Week 14: Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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Background Reading

About Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 and went on to become one of the most popular and influential novelists of the Victorian era (Queen Victoria ruled England from 1837 to 1901). Some of his most famous books include Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and - the book you will be reading this week - A Christmas Carol. (The main character in this book is named Ebenezer Scrooge, so you may know the story from movies like Scrooge or Scrooged).

When Dickens died in 1870, he was buried in the Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey in London, where many other famous British writers are buried (among them, Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales). Here is what is written on his tombstone:

He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world.

Although Dickens ended his life as an international celebrity, he faced some serious hardships early in life. When Dickens was twelve years old, his father was imprisoned for debt. As the oldest child, Dickens left school and went to work in a factory in order to support the rest of the family, who stayed with the father in Marshalsea debtor's prison in London. When he was fifteen, Dickens got a position as a law clerk, and he eventually became a journalist. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published in 1836, and his next novel, Oliver Twist, was published in serial form from 1837-1839. A Christmas Carol was published in 1843. According to many social critics, this novel was instrumental in creating many of the Christmas traditions that we now take for granted.

Sharp and Sentimental

Most people think of Dickens as a sentimental writer, and this is certainly true for many of the scenes and characters in his novels. At the same time, Dickens was an extremely keen observer of social life, and much of his work is satirical and extremely funny. So keep an eye out for the "sharp edges" in what Dickens writes about, and notice the intensity of his politics and his social criticism.

Even a character like the little crippled boy Tiny Tim is not a complete slave to sentimentality. For example, when Scrooge's poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, proposes a toast to Scrooge on Christmas Eve, everyone else in the family objects - even sweet little Tiny Tim!

'Mr Scrooge,' said Bob; 'I'll give you Mr Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast.'

'It should be Christmas Day, I am sure,' said she, 'on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr Scrooge! You know he is, Robert. Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow.'

'My dear,' was Bob's mild answer, 'Christmas Day!'

'I'll drink his health for your sake and the Day's,' said Mrs Cratchit, 'not for his. Long life to him. A merry Christmas and a happy new year. He'll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt!' The children drank the toast after her. It was the first of their proceedings which had no heartiness. Tiny Tim drank it last of all, but he didn't care twopence for it.

If you are interested in reading a sharply satirical book by Dickens, I highly recommend his novel Hard Times. It's shorter than many of his other novels, and one of its main themes is a very insightful critique of education in Victorian times (a critique which still holds true today, if you ask me). The opening scene takes place in a schoolroom, with a school official barking at the teacher and the children:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

The character of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is another one of these materialistic characters who want nothing of fancy, and only facts (and cash!). For those of you who are Harry Potter fans, you might think of Mr. Dursley and his total rejection of anything having to do with the imagination.

Over the course of the novel, you will see Scrooge transformed into an entirely different character by means of a series of supernatural events... or was it all just a dream? Did Scrooge himself imagine all of it? Dickens does not insist: you can see the events in A Christmas Carol as real magic or merely as a dream - but either way, Scrooge is absolutely and utterly transformed.

A Christmas Carol as Frametale

Unlike the other books you have read in this class so far, A Christmas Carol is not a story collection. Instead, it is a novel. However, I hope you will see how the structure of this novel is influenced by the tradition of story collections organized with a frametale.

The main part of the novel is a frametale about Scrooge. We see Scrooge on Christmas Eve, and we learn about his life and character. Then, the ghost of his dead partner appears to Scrooge and tells him that he will be visited by three different Spirits. These Spirits "show" him stories, rather than telling him stories. Sometimes those stories involve characters that Scrooge knows (and even Scrooge himself), while other times the characters in these stories are complete strangers to Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol is definitely a modern novel, but its structure shows a clear debt to the frametale tradition (and the famous frametale collection of The 1001 Nights is even going to make a prominent appearance in this week's readings; Dickens was a big fan of 1001 Nights). The three Spirits are guides to Scrooge, much like the Sibyl was a guide to Aeneas in the Underworld, or Vergil was Dante's guide through the Inferno. You can imagine A Christmas Carol as if it were a Storybook project for this class: the frametale of Scrooge allows Dickens to insert all kinds of stories into the frame, using the supernatural powers of the Spirits to overcome all barriers of time and space.


Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM