Friday, December 17, 2010

A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens

The story of A Christmas Carol is so familiar to us that we've lost an appreciation of its conceptual audacity. To celebrate the Christmas season, a time of "goodness and light," Dickens gave his readers a gloomy Gothic ghost story complete with rattling chains. Dickens explicitly refers to Hamlet in the book's opening pages, but in truth his ghosts have a slightly less exalted pedigree. A Christmas Carol, with its weird spirits and night journeys and climactic conversion, reads like a pagan Halloween tale grafted onto a Christian conversion narrative. It is also, of course, a great Liberal fairy tale. It seems clear to me, for example, that Scrooge is working late on Christmas Eve because he's busily drafting the 2012 Republican Party platform. ("Are there no prisons?...And the Union workhouses, are they still in operation?...The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?") Scrooge is a "greed is good" laissez-faire capitalist, a 19th-century Gordon Gekko who by story's end is converted into George Soros. (If Ayn Rand had written this story, the Scrooge of the first chapter would be her straight-talking hero and the charitable Ebenezer of the last chapter would be a traitorous villain. But then, if Ayn Rand had written this story, it wouldn't be worth reading. She was a marginally talented hack; Dickens, on the other hand, was a very highly talented hack.) The socioeconomic moral of A Christmas Carol is that the problems of capitalism (poverty, greed) are amenable to capitalist solutions. Dickens preached reform rather than revolution. Unlike his reader Karl Marx, he tells us that social evils are best alleviated not by a general social upheaval but by the transformation of capitalism into a more benevolent, charitable, liberal system--a social transformation that exactly parallels Scrooge's personal one. Dickens dreams of a capitalism without Scrooges, a Christianized, Christ-like capitalism. It's a dream that seems, in the age of Madoff and Goldman Sachs, even more pipe-derived than Marx's most utopian moments.

It's also interesting that while Dickens may have set out to compose a fable about the Christianization of capitalism, the tale he actually wrote reflects exactly the opposite process: the capitalization of Christianity. A Christmas Carol is a chapter in the long and not exactly magical transformation of caritas into cold cash. The charity that equals love becomes a few bucks on the collection plate to buy off one's capitalist bad conscience. In the terms of Dickens's tale, Scrooge's conversion is dramatized largely through monetary transactions. Scrooge's consciousness in the final chapter is not one whit less money-centered. In fact, by spending his money more liberally now, the newly Christianized Scrooge becomes more fully engaged in capitalism: both a liberal spender and a conservative getter. Christianity, it seems, is less about who we are than how we spend. It's the 'charity and moderation' branch of capitalism. That many of the scriptural tenets of Christianity are inimical to capitalism (the line about rich men and the eye of a needle; the exemplary poverty of Jesus) is but one complication that Dickens chooses to ignore, preferring to end his tale on the day after Christmas, before the cultural contradictions of Scrooge's new life make themselves felt.

One other way in which Dickens tries (unsuccessfully, I think) to write his way around these contradictions is to implicitly portray Scrooge's conversion as a redemption of the tale's entire fictional world. Dickens's nervously capitalized insistence at story's end that Tiny Tim "did NOT die," that the child was somehow saved by Scrooge, resurrected Lazarus-like from a death we have already witnessed (albeit in the 'future'), marks the new Scrooge as a redeemer with messianic powers. If Scrooge can save Tiny Tim, what can't he do? The sad death and late salvation of Tiny Tim is also the story's cheapest and most transparently manipulative element. It's almost as phony as the ending of the book of Job.

I'll end with a brief note on sex in A Christmas Carol. What am I talking about? There's a very curious scene in the second chapter where the daughter of Scrooge's former love is "pillaged" by the other children. The narrator's description of this roughhousing is blatantly eroticized. He even breaks into first person and confides in the reader his desire to join in the fun. Real sex is, of course, even more severely repressed in this eminently Victorian fiction than in Victorian society, so it seems that this odd little scene provides an outlet for all the eroticism that's deeply submerged elsewhere. Something very similar occurs in the sensual description of foods early in chapter three.

1 comment:

TitusL said...

Great post and the thought of Ayn Rands version still has me reeling hahaha, thought you might like my machinima version of A Christmas Carol