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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Reclassifying a Classic

A Christmas Carol Does Not Support a Welfare State

[Editors' note: This article was originally published in December 1999]

For a century and a half, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) has been read and reread, told and retold, performed and reperformed. Written in 1843, it is the best-known and best-loved Dickens tale. We all know the story. Or do we?

Many people, both fans and critics of Dickens, believe A Christmas Carol disparages free enterprise through its portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge—the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous” miser. Many also think the story, through its depiction of nineteenth-century poverty, was meant to persuade readers to support a welfare state. Yet both these assumptions are mistaken, as a careful reading of the story shows.

Scrooge’s character defect is not so much greed as miserliness. He hoards his money even at the expense of personal comfort. While many remember the single lump of coal that burns in the cold office of his assistant Bob Cratchit, the fire in Scrooge’s own office is described as “very small.” Scrooge lives in three sparsely furnished, dingy rooms and has no live-in servants, though he could easily afford them. At one point, Scrooge’s nephew Fred remarks that his “wealth is of no use to him. He doesn’t do any good with it. He doesn’t make himself comfortable with it. He hasn’t the satisfaction of thinking—ha, ha, ha!—that he is ever going to benefit us with it.”

Dickens gives us no reason to believe that Scrooge has ever been dishonest in his business dealings. He is thrifty, disciplined, and hard-working. What Dickens makes clear is that these virtues are not enough. This becomes apparent when the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner, visits him on Christmas Eve. Marley’s ghost must forever roam the earth, agonizing over acts of goodwill and kindness that the living Marley left undone: “My spirit never walked beyond our counting house—mark me! in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole.” Elsewhere the ghost laments, “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode. Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”

That Dickens believes money-making, generosity, and a spirit of goodwill are compatible is evident in the character of Mr. Fezziwig, Scrooge’s former employer. Transported back in time by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge watches the jovial businessman throw a lavish Christmas Eve ball for his employees, relatives, neighbors, and servants. Likewise, during Scrooge’s walk home on Christmas Eve, Dickens describes profit-seeking merchants caught up in the spirit of Christmas: “Poulterers and grocers’ trades became a splendid joke; a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do.” Elsewhere, he remarks that “the grocer and his [employees] were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection.” Dickens even takes evident enjoyment in describing the cornucopia of items that shop owners have placed in their windows to delight passers-by—what some today would deride as the crass commercialism of Christmas: “great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts,” “pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids,” “French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly decorated boxes.”

Nowhere in the story does Dickens endorse welfare. Rather, he suggests that charity and hard work in the business world are how best to combat poverty. Early in the story, two gentlemen visit Scrooge’s office and ask him to contribute to a fund to buy food and clothing for the poor. Scrooge inquires whether “the Union workhouses” are still in operation. These composed the welfare system of the day, consisting of bleak facilities where the sick, aged, and poor sometimes went to break rocks or fashion rope in exchange for food and shelter. One gentleman replies, “I wish I could say they were not,” adding that “many would rather die” than go there, since they cannot “furnish Christian cheer of mind or body.” The two gentlemen clearly disparage these government institutions while trying to convince Scrooge, to no avail, that private charity is preferable.

Similarly, there is no suggestion that welfare would help the struggling Cratchit family—although more employment might. When Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visit the Cratchit household on Christmas Eve, Bob Cratchit mentions a possible business position for his eldest son, Peter, that would supplement the family’s income. Again, when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come visit the Cratchit family, Cratchit excitedly relates that Scrooge’s nephew Fred may help get Peter “a better situation’‘ in business, to which Mrs. Cratchit and one of her daughters excitedly respond.

We all know how the story ends. Scrooge’s life is spared, and he resolves to be kind and generous. During a walk on Christmas morning, he encounters the two gentlemen who visited the day before and promises to give a sizable sum to charity. He also encounters beggars. Interestingly, Dickens gives no indication that Scrooge gives to them. Rather, he “questioned” them, perhaps to find out what had brought them to their current state—misfortune or irresponsible conduct—so that appropriate support, whether material or moral, could be given.

After Scrooge’s change of heart, he remains a businessman. He is “early at the office” the day after Christmas, where he tells a surprised Bob Cratchit, “I am about to raise your salary!” (Dickens errs here by implying that wages are determined by the renitency of employers’ hearts.) He does not become a rabble-rouser for welfare programs. Instead, he takes personal responsibility for assisting the Cratchit family, becomes “a second father” to Tiny Tim, and practices other acts of kindness that Dickens must have hoped his readers would emulate.

In our own age, when the respective roles of business, charity, and welfare are being questioned and debated anew, A Christmas Carol offers quite a bit of wisdom.