A Christmas Carol Also Applies to Today
Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, January 7 / 19
A tradition in our household and possibly in many others is to watch the movie A Christmas Carol during the holidays every year. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Charles Dickens, the great English author of the Victorian Era, written in 1844. The version we watch, the most critically acclaimed one, was filmed in 1951 and stars Allistair Sim.
For those who may not know the storyline, it is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a cynical and grasping man of business who is the embodiment of the grinch not only at Christmas but all year round. He bullies employees and family alike, destroys good people in his business dealings, and pinches every penny.
However, as is so often true, there is a backstory to his negative ways. Scrooge is the victim of a lonely childhood, the loss of his mother and sister, and rejection by his father. And there is a final chance at redemption as ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future seek to move him to a more positive path to avoid eternal damnation.
A Christmas Carol represents likely the best known fiction of Dickens as a social critic and reformer of the Victorian Age. It also, as does most of his writing, mirrors his own early years. Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England on the country’s south coast in February 1812, the second of eight children. The family moved into a poor part of London and his father worked as a clerk until being sent to debtors prison, while Dickens at age twelve worked in a shoe polish factory.
The young Dickens lived alone in his mid-teens, as his family moved closer to the prison, but his future career became clear when he got jobs as an office boy and then a reporter. At age fifteen, he left any schooling behind and started writing sketches of London for local papers, that eventually became his novel The Pickwick Papers. These types of sketches became social commentary and somewhat autobiographical when at age thirty he wrote Oliver Twist about the challenges and adventures of an innocent orphan. This book also has been made into successful modern movies and a Broadway show.
At the same juncture in life, Dickens travelled to and around the United States, speaking out against slavery and returned to England to write about American materialism and what he saw as a lack of culture. He continued writing about the abuses in Victorian Society with novels such as David Copperfield, his personal favourite, and then darker books in the 1850s, such as Bleak House and Hard Times.
These were tough years for Dickens as he lost family members and ended his marriage. In 1859, he published A Tale of Two Cities, about the French Revolution, and in 1861, Great Expectations, thought to be his greatest work. Poor health and a heavy travel and speaking schedule caught up with Dickens and he died of a stroke in June of 1870.
In general terms, the prospects of ordinary citizens and the poor in Western Society are much better today than they were in the Victorian Age. A Christmas Carol, however, is still relevant and very moving. The poor are still with us and social problems, from drugs to personal bankruptcies to varied forms of abuse, confront us every day. We are more aware of and, I believe, as a society take more responsibility for the problems that exist and the solutions that need to be found.
What has changed for me over the many years of watching the movie is my view of the characters and their transformations. I still identify strongly with and shed a tear for Tiny Tim, the poor and sickly boy who will die if Scrooge doesn’t change his ways. There is a point in the movie where a ghost pulls back his cloak to uncover the two scourges that could destroy society, in the form of two cowering children: want and ignorance. Truly frightening!
But what strikes me most is the utter joy that Scrooge finds in his own newly-found generosity and sociability. Many of us see the need to pay taxes, make donations or volunteer our services but we may not do it joyously. A study done globally by the United Nations reveals that Finland is the world’s Happiest Country because they understand that social programs contribute to everyone’s well-being, no matter their station in life.
Freeing ourselves from self-doubt and no longer blaming victims for their predicament – what Dickens 150 years ago might have called “seeing a brother in all men” – may be the key. Sounds idealistic. To an extent, we practise this at Christmas. What would our world look like if we did it year round?
Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of The Marquis Project and former Coordinator for Fair Trade Manitoba.
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