Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens,  Chad Arment
Read in December, 2012


Currently picking this up for a re-read; I try to read it every Christmas, but it usually happened every other Christmas at the rate I manage to get around to my rereading. One year I even had it downloaded on my phone so I could read whenever I was standing in lines. (You know, lines at Christmas? The ones that grow at every cash register in every store? Lots of reading time there.)

Gutenberg link for the ebook - which has images, though not always terribly good ones.

One thing that often gets toned down a bit in the various movies and theatrical re-tellings is that this is a story very much about taking care of those less fortunate, specifically the poor. It is in no way subtle in telling us that the poor are the responsibility of everyone in society, and everyone should, in their best moments, reach out to their fellow man, at least on this one day. One of the key words: charity.

And now (quite) a few quotes!

From Stave One — Marley's Ghost
Scrooge's nephew Fred:
"'There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,' returned the nephew; 'Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—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. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!'"

Viewing his doorknocker:
"...And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change—not a knocker, but Marley's face.

Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow, as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.
Going off tangent here, but I can't help it, the lobster quote always amuses me. I tried googling this because I once linked (somewhere in a blog) to some information online about how decomposing lobsterish critters glow in certain circumstances. I tried all sorts of versions of "bioluminescence lobster decomposing" and nada. So someday in the comments someone can add something. Because I do love the idea of a lobster glowing in the cellar.

Scrooge discussing the workplace with his former partner, Marley:
"'But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'"

From Stave Three - The Second of the Three Spirits
Scrooge asks the Spirit of Christmas Present about the future:
"Spirit,' said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, 'tell me if Tiny Tim will live.'

'I see a vacant seat,' replied the Ghost, 'in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.'

'No, no,' said Scrooge. 'Oh no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.'

'If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future none other of my race,' returned the Ghost, 'will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.'

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

'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. O God! to hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!'"
There are quite a few more quotes from Christmas Carol that emphasize how harsh a life the poor had in Dickens time. Although now things may seem a bit easier, suffering still exists, though we can't all tour an area of town to watch people and their children sleeping (or freezing to death) in the streets. I'll leave you with a few links of the places Scrooge mentioned where the poor should go for refuge.

From the first chapter, these are all of Scrooge's words (without the rest of the conversation) to men trying to collect money for the poor:
"'Are there no prisons?' asked Scrooge.
...'And the Union workhouses?' demanded Scrooge. 'Are they still in operation?'
... 'The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?' said Scrooge.
... 'Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,' said Scrooge. 'I am very glad to hear it.'
'...I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.'"
We're a bit beyond some of these historical places (thankfully) - here are some definitions and links to let you see what he was referring to.

Workhouses: people were fed and housed, but families were split apart, as men women and children were housed separately. Inmates were all given various work to do. Dickens description from Oliver Twist of the workhouses is accurate in that he himself had experienced poverty (his father was in debtor's prison) and was put to work around age 12 - the threat of the workhouse was something his family was familiar with. Another problem was that after various wars many soldiers returned and were unemployed, and thus they and their families ended up in the workhouses, which many people felt was unfair.

Finally identified, the real Oliver Twist workhouse reveals stories more brutal than even Dickens dared tell
Ruth Richardson, 25 March 2011, Daily Mail

The rise and fall of the workhouse History Magazine
"...Men and women were separated, as were the able-bodied and infirm. Those who were able to work did so for their bed and board. Women took on domestic chores such as cooking, laundry and sewing, while men performed physical labour, usually stone breaking, oakum picking or bone crushing. Conditions were basic: parents and children were permitted to meet briefly on a daily basis, or on Sundays. Inmates ate simple fare in a large communal dining hall, and were compelled to take regular, supervised baths."

The Workhouse: Story of an Institution, Introduction - detailed website by Peter Higginbotham

Wikipedia: Workhouse

Treadmill: also called a treadwheel (wikipedia), could be used for grinding grain, etc. Also used in prisons, etc. for punishment.

Prison Treadmill - by John H. Lienhard, The Engines of Our Ingenuity

Poor Law: laws that established and administered the workhouses, which weren't funded by the government as a whole but by each individual parish.

Wikipedia: English Poor Laws and Opposition to them

Poverty and the Poor Law - on