“What right have you to be merry?”: Silliness and Seriousness in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

My grandfather was Fezziwig. Standing on the stage at the end of the packing shed, fully dressed in a Victorian-style waistcoat and brown top-hat, with a sprig of holly in its side (though not, thankfully, in his heart), he announced to the audience that tables would be cleared and the band assembled so dancing could finally begin. Every early December on the weekends when I was growing up, my extended family would put on a series of Christmas dances for our living history farm. I or my cousin would always play Tiny Tim. Part dinner-theater, part dancing-hall, the packing shed became Fezziwig’s factory, and our production of A Christmas Carol would pause in that middle act so the “city folks” could try their feet at the “Roger de Coverly” and (always the house favorite) “Virginia Reel.”

Having Fezziwig for a grandfather meant that I always found Fezziwig’s scene in A Christmas Carol to be thoroughly joyful, happy, and good. It is always depicted in film adaptations as a moment where Scrooge and his audience lament the misspent opportunities and good influence that Fezziwig might have had on his young apprentice. Yet, in the novel, just after Scrooge begins to soften while watching, he receives a rebuke from his guiding Spirit. “‘A small matter, said the Ghost, ‘to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.’ Small!’ echoed Scrooge” (71). In that moment, Scrooge uncharacteristically defends merriment when he states that Fezziwig’s power of making his guests “so full of gratitude” is “impossible to add and count ‘em up … The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune” (72). The Spirit’s rebuke towards Scrooge could be an indictment of the latter’s miserly attitude, as is the case when the Ghost of Christmas Present uses Scrooge’s own words against him, asking “Are there no prisons? … Are there no poor houses?” (79). Ostensibly, the fact that Scrooge is more like his younger self when he responds would indicate that his remark is correct, or at least coming from a better part of his nature. I am inclined to agree with him, but does he adequately address whether or not Fezziwig and his guests are “silly,” or that Fezziwig’s kindness is “a small matter”? When suffering mars the world, is it right to express joy in such a silly way as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig do? Are they rightly the source of praise, if their benevolence is of a “small” nature? Should we not be more serious?

Scrooge’s development in the novel can be seen as a “reclamation,” to use the first Spirit’s term, of childlike mirth and silliness, but it is not clear that such a demeanor is always the end of “Christian” maturity in the book (63).[1] At the novel’s final chapter, Scrooge begins his new life with the declaration, “I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here! … ”  (119). Childishness, or a kind of childish merriment, are seemingly among the crucial qualities that Scrooge had lost, and which the Spirits endeavor to re-cultivate in his cold and inhospitable heart. In a kind of reverse bildungsroman, it is not a growing up that Scrooge must achieve, but a growing younger, and I don’t think any reader mourns whatever Scrooge loses in that process. Bob Cratchit demonstrates a similar childlike glee when he “went down a slide on Cornhill” no less than twenty times as a way to “honor” Christmas (47). Part of keeping the holiday seems to receive it gleefully.

Yet, while readers might initially assume that Dickens universally promotes a child-like silliness because of Scrooge, Bob, and Fezziwig, it is notable that the Spirits themselves, and even Tiny Tim, are frequently serious.[2] The first Spirit is “soft and gentle,” but not jovial. Its commands are resolute, and its grasp, though “gentle as a woman’s hand, was not to be resisted” (63). It beams with light, but not warmth. Of course, the second Spirit, if it is a spirit of anything, is of “good humor” (84). It outpours its “bright and harmless mirth on everything within its reach” (91-92). Yet, even the “Jolly Giant” becomes grave at the introduction of Want and Ignorance at the end of its chapter, speaking to Scrooge “sorrowfully,” and prophetically spreading its hands towards London while crying out “bide the end” (79). The spirit of mirth grows to be more serious, rather than less. If the spirits represent what is most “spiritual,” in a broadly Christian sense, then why does their serious demeanor contrast so with Scrooge’s “spiritual” growth towards glee?

Tiny Tim, moreover, serves as a foil to Fezziwig and Scrooge, and even his father. The old men have a childish demeanor, while the boy has a serious wisdom. Tiny Tim may be a child and “as good as gold,” but he is never silly (87). Bob follows the characterization of his son’s goodness by saying, “he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and he thinks the strangest things you ever heard” (87). That Tiny Tim would want others to see his own disability to be reminded on Christmas day of him “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see,” indicates he has a profound and serious nature (87). Furthermore, in the few pages the reader has of Tiny Tim, it is notable that Dickens tasks him with singing “about a lost child travelling in the snow” (91). Whether this boy finds his way in the song is not specified, but it is possible that Tim’s subject is of an entirely tragic nature. Either way, suffering is present, and the song is as poignant and unresolved as the “wretched woman with an infant,” at the end of Dickens’ first stave, whom the shades cannot help (59). Much in the novel, then, is serious, and it raises the question of whether such middle-class silliness as Fezziwig’s ought to be seen as great or worthwhile in light of the suffering poor. How can such flippancy as a dance be meaningful when the wretched widow and her infant are alone in the cold?

I am reminded, at the end of this inquiry, that my grandfather is actually quite a serious man. He plays at Fezziwig, but conducts his business of guiding dancers across the floor, and replicating Christmas jollity on the farm in the winter, with a kind of gravity. “I would like to think it is God’s work,” he has sometimes said to me. Perhaps he reflects the demeanor of the narrator, as Dickens expresses in a strange break in his story. Relating of Belle’s children, he declares “What would I not have given to be one of them! … I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value” (74-75). That the narrator longs for the licence of a child implies that he does not have it, even if he thinks it is a good quality. The end of the spiritual journey in the novel may not be towards complete child-likeness or complete seriousness. We know Ignorance and Want creep under the robes of the Present. We know that death is in our future. However, there might be a way to retain a licence in joy while knowing the value of things. Cultivating it for others may itself be valuable, “silly” and “small” though it may seem, even if we ourselves do not always feel it.

 

[1] I mean “Christian,” here, in a more cultural than theological sense. Scrooge comes to practice the virtues that Fred characterizes as belonging to the time of Christmas, regardless of anyone’s position on Christian orthodoxy: that is, kindness, forgiveness, charity, and pleasantness (42).

[2] Not much need be said of the final Spirit on this matter, who is introduced as “grave” and with the characteristic that, “in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery” (102).

 

Works Cited

 

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Broadview Literary Texts, 2003.

5 thoughts on ““What right have you to be merry?”: Silliness and Seriousness in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

  1. Not much need be said of the final Spirit on this matter, who is introduced as “grave” and with the characteristic.
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