The End: Frankenstein, Mill on the Floss, and Tess of the d’Ubervilles

The ending of the novel could arguably be one of the most important parts of the novel, depending on the respective reader. Author’s use the ending of novels to tie up lose ends, reveal any lingering secrets, and make their last bits of commentary on society and the like. As a contemporary society, we usually associate novel endings with “happy endings” due to the Hollywood influences of popular culture. However, in the novels Frankenstein, Mill on the Floss, and Tess of the d’Ubervilles we do not find that the novels end happily, but this can also serve a purpose as well.

As with all three of the novels mentioned above, Frankenstein ends with the death of a central character, Victor Frankenstein. This ending helps to further demonstrate the unsatisfactory nature of the struggle between both the Creature and Victor. Through out the course of the novel, one is really not sure who to root for. On the one hand, Victor is our human protagonist who suffers greatly at the hands of the creature; however, he never learns from his mistakes and has brought all of his misfortune on himself. On the other hand, the Creature never asked to be created and is never really given a chance to be good; however, he murders people and terrorizes Victor. In the end Victor dies, the Creature gives a long speech and Shelley concludes with “He sprung from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the Vessel. He was soon born away by the waves, and lost in the darkness and distance” (221). The ending is unsatisfactory, much in the way that the two central characters are, thus the ending reflects a major characteristic of the novel itself.

Continuing on, Mill on the Floss is another novel that features the death of two prominent characters at the end; however, unlike Frankenstein these deaths actually provide significant fulfillment of the novel whereas the death of Victor really did not. To accept this argument, one must re-examine the nature of Tom and Maggie’s relationship. While not the major story line of the novel, the characterization of Tom and Maggie’s relationship plays a part in the failure (or lack thereof) of their romantic relationships. Each one of them is intensely passionate about the other, but the consequences of this is that they often fight and cause a lot of grief in each others lives. Therefore, it creates a scenario in which they can’t live with each other but can’t really live without each other either. Thus, when the novel ends with Elliot saying, “The boat reappeared—but brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted: living through again in one supreme moment the days when they clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together” (517), the reader actually gets a sense of fulfillment as there is closure provided to that particular conflict at last.

Finally, in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles the reader is presented with the death of Tess. Unlike the two aforementioned novels though, the death of this central character provides the novel with a sense of relief and closure. Through out the later half of the novel, Tess has essentially been running from her demons. She has killed Alec in order to be with Angel but this act has made it so they have to run and hide, creating yet another obstacle that impedes Tess from truly being with Angel. In fact, most of the novel has centered around various obstacles that have impeded her from being with Angel, whether it was her own inhibitions about telling him about her past or his subsequent reaction when he does find out. So when the reader is presented with yet another challenge in the way, it begins to feel like a never ending roller coaster that we can’t quite seem to get off. Thus, one of the final parting sentences that reads “‘Justice’ was done and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phase had ended his sport with Tess” (396), the reader is relieved to finally know the answer to the “will they/ won’t they” debate. It may be an unsatisfying answer to the reader, but it’s an answer at last.

Remember . . . Christmas Day

 

A broadside ballad containing several Christmas carols. This particular version was printed and distributed on the streets of London between 1813 and 1838. Held by the Bodleian Library.

In all the renditions of A Christmas Carol I’ve experienced over the years, from plays, to movies, to cartoons, to audiobooks, to—of course—Dickens’ original text, I don’ t think I’ve ever paid adequate attention to the actual “carol” of A Christmas Carol. The story has become so thoroughly a part of western holiday culture that, I suspect, many of us don’t give the title a second thought. I won’t make the same mistake again.

The “carol” in A Christmas Carol is, presumably, the one the little boy attempts to sing outside Scrooge’s keyhole:

The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of
“God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!”
Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost. (46-47)

This action of Scrooge is the third and culminating inhospitable action he commits during the scene at his counting house. He has turned away his nephew’s invitation of hospitality and also turned his nephew out forcibly with his repeated “Good afternoon!” (43) in response to his nephew’s holiday well wishes, he has rejected altogether the request for donations to charity, and now he completes his tripartite rejection of the Christmas spirit—foreshadowing the three spirits that will later visit him—with his frightening away of the young caroler, who is stopped after only two lines of the song.

