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An audience member’s gleeful first-hand account of Charles Dickens’s public reading of “A Christmas Carol” unwittingly exposes an often overlooked contradiction in the story’s climax: “Finally, there is Scrooge, no longer a miser, but a human being, screaming at the ‘conversational’ boy in Sunday clothes, to buy him the prize turkey ‘that never could have stood upon his legs, that bird'” (96). Perhaps he is no longer a miser but, by this description, Scrooge still plays the role of a capitalist oppressor, commanding underlings to fetch him luxuries. While Dickens undoubtedly lauds Scrooge’s epiphany and ensuing change, “A Christmas Carol” also hints at the author’s resentment for an industrial society’s corrupted notion of the “Christmas spirit.” Through instances of goodwill which Christmas provokes, Dickens suggests that Christmas is only an interruptive exception from the otherwise capitalistic calendar. Even when Scrooge becomes altruistic, as in the above scene, his philanthropy still operates under the guise of capitalism, measured in economic terms and aimed ultimately at providing himself with pleasure.
Dickens subtly turns his critique of ephemeral and selfish “holiday time” to the reader. The straightforward, Aristotelian structure of the narrative and the constant foreshadowing and repetition reduce any potential anxiety about the story’s outcome. The main cause for anxiety over the conclusion of any sentimental tale is to identify with the protagonist in some way. Although Scrooge is a caricature with whom few would commiserate (or admit to so doing), Dickens’s Three Spirits lure us into sympathy with the miser while simultaneously engendering empathy in him. But the production of Scrooge’s humanity is just that, a manufactured, nearly focus-group mode of voyeurism that attacks Scrooge at his most vulnerable and solipsistic either forcing upon him visions of his harm to others or, more saliently, of his own past and future selves at their lowest. For Dickens, the altruism Christmas breeds is a false exercise in guilt-reduction, and the pat ending of “A Christmas Carol” reinforces this; the satisfaction of listening to a story whose conclusion is never imperiled (and grows more knowable with each year’s retelling) spares the reader the self-examination Scrooge endures that a darker turn might provoke.
Christmas is only a bright spot if the rest of the year is comparatively dark, and Dickens exposes this contrast through Scrooge’s nephew’s optimistic ruminations on
‘Christmas time as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ (8-9)
The nephew’s breakdown between Christmas, the “only time” of the otherwise “long calendar,” corresponds to Gérard Genette’s terms for the narrative techniques “singulative” and “iterative.” The narrator is not exempt from optimistically meditating on the benevolent singulative at the expense of the malevolent iterative: “And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year” (57). The scene, a ship, is rife with hierarchies “the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch” (56) that melt away with the good cheer. The Christmas spirit unites with the temporary equalization of social structure, just as the nephew’s vision of the “fellow-passengers” leads to the quasi-miscegenation of the different economic “race[s].” Both cases gracefully elide what, exactly, occurs on those other, non-Christmas days, and what motivations define them. Scrooge baldly outlines the economic temporality of Christmas: “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen months presented dead against you?” (8) Unlike his nephew and the men on the ship, Scrooge draws no binary between holiday time and the rest of the capitalistic calendar but, at least, remains more honest about the other 364 days of the year.
Despite the examples of the nephew and sailors, Scrooge is not the only holder of an isochronic philosophy. Everyone in “A Christmas Carol” is a slave to time and, worse, everyone retains a hypocritical capitalistic attitude in the face of holiday time. He presents the city as functioning at the behest of bells? “When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up” (35) originally installed to unify public time, and their routinized reminders of capitalism echo throughout holiday time. Mrs. Cratchit makes explicit her own contradictions when Cratchit asks her to drink to Scrooge’s health: “‘I’ll drink his health for your sake and the Day’s not for his'” (53). This form of artificial benevolence operates on subtler levels in the narrative, when the narrator places an exclamation point after the optimistic conclusion the characters reach:
And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humor was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was! God love it, so it was! (47)
Just as the consumerist competition between the “dinner-carriers” is remedied by the incense from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s torch, the narrator’s words sprinkle a positive final comment on the event, which began with “angry words.” The narrator, too, is implicated as attempting to impose an artificial diachrony over the ischronic capitalistic calendar.
