a beautiful, meaningful life out of their existence. Even Tiny Tim, an invalid meant to represent the most vulnerable, finds beauty and brings joy to those around him.
Tiny Tim, more than any other characters throughout the short story, convinces Scrooge to change his ways. However, it isn't through pity, which one would be the most expected emotion to drive Scrooge's change in behavior. It is an understanding of the fragility of life, and the difference that Tiny Tim approaches it as opposed to Scrooge. Tiny Tim, who has no means and is expected to live a short life, understands his mortality, but uses it not to live in despair, waiting for death. Instead, he displays innocence and wonder at the mundane. Scrooge, on the other hand, has lived a long life, and is expected to live a longer life, despite his old age. He is expected to live in comfort, and has made miserliness a part of his being.
When Scrooge finally confronts the Ghost of Christmas Future, he realizes that all of his miserliness, his cunning, and his riches lead to nothing. He is forced to face his mortality, and how it will affect others. He gets a meager tombstone, and finds that almost everyone is more than happy to joke about and mock his passing.
The combination of his exposure to the Cratchit family, his past grievances, his own mortality, and to what life can be, lead to his redemption. Beyond the selfishness and the pettiness, Scrooge finds a better, more compassionate life. He finds a way to create and share a world in which everyone can partake. Scrooge is not able to fix all of the world's woes with his money, but he is able to make life marginally better for several people, where any marginal increase is livelihood exponentially increases lively value.
Scrooge might be a personification of the moral attitudes when pure capitalism can run amok, but the lessons of A Christmas Carol can be taken to heart by American society at large.