Dickens centers a great deal around these two lines that are present—and the rest that are absent—from this mid-eighteenth-century carol. By the book’s publication in 1843, dozens of versions of the carol were available in broadside printings, many of which still survive in the Bodleian Library’s physical and digital archives. Dickens’ version, however, does not match the text of any of these printings, but he instead trades the word “rest” for his own word, “bless.” The word “bless” becomes central to the tale, and it is prominently featured in Tiny Tim’s benediction at the close of the story: “God Bless Us, Every One!” (125). Dickens does not intend for Scrooge to “rest,” and he is certainly not “merry,” but through the playing out of the carol in the rest of the novella, he is indeed blessed, and he becomes merry. The switch to the singular “gentleman” likewise indicates a personal benediction. This carol and its blessing are meant for Scrooge. Scrooge loses rest—literally and figuratively—over the next several nights in order to be blessed by the results of the visitations by Marley and the three ghosts of Christmas.

Although Scrooge chases the boy off before he can start the next line, the rest of the carol resonates in the readers’ minds and is also extended in the themes of the book itself. The book becomes the carol in several ways. According to the original title page, A Christmas Carol is not merely the title of the book, but also its designation. Beneath the title are printed the words “in prose,” signifying that the story itself is not merely about a carol—it is one.

The title page of the first edition of A Christmas Carol, held by the British Library. 

Furthermore, in most versions of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” that were circulating at that time, the next line begins with “remember,” a command that becomes a key part of Scrooge’s transformation. Dickens emphasizes the theme of memory as Scrooge visits his former self with the Spirit of Christmas Past, and it is at that moment he recalls the caroler regretfully:

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” (66)

When Scrooge empathizes with the lonely boy, remembering the emotions of his own boyhood, he also remembers his failure to exercise charity. Dickens even capitalizes “Carol” this time, further cementing the connection with the title and highlighting the importance of the act of remembering in truly celebrating Christmas.

But why does Scrooge seem to have been brought full-circle after only one spirit’s visitation? There are two remaining visitations that appear to be vital to his transformation, but it seems there must also be a reason for returning to the carol after only one ghost. It is never again explicitly mentioned.

Perhaps part of the answer may be found in the next lines of the carol that are not sung by the caroler, which Dickens’ readers would have known and filled in automatically. It continues, “Remember Christ our Savior/ was born on Christmas Day.” Christ, however, is oddly absent from this novella that purports to be a song about his birthday celebration. Whereas the broadside versions of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” are typically adorned with engraved images of the nativity or depictions of Christ’s life, Christ is all but missing from this “prose carol.” The song is cut short before reaching his name, and he is not named elsewhere in the story. Scrooge does indeed “Remember . . . Christmas Day,” but his acts of remembrance are not actually about Christ—or are they? Although the babe himself is never mentioned, opportunities for kindness to the least of these abound. The biblically literate reader cannot help but recall Matthew 25, in which Christ commends those who have shown mercy or charity as having done so unto him, although they did not recognize him. Even without recognizing Christ in fellow humans, one can still feed, clothe, visit, and otherwise remember them.

At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge completes the unsung lines of the boy’s carol by remedying his series of inhospitable actions and attitudes from the beginning of the novel–a task he completes with the aid of memory. It seems to require different uses of memory in all three visitations to enable Scrooge to change enough that he can complete all of these tasks. Memory is not only a tool for empathy with those we see, but it is also a reminder of those whose needs exist but cannot be seen, as Scrooge learns from the second ghost, as well as a tool for considering the legacy we will leave behind us when we are gone, as Scrooge learns by encountering the contrasting deaths of himself and Tiny Tim. Each of these uses of memory enables Scrooge to “remember . . . Christmas Day” in a different way. The carol cannot be completely fulfilled until he has been kind to those he encounters and knows who are less fortunate, given to charity to help the poor he does not see or know, and entered into relationship with his family by accepting his nephew’s hospitality. In keeping Christmas Day in this way, Scrooge fulfills the unsung lines of the carol. Through his participation in both charity and hospitality, he becomes the blessed and merry gentleman from the first line of the boy’s song. By remembering his fellow man, he is  remembering Christ and aptly celebrating Christmas Day. 

