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Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol (1843) and Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone (1868), both show different messages about their author’s view of ethics. The Victorian era was an era when the ethical view of the world – and the people in it –was undergoing a period of massive change. Both works come from an England near the height of its powers, and the seat of a massive and powerful empire, yet at home, the vast riches of that empire was not spread fairly. Instead, it was a time of massive differences in wealth, with the rich gaining massive fortunes, and the poor forced to work in factories or as servants in homes, and face horrible misfortune and suffering.
Victorian England is not unlike the world today, where billions of people are poor, while the richest 1% own more than half of all the money and resources. Because of this major problem, which is present now and then, it is necessary to return to Victorian literature to describe how best to respond to these problems today. Both A Christmas Carol and The Moonstone show the different ethical ideas, especially about how the rich should treat the poor. However, from the ethics of how the rich should treat the poor, both in ideal and aspirational ethics, these novels differ in their presentation of the value of the so-called ‘golden rule’, and the idealized view in The Moonstone is more effective.
How should the wealthy treat the poor? Such ideas have weighed heavily on the minds and hearts of authors of all generations, but tend to be more important during times of greater socioeconomic separation, that is, when there is greater separation between the classes. Stories, explains McCall-Smith (2009), “express a moral point of view,” so for authors to behave ethically, they are bound to present a good and proper example for their readers (McCall-Smith 1). So, during times of vast wealth disparity, authors have a duty to highlight these separations, and also to present the ethical argument that it best for the rich to treat the poor in a charitable and generous way.
There are two different ways to go about making this ethical argument. The first, ideal perspective, might argue that a work of art is best when it simply explains to the reader what an ethical behavior consists of, and shows its characters behaving that way. The ideal ethical perspective is instructive, as the reader might take away a lesson in how best to behave from the behaviors shown by the characters in a given story. By contrast, the aspirational ethical perspective presents a path to ethics, and builds its view of proper behavior to the end of a journey of self-reflection and understanding.
The most proper type of ethical behavior to rule the relations between rich and poor the golden rule, or the idea that people should treat others as they would prefer to be treated themselves. This idea is so common that it is almost a law, and is shared between all world religions and has a firm source in many societies. This rule is also defined as an order to treat people “only as [they] consent to being treated in the same situation” (Gensler 2). This rule is ethically sound and builds a strong foundation from which to consider Victorian literature because of the connection between huge inequality in wealth at the time and the failure of rich people to follow this rule. The golden rule “demands consistency,” and requires a “fit” between the actions taken by people and their “desires about how [they] would wish to be treated in the same situation” (Gensler 2).
Both A Christmas Carol and The Moonstone tell similar lessons about the ethics of wealth. Both stories explain that mere station in life, as defined by the amount of money that people have in the bank, is not enough to allow them to treat poorer people unfairly or harshly, even if they can afford to do so. The key difference, then, between these two works of Victorian literature, lies in the way that these authors – Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins – choose to tell this lesson to their readers.
Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol is full of examples of its wealthy main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, behaving in a way that is not only greedy, but cruel, especially toward the workers and associates who he has kept over the years. A series of clear examples are in evidence early in the book, long before Scrooge has met with the three ghosts, who show him his past, present, and future, and he is able to get his redemption. Importantly, the view that the work presents is not one which argues that Scrooge himself is a singular villain, instead, it can be argued that Scrooge is most notable because he is a stand-in for the whole of rich Victorian society, a man whose wealth has caused him to be angry, bitter, and consumed with greed, and has lost his way in life. His failure to relate to those who are poorer than him – who holds power over due to his wealth – has caused him to be callous about their fates, welfare, and even their lives. While Scrooge does not behave unethically in a traditional sense — he has broken no laws — his behavior toward his fellow man can be considered deeply cold and shameful, and lacking of any major sense of ethical reciprocity.
An early example comes when Scrooge is visited by men collecting for the poor, who request that Scrooge make “some slight provision for the poor and destitute,” for people who “suffer greatly” during the cold months of winter (Dickens 14). To this request, Scrooge answers, “are there no prisons?” While Scrooge also asks if there are ‘workhouses’, and if welfare laws are also “in effect,” his mention of prisons – which are supported, much to his anger, with his taxes – shows that Scrooge feels no for the poor (Dickens 14). He would rather see the poor in cages than donate any of his money to increase their happiness. “Those who are off badly must go there,” he says, and shows that he cannot imagine himself in the situation that the poor suffer in, and as a result views them as people who deserve to be treated like criminals (Dickens 14).