Such a pervasive capitalistic ethic appears even in description of characters. Scrooge’s niece is delineated by various monetary strokes: “She was very pretty: exceedingly pretty. With a dimpled, surprised-looking, capital face: a ripe little mouth, that seemed made to be kissed” (57-58). Beginning with the shift to excess (the revision of “very pretty” to “exceedingly pretty”), the niece is presented as a material good, with “capital” and “ripe” features. The mouth, especially, which is not used to speak, is described in terms of production and specialization. The men at the Christmas party respond to the women accordingly; Topper chases after the “plump” sister and “assure[s] himself of her identity by pressing a certain ring upon her finger, and a certain chain about her neck” (60). As the sister is identified by the narrator only as “plump,” a word whose connotations of wealth ring throughout the story, most often in respect to food, it is no wonder that Topper impresses her, literally, with his own signifiers of affluence.
Nevertheless, most readers will ignore these warning signs of an illusory Christmas spirit and instead revel in the holiday cheer, as the narrator keeps prodding them to do. To acknowledge the other half (or, more accurately, 364/365) of what characters continually refer to under their breaths as they praise the community of Christmas is to recognize the presence of selfishness in themselves, for Dickens indicts those, like Topper, who cause no harm but are inescapably guilty of seeking pleasure through capitalist means. The Christmas Spirits humanize Scrooge by capitalizing on this selfishness, and this process highlights the reader’s sympathy for Scrooge as similarly flawed; we pity a man who is, at heart, self-pitying. Attaching ourselves to Scrooge’s struggle is a way of exonerating our own selfish sins by “learning” to identify with him as he “learns” what it is to be human, we assume that we were far removed from him at the beginning of the narrative. Scrooge expresses remorse for his life several times. Prompted by a scene of “two apprentices pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig,” Scrooge responds by saying that he “should like to be able to say a word or two to” (36) his clerk. The selfishness is diluted and understandable, evident in Scrooge’s desire to be loved as Fezziwig is. The more pronounced instances of Scrooge’s reformation follow visions of him at his most despairing. After Scrooge sobs over remembering himself as an ostracized schoolboy, he reflects, “‘There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something'” (31). As with the apprentices, he achieves this epiphany only through identification, and here the identification is more self-centered. The solipsism masquerading as outward empathy reaches fruition when Scrooge sees his future grave: “‘Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!'” (79) Only this extreme case forces Scrooge to reverse his previous isochronic vision of time, turning it from capitalist to holiday: “‘I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year'” (78).
Not only has Dickens shown that such an honorable attitude is impossible under a capitalist system, that even good-hearted souls like Mrs. Cratchit use Christmas to cover their true feelings, but the narrative thrust of “A Christmas Carol” denies any ability to live, as Scrooge vows, “‘in the Past, Present, and the Future'” (79). The story is constantly in forward motion, even when revisiting the past. Such a vision to the future, what Genette calls “proleptic,” accomplishes two central tasks. First, it seats the narrative in a capitalist temporality in which all present (or past) actions are made to secure a future profit. Scrooge is often impatient throughout his tour, and expresses a desire for futurity in a vocabulary of economics. He beseeches the Ghost of Christmas Present, “‘Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it'” (44). In the future, he commands, “Lead on! Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on!'” (66) The triple repetition of “Lead on!” mimics his proleptic motivations in all three tenses, which calls into doubt his ability to meld the past, present, and future. Before his visit from the first of three ghosts, he tries to compress his eventual epiphany into a uniform temporality: “‘Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?’ hinted Scrooge” (22).
Scrooge’s “hint” to Jacob is also a hint to the audience of the lesson Scrooge will eventually learn, and the second purpose of the proleptic narrative expressly concerns the audience. The foreshadowing in the story leaves little doubt about the conclusion, or even what will happen next, and the repetitions reinforce and return us to the foreshadowing. The opening line sparks the method of foreclosure that will continue throughout the narrative: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that” (5). After stating that “Marley was as dead as a door-nail,” the narrator spends the next paragraph dwelling on the cliché he just invoked and then, after examining the repetition inherent in the cliché, comments through iteration: “You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail” (5). We are returned to the idea behind the first line, whose original intention was to provide an advance mention of Marley’s ghost and quell doubt about the future while leading the reader there.
