Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at 175


This is an updated version of our 2017 article to mark the 175th anniversary of A Christmas Carol

Today we think of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as a cosy piece of traditional seasonal fare, replete with steaming puds and roasted goose and comfortably easy lessons about not being stingy at Crimbo. But when Dickens wrote his novella in 1843 he was delivering a far more serious – and possibly freshly relevant – warning about the moral bankruptcy of a society that destroys human lives in pursuit of profit.

It’s a fact not much considered, but Das Kapital and A Christmas Carol were both written in the same city, in the same decade – just five years apart.

To those familiar only with the numerous adaptations of Dickens’ tale it might seem absurd to look for any point of connection between these two books. What can a feel-good tale of middle class redemption have to do with a study of the class struggle? But this question only begs to be asked because a lot of the real meaning behind the writing of A Christmas Carol has always been missing from the general perception of this work.

As conceived in 1843, Dickens’ short novel was not simply a personal morality tale. It was a raw and impassioned warning to his fellow bourgeois Victorians of the collective responsibility human beings have for one another and the potential danger existing in exactly the social forces Marx would soon be dissecting. Dickens was worried about the rampant injustices in his society, not simply out of a sense of empathy and outrage, but out of fear. He was convinced the grotesque imbalances of wealth and power that endured at the time of his writing might end up tearing the fabric of society apart.

The Hungry Forties

“Capital & Labour” 1843. by John Leech, who was commissioned by Dickens to make the illustrations for A Christmas Carol

The 1840s, known as the “hungry forties” were years of financial confusion, recession, poverty and unrest throughout much of the developed world. In the USA the boom of 1836 was followed by the “panic of 1837”. The United Kingdom adopted free trade, abolishing most duties & tariffs. There was a railway boom and bust, the Bank Charter Act of 1844, and then a panic in 1847. There was the Irish “potato famine” or “Great Hunger”, when people died of starvation while Anglo-Irish landowners exported the food that would have saved them. In 1846, after heavy lobbying, the Corn Laws were repealed, signalling the end of any protection for domestic producers.

Social injustice was becoming unhinged and self-defeating in its extremity. In 1834 the Malthusian New Poor Law had dehumanised and institutionalised poverty. The law forced anyone needing welfare to enter a workhouse and refusal to do so meant starvation. The new wave of workhouses produced as a result of the Act were places of nightmare, more closely resembling concentration camps than refuges for the needy. Families were forcibly separated, parents assumed to have relinquished all rights over and responsibilities for their children. Segregation by age and gender was enforced. Personal belongings and clothing was confiscated until discharge.

1842 – year of insurrection & a government report

Woodcut illustrating the Preston “riot” in 1842 – note the caption: “attack ON (not by) the military- two rioters shot.”

As the financial instability and periods of recession increased social unrest grew. In 1842 things began to go critical. There were “starvation riots” in Galway, Ireland. Millworkers in Salford were fired upon while protesting outside their place of work. In Preston two “rioters” were shot by soldiers before the regiment “restored the peace” (the Illustrated London News described this as an “attack on the military” – a bit of soulless sophistry worthy of today’s Guardian). A workhouse in Stockport was attacked by a “mob of 20,000 unemployed”. In Manchester the same year the Home Secretary sent troops and artillery to deal with “considerable labour unrest” in the area. The Illustrated London News a few days later reported insurrection in Liverpool, Manchester and other northern towns.

Meanwhile, the Royal Commission of Enquiry into Children’s Employment issued a report that had taken 3 years to compile. Titled On the Condition & Treatment of the Children Employed in Mines & Collieries, it was a detailed investigation into working conditions in mines and factories in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales “comprising thousands of pages of oral testimony (sometimes from children as young as five)”. It detailed the brutal and harrowing conditions which the children of the poor faced in their struggle to survive. There were over 1,000 children under the age of 13 employed in the Yorkshire coalfields and only slightly less in Derbyshire. The exact numbers for North Wales and Cumberland could not even be exactly quantified.

frontispiece for the 1842 government report on child labour

Children were so numerous in the workplace for one reason only – because they were cheap. On average earning only 20% of an adult’s wage while working the same hours. A child as young as five could work 14 hours a day in conditions of squalor and acute danger. Many such children died of industrial accidents or disease.

The rising toll of human misery was almost beyond measuring. Its social implications clear to anyone with eyes to see.

“Perfectly Stricken”

Dickens in the 1850s, about ten years after the publication of A Christmas Carol

In the spring of 1843 the young writer Charles Dickens read the Commission’s report and was shocked by it.

He was 31 years old, already successful in his chosen field. Although solidly middle class in heritage and upbringing, he had known some deprivation and genteel poverty in his early years. His father John, famously, was sent to debtors’ prison when Charles was 12. As a result Charles was boarded with an impoverished family friend, forced to leave school and work 10 hours a day in a warehouse. By working class standards this was not a hard life, but for the middle class Dickens family it was humiliating and traumatising.

The impact this early experience of relative poverty had on young Charles is said to have been considerable. It made him both acutely driven to acquire wealth and stability in his own life and acutely aware that poverty was an affliction, not, as many Victorians believed, a vice. In the 1840s Dickens adopted Unitarianism, saying they “would do something for human improvement if they could, and practice charity and toleration.” He was no Marxist, no socialist, not really much of a coherent philosopher, but he did have an understanding of the human cost of poverty and a sense of universalism and fraternity that is expressed throughout his work. He opposed the New Poor Law and the worst excesses of unfettered capitalism from a standpoint of religious morality. Throughout his life he was active in campaigning for the dispossessed and the ‘unfortunate.’

In the 1840s he visited an example of what were known as the “ragged schools”, and vividly recorded his impressions of what he found.

“…It consisted at that time of either two or three–I forget which-miserable rooms, upstairs in a miserable house. In the best of these, the pupils in the female school were being taught to read and write; and though there were among the number, many wretched creatures steeped in degradation to the lips, they were tolerably quiet, and listened with apparent earnestness and patience to their instructors. The appearance of this room was sad and melancholy, of course–how could it be otherwise!–but, on the whole, encouraging.

The close, low chamber at the back, in which the boys were crowded, was so foul and stifling as to be, at first, almost insupportable. But its moral aspect was so far worse than its physical, that this was soon forgotten. Huddled together on a bench about the room, and shown out by some flaring candles stuck against the walls, were a crowd of boys, varying from mere infants to young men; sellers of fruit, herbs, lucifer-matches, flints; sleepers under the dry arches of bridges; young thieves and beggars–with nothing natural to youth about them: with nothing frank, ingenuous, or pleasant in their faces; low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked; abandoned of all help but this; speeding downward to destruction; and UNUTTERABLY IGNORANT.

This, Reader, was one room as full as it could hold; but these were only grains in sample of a Multitude that are perpetually sifting through these schools; in sample of a Multitude who had within them once, and perhaps have now, the elements of men as good as you or I, and maybe infinitely better…”

He wrote letters to newspapers, he begged the pious and privileged who spent their money on “the building of New Churches” to consider whether helping the ragged schools to provide for the children might be a more Christian duty

to reflect whether some portion of their rich endowments might not be spared for such a purpose…to consider for themselves where the Christian Religion most needs and most suggests immediate help and illustration; and not to decide on any theory or hearsay, but to go themselves into the Prisons and the Ragged Schools, and form their own conclusions

It’s probably not surprising that Dickens read the Commission’s report on child labour shortly after its publication and, like many others, was “perfectly stricken” by its revelations. He felt compelled to act, and wrote to one of the commissioners saying he planned to compose a pamphlet, and he even had a title in his head – “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”

But the pamphlet was never written. Dickens changed his mind and decided he could make a bigger impact on people through fiction. He was excited about the potential it had to influence people for change. He wrote to the commissioner again:

You will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force — twenty thousand times the force — I could exert by following out my first idea

His new idea was the germ of the novel that became A Christmas Carol. He wrote it inside six weeks in the autumn of 1843 during a time of some financial strain. He planned for a luxury edition (red binding and gilt edging) that would – he hoped – both solve his cash flow issues and focus the attention of the public on the injustices that had spurred him to write. By the time he finished writing in early December he was in dire financial straits. His bank account was in the red, and his publishers were reluctant to support the publication of such an “odd” and overtly political novel. So Dickens paid for the publication himself.

The message

The book came out on December 19 1843. It sold out very quickly, but the high costs of production, and legal fees spent on contesting a pirated edition meant he saw only modest profit initially. Readers loved its nostalgic and sentimental celebration of Christmas, and warmed to the easy redemption of its protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge. But the wider message did not then and has maybe not since received as much recognition.

Beyond the simple framing Dickens uses Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey through his own life and the world he inhabits as a device to explore the grotesque and dangerous inequalities of contemporary society. Scrooge’s famous dismissal of the poor as ‘useless eaters’:

What then? If they be like to die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

expresses the Malthusian ideas promulgated to defend unfettered capitalism as ’natural’ and good for society. We hear the same arguments today from the mouths of super-wealthy social Darwinians like Bill Gates, albeit differently worded and wrapped in unctuous amounts of faux “environmental” concern. The rebuttal Dickens offers is powerful:

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.

This is a lot more radical and egalitarian than most mainstream liberal commentary today.

Dickens also uses Scrooge’s journey to discuss the evils of the workhouse and the institutionalised exploitation of poverty. He attacks the Church and the Sabbatarian movement for their insistence on shutting down Bakers’ kitchens on Sundays. For the poor, many of whom had no means of cooking in their homes, these communal kitchens were the only means of getting hot food. Dickens saw it as vindictive hypocrisy to force them to go without a proper meal out of supposed respect for the deity.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, after a moment’s thought, “I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people’s opportunities of innocent enjoyment.”

“I!” cried the Spirit.

“You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all,” said Scrooge. “Wouldn’t you?”

“I!” cried the Spirit.

“You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day,” said Scrooge. “And it comes to the same thing.”

“I seek!” exclaimed the Spirit.

“Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family,” said Scrooge.

The Spirit’s admonishing of Scrooge’s lazy assumption could apply as well to now as to 1843.

There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.

Ignorance and Want

Ignorance and Want illustrated by John Leech

Dickens also addresses the very basis of the threat he sees to the social order. Beneath the robes of the Spirit of Christmas Present he sees what he thinks may be a “foot or a claw” protruding. When the Spirit raises his robe two children are revealed “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable…”

“…They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’

This is the heart of Dickens’ message, still as relevant today as it was in 1843. This is the passage that, more than any other, make the work manifestly much more than a reminder to one selfish man to mend his ways. It’s an apocalyptic warning to society as a whole – allow ignorance to fester, encourage and exploit it for you own ends, and you, and all of us, will perish. It’s the very core of Dickens’ anger and fear, and the message he most feels the need to communicate to a heedless and wilful, comfortable and well-fed Victorian bourgeoisie. But paradoxically it is the passage most frequently omitted from the numerous dramatisations of the work.

Dickens’ message today

We are currently dealing with social issues Dickens would find very recognisable. After a brief period (1945-1970) in parts of the western world of relative prosperity for the working class, the gap between rich and poor is once again widening and the disadvantaged are once again being regarded with a casual contempt that would have seemed incredible just ten years ago, but which Dickens would find very familiar. Malnutrition and rickets are reappearing. In the UK many working people rely on food banks to survive. Homelessness is reaching epic proportions. Universal Credit is born from the same detachment from reality and vindictive drive to punish the most vulnerable that produced the Victorian workhouses.

The familiar morality tale of A Christmas Carol would be an obvious vehicle for exploring these modern issues. So, what is being offered up?

Well, earlier this year we got this. It purports, according to IMDB, to be a fictionalised account of the “journey that led to Charles Dickens’ creation of A Christmas Carol, a timeless tale that would redefine the holiday.”

Great. Except it does leave out a few quite important details. Like any mention – at all – about the Commission report on child labour that inspired Dickens’ creative rage. Or the ragged schools he visited and despaired over. In this version Dickens is a lovable doofus with writer’s block and parent problems, who really needs to figure out how to tell a funs Christmas story so he can fix his financial problems.

Well, at least the financial problems were real. So that’s something. It’s based on this book, by a professor at a Florida university. Judging by the cover blurb the book doesn’t mention the poverty and injustice thing either. Maybe all that heavy duty stuff is just a bit too much for your average professor of creative writing to wrap his head round.

Oh, and then there’s this:

This is a piece of artwork, several of which were commissioned by the Dickens museum to re-imagine A Christmas Carol in the 21st Century.

Scrooge is manspreading.

In the 21st Century, this age of sterile ‘identity politics’ and pathological narcissism masquerading as activism, maybe this really is the worst social evil we can imagine. Though another commission does, at least, show some understanding of the story’s really applicability to today:

For better or worse Dickens’ clarion call to social responsibility has been largely reduced to a roll-out of cosy family movies that tend to eschew most of the grittier parts of the story (though, oddly, the recent Disney version does reinstate some of the grit), and extract it from any social or political context. Most modern analyses of the original betray partial or complete ignorance of its deeper message or the social ills that inspired it. Even when some reference is made to Dickens’ social conscience it tends to be sanitised and cursory. We are even told by one website that A Christmas Carol is actually endorsing unfettered free market capitalism because, if not for that, Scrooge could not make the charitable donations he does at the end of the story.

The most egregious example of this shallow neoliberal revisionism is last year’s The Man who Invented Christmas – a film notionally telling the history of Dickens’ work, but actually selling a cosy myth. Dicken’s becomes a foppish oaf, more concerned with his bank balance and personal rivalries than the problems of Victorian society. Societal crimes are sidlined and ignored in favour of invented inter-personal drama. Dickens’ anger softened into sentiment and simplistic emotions.

The factual inaccuracies come thick and fast – someone tells Dickens he “should have been a journalist”. Of course, Dickens WAS a journalist for years.

Elsewhere, we are told that the episode with the monstrous children, “Ignorance” and “Want”, is all about the need for “education” among the poor. Because most of us no longer understand the thing Dickens knew full well – that these things are not unhappy accidents but deliberately imposed methods of control and exploitation.

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’


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