Is it possible to celebrate Christmas in a way that honors Christ without mentioning his name or acknowledging his presence? Dickens seems to make that case in this story. The closest we find to a mention of Christ comes through Tiny Tim’s comment that “it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (87). The needs of the poor, lame, and otherwise less fortunate should remind people of the one who met their needs when he was on earth—needs that the church, as Christ’s hands and feet, are now charged with meeting through Christian charity. With this in mind, Dickens writes a new Christmas carol that works to exemplify the spirit of Christmas rather than merely singing about its guest of honor. Without the spirit of charity in Christmas, all the carols in the world cannot adequately remember or worship the infant Christ.

*All quotations from A Christmas Carol are taken from the 2003 Broadview edition, edited by Richard Kelly

How setting is applied with a different purpose in Frankenstein, Lady Audley’s secret and Tess of the D’urbervilles.

In every novel setting is one of the key aspects. Not only because it gives us a picture of where the action is taking place on the story, but it also contributes to the narrative in other aspects the author wishes for the reader to take in account. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein for example the setting is mainly used as an escape; a place of conflict and reflection for the character. In Lady Audley’s secret the setting establishes the mood of the story; and on Tess of D’urbevilles the author unites the setting with Tess, who is the main character, to discuss societal and human notions of nature, industry and the essence of humanity.

I must mention that Frankenstein, Lady Audley and Tess of D’ubervilles share a characteristic of their setting, and that is the foreshadowing quality they have. In Frankenstein as Victor went home for the first time in ages after the death of his little brother, there is a description of a terrible storm in which Frankenstein narrates the feeling of being stalked, specifically by the monster. Later on we discover that this storm not only demonstrates that the monster was actually there, but it foreshadows the first talk Frankenstein has with his creation. Not only does the monster acts like the storm itself, by bringing with him a terrible fate for Frankenstein, but he also explain the storm of bitterness that resides within him. Lady Audley’s secret also features a storm, and in its aftermath George Talboy’s mysteriously disappears. There Robert’s life is turned upside down, and now he must assume the role of detective to solve the storm that later we see Lady Audley has caused. In Tess, the dark foggy night when she and Alec where lost in the wood was enough to warn us, of course with previous evidence in earlier pages, that something bad was going to happen, and quite effectively we learned that Tess is pregnant in the next book.

However, there is a main difference with Frankenstein, Lady Audley and Tess D’urbevilles, and said difference is that they share a separate goal aside from foreshadowing and event. In Frankenstein, the author seems to use the setting as a place of self-reflection: “ I looked on the valley beneath; vast mists were rising from the rivers which ran through it, and curling in thick wreaths around the opposite mountains, whose summits were hid in the uniform clouds, while rain poured from the dark sky, and added to the melancholy impression I received from the objects around me. Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparently in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings.”(p.124) In this paragraph we see that the natural scenery brought Frankenstein an assessment of himself, which we had not seen earlier in the book. Now that  the setting has changed from the confinement of his quarters, Victor was able to meditate before the monster appeared. The setting, particularly the natural settings, tend to go hand in hand with conflict. It was in nature that the monster felt and also reflected of the meaning of his life for the first time, and it was in nature that he was rejected by the humble family of the cabin. It’s also in the glaciers that Frankenstein begins his story and also where he dies.

In Lady Audley the setting is used more to set the feeling of the story. For example, from the beginning the Audley Mansion is described as “sheltered”, “hidden” (p.44) “a place in which a conspiracy might have been planned”, “a house in which no one room had any sympathy with another” (p.45), “The principal door was  squeezed into a corner of a turret at one angle of the building, as if it was hiding from danger and wished to keep itself secret” (p.44). As one reads phrases like these used to describe the place in which all of the story will unfold, one perceives from the start that this will not be a happy story. The setting gives a sense of mystery and horror to the reader, and sets the stage for a story about murder and madness.

