Transformation

What does ‘A Christmas Carol’ tell us about the meaning of charity?

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business.”

John Picton
17 December 2019
Ebenezer Scrooge as illustrated by Ronald Searle in Life Magazine, 1960.
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Flickr/Elizabeth. CC BY-NC 2.0.

New adaptations of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella appear on our screens each time the holidays come around. From this year’s brand-new mini-series that’s due to be aired in the UK and the USA to the ever-popular Muppet Christmas Carol, this story is a staple of the season. In it, and after a series of visits from ghostly apparitions, Ebenezer Scrooge changes from a cold miser to a kind and gentle person, but some aspects of the role of charity in this change of heart are lost from modern adaptations.

In the 176-year-old text the call to charity is more demanding than just donating cash. Dickens focuses on personal charity as the assumption of social obligations. After his transformation, Scrooge faces up to his moral responsibilities. Famously, he buys an enormous Christmas turkey for the family of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. But his new-found concern for the Cratchit family goes much further than a single festive meal. He also gives Cratchit a pay-rise. And having been frightened by a premonition of the death of Tiny Tim – Cratchit’s son – Scrooge is said to become like “a second father” to the sickly child.

Nevertheless, the meaning of personal charity in the book is complex and needs a more thorough explanation. In part, Dickens includes it as a compassionate response to the conditions of the time. The ‘Hungry 1840s’ were a decade of the most extreme poverty, and Dickens is sensitive to the misery around him. So in the book, a child beggar is graphically described as “gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs.” Then, in a later and prophetic scene, a ghost shows Scrooge a vision of two emaciated children – bleakly named “Ignorance” and “Want.” Strikingly, the child called “Ignorance” has the word “Doom” written on his forehead.

For some critics, Dickens’ treatment of charity in A Christmas Carol appears motivated as much by politics as by compassion. The book was written in a period of persistent political unrest, and Scrooge’s vision of ‘Doom’ can be interpreted as the ever-present threat of revolution. The 1970s musical version of the story picks up this cue. In the film, a spirit transports Scrooge, played by Albert Finney, to his own funeral cortège. He sees his coffin paraded through the streets, surrounded by a drably-dressed but seemingly-cheerful mass of London’s working classes. The revolutionary parallel is clear: this might as well be a convoy to the guillotine.

So it is possible to read A Christmas Carol as a warning from the writer to the wealthy. Bob Cratchit can be taken to represent the whole of the working poor, and it is certainly true that before Scrooge’s change of heart, the clerk has little reason to be content with his lot. Cratchit is described as working in “a dismal little cell…a sort of tank.” On a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, Scrooge keeps Cratchit’s fire so small that it seems as if a single coal is burning. Worse, Scrooge objects to paying the clerk for missing work on Christmas Day. Dickens might be understood as saying to his readers – ‘treat the poor charitably, or they will doom us all.’

In this view, Dickens’ interest in personal charity is as much conservative as compassionate. By recommending charity as a way to stop unrest, the author is motivated to maintain existing social hierarchies. Dickens is far from a radical. His themes are socially orientated, but never seriously challenging for the powerful. Queen Victoria had been an admirer of his work since Oliver Twist appeared in serial form early in his career. With Prince Albert and King Leopold of Belgium, she is known to have attended a private theatrical performance performed by Dickens on Regent Street. Towards the end of his life, she even gave Dickens a personal audience at Buckingham Palace.

But any simple linking up of Dickens’ interest in personal charity to his conservative politics misses something that would have been obvious to Victorian readers: A Christmas Carol is in large part a religious allegory. This is apparent at the book’s beginning, when the ghost of Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, visits him at the Counting House. Marley is condemned as a spirit to walk the earth carrying an enormous chain. Scrooge reminds his old partner that he was a good businessman during his own life. Then Marley warns Scrooge regretfully: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.” This warning is redemptive: charity is the only way that Scrooge can unmake the chains that are wrapped around himself.

So there is an alternative interpretation of the word “Doom” on the forehead of the emaciated child in the vision that’s shown to Scrooge. Without taking charitable action in life, in death the old miser seems destined to become just like Jacob Marley. After his redemption, Scrooge is described as becoming “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” He has had a spiritual and, to some extent, a social transformation.

Charity and religious service were closely entwined in the Victorian mind. In the past, volunteering – or what was called ‘casework’ – marked a call on the wealthy classes to visit the poor in slums and distribute bibles and religious advice. In this long-forgotten mould, charity was supposed to lead to the striking up of interpersonal, if hierarchical, relationships of the sort that Scrooge develops with the Cratchit family. It is a variety of social interaction that now seems alien to us, even bizarre, but Dickens’ original readers would have seen Scrooge’s turn to personal charity as a part of a religious path to redemption.

In truth, all these themes are blurred in the novella. Personal charity marks out the author’s genuine compassion for the poor, but it also appears as a social method to prevent political unrest and as a way for the wealthy to get to Heaven. It’s a heady mix, albeit one which might seem old fashioned to modern readers. But there is one part of Scrooge’s charitable journey which still hits home today.

At the end of the story, Dickens shows us that charity makes Scrooge happy, contented and fulfilled. After he sends the turkey to Bob Cratchit, Scrooge struggles to shave because he is so full of joy that he wants to dance. He meets a charity collector in the street and promises to make a big gift. Filled to the brim with good-feeling, Scrooge then continues on a walk in London; attends church; pats children on the head and speaks to beggars; and it is said that he “had never dreamed that any walk - that anything - could give him so much happiness.”

This is the theme with which modern audiences can still identify, and it’s also the key to the lasting popularity of the story. We are familiar with the idea that generosity might bring us a warm glow inside. So in contemporary screen adaptations, directors bring out a link between charity towards others and personal happiness.

At the end of the 1970s musical, for example, a joyous Scrooge dances through the streets of London dressed as Father Christmas, handing out presents. In the Muppet Christmas Carol, Scrooge (played by Michael Caine) dishes out gifts and sings the words “how precious life can be!” These happy scenes genuinely reflect the spirit of the story’s ending. Dickens has given us an enduring message about personal charity: that we can find fulfilment in the common welfare of humankind.

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