A similar view is presented later in the conversation, when the men argue – when they describe the prisons, workhouses, and other facilities where the poor go – that “many can’t go there, and many would rather die” (Dickens 15). To this, Scrooge says, “if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” (Dickens 15). This line shows both Scrooge’s lack of ethical reciprocity, and how Dickens shows Scrooge to reflect the views of an era: Scrooge is rich, but he is also a rich man who views those who are in a different, more difficult, situation as being not even human, and deserving of death if they don’t find government-provided services to be to their liking. This view goes to the core of his personality, and shows that he is really unable to sympathize with people who do not share his privileges in life.
The core of A Christmas Carol is Scrooge’s journey to redemption, where he is literally able to re-live his life and learn lessons about the perspectives of others, especially how he will be remembered after he dies. However, this is where the work’s ethical viewpoint becomes complicated, and seems to show that Scrooge has only chosen to become generous because he fears that he will be forgotten after he dies, and that his funeral will be attended by local businessmen, but only “if a lunch is provided” (Dickens 67). Scrooge has learned little about reciprocity, aside from the fact that he will not be remembered if he does not begin acting more kindly toward others. In this way, though the novel presents an aspirational view of ethics, it fails to live up to the ideals of these aspirations. Though it begins by perfectly showing the perspective of a wealthy man without sympathy, who could be a stand-in for any other, the journey that Scrooge takes is unrelatable, and so the novel teaches no lessons except that sympathy might come from fear of a bad reputation after death.
Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone is one of the first true examples of the mystery genre, but its perspective on ethics and the ‘golden rule’, shows a view of ethics which goes far beyond A Christmas Carol. The key difference between the works is that there is no little change in the perspectives that the characters hold about class, or about how the rich should treat the poor. Instead, the author, Wilkie Collins, presents an idealized version of class relations throughout his story, through the personality and depth that he provides to its poor servant characters. Through the work’s journey – which describes the efforts by many different characters to find out who has stolen a large diamond, and to get the diamond back – a wide range of characters are given a great deal to do, say, and think but these do not only include the wealthy characters surrounding Rachel, the original owner of the diamond. By giving the novel’s secondary, working-class and poor characters a great deal of humanity, and a rich inner life, the work implies that the poor are worthy of respect.
The work goes further than that, though. The Moonstone argues that the work that the poor perform is just as notable, and worthy of praise and respect, as any other type of work. In its descriptions of Gabriel Betteredge, the steward of the Verinder house, the work shows that his position – while working-class – is just as important as any other type of work, such as work in politics. On Rachel’s birthday, Betteredge explains that the celebration he organizes followed “the plan adopted by the Queen in opening Parliament – namely, the plan of saying much the same regularly every year” (Collins 92). By drawing this connection between Betteridge’s mundane work in the home and the important work done in government, and arguing that each is equally based in boring ritual, Collins’ novel shows that all people, rich or poor, powerful or not, are all the same, and just as deserving of respect and admiration for hard work.
The novel has other examples which are more direct in their arguments, such as when Limping Lucy Yolland, angry that the servant Rosanna Spearman was disrespected by Franklin Blake, says, “the day is not far off when the poor will rise against the rich. I pray Heaven they may begin with him” (Collins 276). However, this view is limited to Lucy and does not feature largely in the rest of the work.
To this end, it can be argued that The Moonstone represents not an aspirational view of ethical reciprocity, but rather an idealized sort, one which is not told through the characters’ experiences, but instead by the author’s choice to give them an equal amount of status in the text. By treating all the characters throughout this mystery as equals, Collins shows that all are worthy of attention, everyone has a story to tell, and implies by this equal weight to masters and servants, that everyone should treat everyone else with respect. In this way, Collins’s novel matches the idealized version of ethics it presents by its structure and presentation.
I believe that the idealized version of ethical reciprocity shown in The Moonstone is the more effective way to get this point across than the aspirational ethics highlighted in A Christmas Carol. Because Dickens’ novel takes such a long and complicated route to get Scrooge to treat others with respect, there are many different reasons why he might have chosen to do so, with the character’s self-interest, and wish to not be remembered poorly (or not at all) at the top of the list.
However, in The Moonstone, the characters are shown to be equals by the equal status given to their inner lives and feelings. Because the reader learns to sympathize with both the masters and the servants, they are shown that people of all walks of life are equally deserving of respect. I believe that in this way, during times of extreme disparities in wealth, when the wealthy may be inclined to view themselves as superior to the poor – both in Victorian England and now – Collins’s novel’s idealized picture of ethics teaches a lesson that everyone would be wise to learn. The Moonstone teaches this ethical lesson in a better way because it fills all its characters, even the poor characters, with an inner life that the reader can easily identify and sympathize with.
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