And finally, in Tess D’urbeville, the setting is often used parallel with the character’s journey of life to give the reader a chance to reflect on societal topics that the author is trying to convey. For example, on Phase the first. The Maiden, there is a portion in which Tess begins to criticize her mother for her child-like intelligence and for bearing so many kids, then we see that Tess left school to help with her little brothers and quickly learned to do many farm tasks in which she is excellent. Then we have a description of the property of Alec’s mother: “It was more, far more; a country-house built for enjoyment  pure and simple, with no acre of troublesome land attached to it beyond what was required for residential purposes, and for a little fancy farm kept in hand by the owner, and tended by a bailiff.” Further along the description continues with “Everything on this snug property was bright, thriving and well kept, acres of glass-houses  stretched down the inclines to the copses at their feet. Everything looked like money” In a way this description is parallel to the way Tess’s parents were treating her. The part in the description that alludes to a place “built for pure enjoyment” talks about Tess’s mother because everything was happy though they were struggling to maintain all their kids healthy and alive. Then the description in which they allude to money, talks about how the financial burden of Tess’s household was now placed upon Tess. Furthermore these contrast between the lifestyle of the poor and the setting used for the rich, conveys how farmer must struggle to get something out of nature, while the rich subdue nature and take it all purely for pleasure. This would moreover be a parallel with industrialism and naturalism, in which the rich mold nature to their own desire.

Be a man, Scrooge.

We are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge in the early pages of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on a particularly cold day, made all the colder by the man himself. Scrooge’s internal chill is a defining feature of Dicken’s description:

The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas. (40)

This description dramatically illustrates Scrooge’s lack of human warmth and is emphasized repeatedly by the hearths in his rooms, lit poorly—or rather, miserly—wherever he goes. Scrooge is a cold man, within and without.

Shortly after this litany of chills, we meet Scrooge’s nephew, who had “so heated himself…that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again” (41). This nephew is able to turn even the chill of a late December morning into an opportunity for warmth. He is a good man, appearing on the scene with a cheerful “merry Christmas” and “God save you” for the uncle who gives him no greeting or blessing in return. And from the consistency of Dickens’ descriptions, we would know him to be a good man from his self-creating warmth alone. Cold defines the miser, after all, not the generous.

There seems to be something to this description that goes beyond obvious associations with cold-heartedness and warm-heartedness, however. After all, Scrooge is actually cold. His resistance to warm fires in his office suggests that he pursues cold. He even “had a cold in his head” (49). And one of the clearest signs of his transformation at the end of the story is that he tells Bob Cratchit to “Make up the fires, and buy another coal-shuttle before you dot another i” (123).

I suspect Scrooge’s physical coldness says something about his refusal to recognize himself as an embodied participant in the life of the world around him, and that his transformation from a cold miser to a warm man occurs through an encounter with disembodiment—the shifting forms of the spirits—and embodiment—his own dead body.

The early descriptions of Scrooge might as well be of a dead man, or worse, a spirit. He goes unacknowledged in the streets, except to be feared (40). Even his own sense of self is disembodied, as he refuses to trust his senses when Marley’s ghost comes to him in sight and sound. When Marley asks, “Why do you doubt your senses?” his response is that “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats” (52). Here is a man who would do away with the limitations of his flesh if he could.

Small surprise, then, that the only way for him to see the world—and himself—with any clarity is through the guidance of tenuously embodied spirits. Marley’s body is transparent. The first ghost’s figure is particularly changeable:

The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. (62)

The second ghost seems physically substantial, perhaps the most richly embodied and particular character in the story up to this point with his bare chest and feet, dark brown curls, and rusty, empty scabbard. But his embodiment is also unstable: “notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease” (85), and by the end of his tour with Scrooge, in the space of a single night, he grows old (99). The last of the spirits is so insubstantial we can’t even see his face under the shroud. Besides these disembodied spirits, Scrooge himself becomes as disembodied as he would have liked it to be in his actual life, unseen by the figures in his visions, the “shadows” of things that were, are, and could be. It is beside the last spirit, that formless figure, that Scrooge is faced with his own dead body.