This technique works in concert with the flawed sympathy for Scrooge as a reproach of the reader. The flawed sympathy convinces us that we are different from Scrooge, and that he is learning to be more like the reader, who already holds holiday time in his heart. The proleptic narrative reduces any anxiety we may have about the outcome, an anxiety generally borne from conscious identification with the protagonist. The proleptic drive of the narrative increases through the staves, from analeptic exposition to prolepsis in the first stave, proleptic analepsis in Christmas Past (for in the past we receive clues as to Scrooge’s eventual transformation), prolepsis in Christmas Present in which foreshadowing solidifies (and turns from mere advance mentions into stable advance notices), and in Christmas Future to analeptic prolepsis. The less anxious we feel the more foreclosure we receive the less we must question why, exactly, we are concerned with Scrooge’s plight. This is not to say the reader feels nothing for Scrooge, but that the reader’s care for him comes from a superior position in which the reader believes that he, along with Dickens, is co-educating the miser in the meaning of Christmas. And, rather than destroy the entertainment value of the story, the foreclosure and repetition of “A Christmas Carol” instead soothes the audience, bringing them in advance the satisfactory ending that they crave.
Such satisfaction comes in the final stave but, as I hope to have shown, little temporal adjustment has truly occurred. Another audience member remarks that Dickens has “a twinkle in his eye, as he enters, that, like a promissory note, pledges itself to any amount of fun within sixty minutes” (98). So long as he does not overstep his temporal boundaries, the audience is willing to engage his story, and the quick final stave ensures this. All signifiers that Scrooge is a changed man can also be read as indicating no change at all. In returning from his ghostly tour, he awakes: “Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!” (81) The familiarity of Scrooge’s surroundings is part of the reason Dickens repeats “was his own,” but the cloud of ownership hangs over his happiness, which includes a sense of ownership over time. Scrooge still functions like a clock; after he runs into another room, he is described as “perfectly winded” (81). Though we are to believe that his being reset to the present time is part of his new freedom, as when he joyfully responds to the church bells “ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard” (82), he is still rooted in a manic drive to utilize the present efficiently. His reaction to the indirect turkey purchase exemplifies the stagnant capitalist ethic he maintains:
‘I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!’ whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands and splitting with a laugh. ‘He shan’t know who sends it.’ It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be!’ (83)
Scrooge still exhibits all the mannerisms accompanying those of a corporate takeover?hands rubbing in greedy anticipation, self-congratulatory laughter and is proud of the grandeur he provides for the deficient family, comparing the size of his gift to the minimal stature of the Cratchits’ symbol of poverty. The only anonymity Scrooge seeks is through a whispered contribution to the charity collector he originally slighted, but even then Scrooge asks that the man come and visit him in return, and cries that he is “much obliged” to him, using the language of debt and credit he has always spoken.
“A Christmas Carol” has become its subject with time, as each year’s retelling further forecloses the ending. If one agrees that Dickens has made a subtextual critique of holiday time, it is odd, then, that the story inevitably leaves the audience with nothing but good feelings. After Tiny Tim dies in Christmas Future, Dickens details Cratchit’s response by his deathbed: “Poor Bob sat down and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face. He was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy” (76). The sudden effacement of tragedy and the elided interior struggle Cratchit seems to surpass easily all contribute to a possible reason for the audience’s similar reconciliation with Scrooge. We have a short memory for the unpleasant, and look for the pleasure of an unending futurity along the lines of “happily ever after,” we are told that Tiny Tim “did NOT die” (87), so that his life spans beyond the closure of the narrative. Scrooge receives the brunt of painful self-examination, and in concluding on a happy note the audience need not dive into self-analysis. The fundamental question is why Dickens makes his critique visible only to those who choose to see it, since they, already presumably aware of their own Scrooge-ness, need the lesson less than the hypocritical Mrs. Cratchits do. Both sets of listeners will, however, seek out the story each Christmas; for the Mrs. Cratchits, an innocuous retelling reduces anxiety about identification with Scrooge, and the Scrooges receive a reminder of the changes that need to be effected on a social, rather than local, scale. In either case, a rereading is what Dickens solicits, and not only for his own canonization. When “A Christmas Carol” marks the memory of various Christmases for readers, they will, if not perceive all time in such a form, at least live in a literary Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. USA: Bantam Books, 1997.
Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
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