Scrooge’s first introduction to his death is actually quite disembodied to begin with. He hears about it from his business acquaintances, and then watches his charwoman, laundress, and undertaker’s man hock his belongings—some stolen right off of his dead body. Their conversation about his body is telling, as they make a direct association between his miserly character and the absence of anyone attending to him in his dying and death. If he’d been “natural in his lifetime,” then there would have been “somebody to look after him” (107). As a result, his body is pillaged and abandoned. Scrooge cannot even bear to look on his own face under the sheet. Having his death confirmed is as horrifying as the possibility of staring at the truth of himself. After all, what the spirit is essentially showing him is that the dead face of Scrooge is the real face of Scrooge.

Of course, Dickens prepares Scrooge for this epiphany through the previous spirits. The second spirit in particular clarifies for both Scrooge and the reader just what’s at stake, even in his first line: “Come in! and know me better, man!” Three times in this spirit’s encounter with Scrooge, he refers to the miser by the simple address of “man.” To begin with, it sounds merely stylistic. But the second use shows it to be intentional: “‘Man,’ said the Ghost, ‘if man you be in heart, not adamant’” (89). What is ultimately at stake here isn’t Scrooge’s life or death, but his humanity.

What will it take for Scrooge to be a man? The spirit’s last commandment clarifies this: “Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” (99, italics mine). Simultaneously, the ghost speaks to Scrooge as representative humanity and as a particular man, commanding him to look. No wonder, then, that the defining feature of the newly transformed Scrooge in the final pages of the story is that he does just that—he looks at his bedcurtains, out the window, at every passerby along the road. He has become, like his nephew, a good man. Scrooge’s transformation suggests that to be a good human being is to be aware of yourself as an embodied participant humanity, to look at those around you—and to look at yourself.

The Cross-Shaped Hole in A Christmas Carol

A Christmas time hardly ever rolls around that does not find me enjoying Charles Dickens’ delightful tale in some form or other, whether for private reading pleasure, in a read-aloud gathering, as an adaptation for stage or screen, or at the very least in many shared allusions and quotations scattered liberally over family festivities, like drops from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s torch. It is, of course, one of the best of books for inspiring holiday hospitality. It encourages readers not to look on the poor as strangers, but “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” (42). The story closes, memorably, with Scrooge’s overflowing acts of charity and generosity, as he provides food, warmth, and medical care to the poor from whom he was formerly estranged. He no longer desires to banish the unwanted, unknown masses of the poor into prisons and workhouses, for now he knows them as individual human beings. He knows them as friends.

And yet, in some ways A Christmas Carol is a strange book to incorporate into a Christian holiday celebration, because it does not “keep Christ in Christmas.” While it might make the poor appear as friends, it makes Jesus into a stranger. It banishes him to the corners of chapters, leaving Him to shiver in the margins of the pages like a refugee outside a border-wall, looking in. It seems odd that in a book whose quintessence is the birth of Christ, without which event the story could not in any sense exist, the name of Jesus is never evoked. Not once is His name mentioned. Nor is the title “Christ” used anywhere except in formations such as “Christmas.”[1] There are no sermons given. No one recounts the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus. There is no stable, no manger, no Mary or Joseph, no shepherds.[2] Indeed, the Jesus-shaped hole at the center of the story is called out by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round,” he exults, “—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” (42). Those em-dashes contain the whole question I am asking: How can this book, framed and invested, as it were, with that sacred name and origin, fail to mention them? How can it leave Jesus out in the cold?

Not only is Jesus never mentioned and His salvation never laid out plainly in this novella, but it may even preach an anti-Christian gospel. Rather than faith in Christ, A Christmas Carol appears to credit good works with the ability to reconcile people to God. In begging the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to give him a chance to change the future, Scrooge cries out: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach” (117). When he awakes and finds that he has been granted that chance to repent, he repeats his resolution, then faces this new Christmas morning “glowing with his good intentions” (118). Rather than trusting Jesus’ atonement to save him, Scrooge immediately and busily sets about saving himself by the works of his hands. “He did it all, and infinitely more” (123). Not only does Dickens appear to make Christ a stranger to the reader; he seems to go further and banish Him as an outsider, replacing His sacrificial crucifixion with a rich man’s alms-giving actions.

Why, then, this cross-shaped hole throughout the book, filled up with human works rather than God’s grace? Why so many casual exclamations referring to God—such as “God save you!” “God bless it!” “Lord bless ye!” “Lord bless me!” “God forbid!” “God bless my soul!” “God love it” “Oh God!”, or “God knows”—throughout the text, but so few serious ones that might point readers to a God they may not know? Why do characters so often go to church, but there is no report of what they heard there? Why does the cold caroler at Scrooge’s door sing “God bless you, merry gentleman! /  May nothing you dismay!”, but Dickens stops before quoting the next lines: “Remember Christ our Savior / Was born on Christmas day”?

There are certainly cultural explanations available for this lacuna. Anglophone readers in 1843 would have been extremely familiar with the Biblical story of Christmas’s “sacred name and origin.” They would not need accounts of what church-goers would hear, because they were likely church-goers themselves. At the very least, England was still culturally a nominally Christian country in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the Bible occupying a central place in standard education. Dickens could not predict that his book would be popular years later with a biblically uninformed audience.

Furthermore, Dickens himself was not enamored of what we now like to call “organized” religion, and perhaps held some less-than-orthodox beliefs himself. In The Life of Our Lord, he rewrote the birth of Jesus heretically, making the angels say to the shepherds: “There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love him as his own son.” And while the doctrine of good works can perhaps be ascribed to denominational differences (historically, Anglican preaching has focused more on outward than inward signs of regeneration), Dickens himself went even further, arguing that “because [Jesus] did such Good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, he was called Our Saviour.” This is the heresy of adoptionism or dynamic monarchianism. Dickens concludes The Life of Our Lord with this unmistakable adjuration to his children: “Remember! – It is christianity [sic] TO DO GOOD always.” In short, Dickens’ stated version of Christianity posits a non-divine Jesus and a works-based soteriology.

With these concerns in mind, it almost seems as if it is erroneous to read A Christmas Carol as a Christian book. However, whether by design or in spite of himself, Dickens did include the saving shape of the cross in his story in the form of an important chiasmus. When Scrooge awakens after the three marvelous encounters with the spirits and cavorts joyfully around his room, “He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!” (119). This beautiful palindrome with its arrangement of words crossing in the middle creates a cross-shape out of the sounds of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, thus telling the whole Gospel story from Jesus’ birth through His death and resurrection down to the church as His body in that day. And of course, the most-quoted line in is Tiny Tim’s “God bless us every one!” (89), which the narrator echoes to conclude the book, expansively: “Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

In short, while there are still valuable questions to be asked about the orthodoxy or denominational nature of A Christmas Carol, it really answers my concern itself, in Fred’s wise words: “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.” With these words, Fred welcomes Jesus as friend, family, and savior who both gives and receives Christmas hospitality.

[1] There are several oblique—but important—references to Jesus without using His name. Tiny Tim told his father, coming home from church, “that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (87). The narrator comments upon adults playing games, claiming that “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself” (96). When Scrooge enters the house of the bereaved Cratchits in one of the Christmases of the future, he hears a Scripture quotation read aloud: “‘And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them’” (Mark 9:36, qtd. in 112).

[2]  There is one mention of the Magi, spoken by Marley’s Ghost: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!” (56), and one rather facetious reference to “Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds” depicted upon Scrooge’s fireplace-tiles (50).

The Incursion of Allegory in A Christmas Carol

The children produced from under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present are strange additions to Dickens’ tale, and not just because of their disturbing appearances. Up to that point in the narrative, all characters have been characters proper, and not symbolic stand-ins for abstract ideals. Even the ghosts enjoy a level of development and distinction from one another that is typical of complex human characters, and not mere representatives of the immaterial.

Dickens, with his usual adjectival-liberality, describes the children as “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” creatures (99). We learn that they are “a boy and a girl”, and that each has a name; “The boy is Ignorance,” explains the Ghost of Christmas Present, and “The girl is Want” (Dickens 99-101). They have only names—no backstory, no hopes and dreams, not even the courtesy of an exuent on the part of Dickens.

Why does Dickens interrupt the semi-realism (magical realism? Spiritual realism?) of A Christmas Carol with such a brief allegorical episode? And, to compound the oddity of the allegory’s inclusion, the details of the encounter are bizarre: why represent such evils as Ignorance and Want as the very things that ought to be taken in and cherished most—namely, children? I will consider the second question first, as understanding the meaning of the allegory will help us to understand Dickens’ motivation for the inclusion of the device in the first place.

Certainly, if I were writing A Christmas Carol, and allegory suggested itself to me at the end of Stave Three, I would represent Ignorance and Want as something inherently repulsive, and something that people would be right to repel—rats, maybe, or cockroaches. But Dickens chooses children. He describes them as very ugly children, to be fair—they are “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, [and] wolfish” (Dickens 99). He writes that, “where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacingly” (Dickens 101). Dickens has to work hard to make them repulsive, because they are members of the most vulnerable and lovable subsection of humanity.

The Ghost of Christmas Present verbalizes and encourages the revulsion Scrooge feels toward them. He says of Ignorance and 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” (Dickens 101). He goes on to warn Scrooge, “Deny it!” (Dickens 101). It isn’t entirely clear what the referent of that “it” is—Doom? Ignorance alone? Both of the children? In any case, there are clear, inhospitable overtones to the Ghost’s instructions. Scrooge is to turn away the evils that the two children represent.

But the command that Scrooge turn away destitute children, even symbolically, is of course antithetical to the message of the story as a whole. Scrooge has already made a practice of neglecting poor children, and the ghostly intervention is certainly not meant to affirm him in his inhospitality. Similarly, it would be absurd to suggest that Dickens intends the reader to take away such an inhumane message.

How, then, do we reconcile the book’s obvious call for charity towards children, and its allegorical association of children with that which ought to be driven away?

This episode draws directly on Scrooge’s past treatment of children, rather than the proper treatment of children—even ones as repulsive and terrifying as these two. In response to Scrooge’s plea, “Have they no refuge or resource?” the Ghost of Christmas Present responds with Scrooge’s earlier dismissal, “Are there no prisons?…Are there no workhouses?” (Dickens 101). I would submit, then, that the Ghost’s purpose in presenting the evils of Ignorance and Want as children, amounts to a dark and convicting taunt to Scrooge: Drive away Ignorance with the ferocity with which you drove away the caroler yesterday. Let Want suffer in the same way you have let the Cratchit children suffer. Surely you are capable of denying Doom entrance to your society—you have been denying the poorest among you for years.

If the Ghost’s rhetorical purpose for the introduction of the children to Scrooge is primarily one of conviction, let us return to our original question of Dickens’ rhetorical purpose for the use of allegory. Beyond the fact that this episode is among the most disturbing and memorable in the novel, the device of allegory, used sparingly and tastefully, offers a utility to the author that his ordinary narrative mode does not. It allows him to directly and unmistakably admonish the reader to beware ignorance and want, while simultaneously forwarding Scrooge’s drastic character arc in a compelling and believable way. I say “believable”, not because of the likelihood of encountering such grotesque children in real life, but because of the likelihood that Scrooge, having so mistreated the poor in the past, will be hastened by their appearance in the direction of his ultimate redemption.

The Epistemology of Hospitality in A Christmas Carol

          “Bah! Humbug” has come to be one of the most recognizable and frequently uttered literary allusions, especially around the Christmas season, expressing an often ironical disillusionment with the holiday foofaraw. It is originally, of course, the catch-phrase of the inimitable Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is employed by that gentleman in Dickens’s classic tale most famously to deny the worth of Christmas and his nephew’s Christmas blessing. It is also used later on, however, when Scrooge denies the appearance of Jacob Marley in Jacob’s erstwhile doorknocker. Having double-locked himself into his chamber after this alarming encounter, Scrooge reflects upon the experience with the singular exclamation: “Humbug!” He denies the reality, even the possibility, of what he has witnessed, and this recalcitrance to believe in the reality of his strange spectral visitors persists in Scrooge for a strikingly long time. Indeed, a key part of Scrooge’s dramatic personal transformation could be described as epistemological. He incrementally learns new ways to know and to believe through his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas, gradually accepting the reality of what he at first denied. In such a tightly woven tale as Dickens’s, this element of Scrooge’s change is unlikely to be disconnected from his broader transformation, and so we might wonder how Scrooge’s evolving epistemological position on spooks and spirits facilitates his newfound commitment to loving and caring for others?

We can begin seeking an answer to this question by considering more closely how Scrooge’s ability or willingness to believe in the supernatural alters throughout the story. Scrooge’s initial resistance to believing in the real existence of the spirits is shown clearly in his engagement with Marley’s specter. When Marley’s ghost enters the room and comes into Scrooge’s view, Dickens writes, “the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him! Marley’s ghost!’ and fell again” (51). Contrary to the fire’s epistemological certainty, Scrooge has just before this once again declared humbug of all the ghostly sounds approaching him and even after witnessing and speaking with the ghost, Scrooge is unconvinced. Marley states: “You don’t believe in me” (52), and Scrooge affirms this fact, explaining his disavowal of his own senses’ report by asserting “a little thing affects them…There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” (52). Scrooge recognizes that he is seeing something, but he calls into question what that something is. Strikingly, he denies the strangeness of the ghost by reducing it not only from the supernatural to the natural but from the natural particularly to the psychological. Scrooge attempts to render the ghost as nothing but an extension of himself. He attempts in this encounter to obliterate the other altogether.

This denial becomes increasingly difficult for Scrooge to maintain and quite quickly becomes impossible altogether. Indeed, while waiting for the arrival of the first spirit, Scrooge attempts to convince himself that the ordeal with Marley was mere nonsense, but he is unable to do so fully, such that when the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives Scrooge seems to more or less accept its reality. The supernatural being of the ghost is quickly made apparent through its time-travelling tendencies, and Scrooge’s resistance shifts to an attempt to deny the truth that the ghost reveals rather than an attempt to deny the ghost itself.

Even before the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge then has come to recognize the reality of an other and not just any other but a supernatural spirit. Ebenezer has jumped right into the deep end of the otherness pool, moving from an unwillingness to acknowledge being beyond himself to affirming the stark reality of a strangeness transcending the traditional bounds of reality itself.

Scrooge’s epistemological journey is not complete yet, however, as revealed in the invitation proffered by the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Come in! and know me better, man!” (80). Here, the ghost demonstrates to Scrooge the hospitality that he has persisted throughout most of his life in refusing to practice. Although the Spirit is in fact visiting Scrooge’s apartments, he invites Scrooge into Scrooge’s own rooms and into fuller knowledge of himself. With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge only needed to recognize the ghost’s existence. The knowledge that ghost imparted to Scrooge was knowledge of Scrooge himself. But the Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge to go a step further, beckoning him to not merely recognize the existence of the stranger but to actively seek knowledge of the stranger. For this reason, the second ghost leads Scrooge not to scenes of his own life but rather to scenes of others’ lives. Indeed, “Stave Three” emphasizes the wide variety of households that Scrooge visits with the spirit, beginning with others with whom Scrooge is at least acquainted such as his nephew and Bob Cratchit but proceeding to others of whom Scrooge has no knowledge at all, even sweeping beyond Britain and across the sea. Thus, coming to know Christmas is parallel, if not synonymous, with coming to understand others and otherness.

All of this begins to suggest how Scrooge’s burgeoning ability to believe in the ghosts is essential to his transformation into a loving and generous man. The spirits are, in a sense, the ultimate strangers, and they invite themselves into Scrooge’s house. They enter his home as if they are guests, although in fact they have come for Scrooge’s benefit and are truly the ones offering him an invitation, thus exemplifying the mutual exchange of love and hospitality which Scrooge has for so long denied himself. By the time, Scrooge encounters the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come he is ready to greet that ghost with gratitude, even in spite of the fact that that ghost is the strangest and most frightening specter by far! Scrooge has learned to accept the reality of the other and actively seek understanding of that other.

To confirm our suspicion that Scrooge’s decision to practice charity and hospitality was predicated on his epistemological alteration, we can look back to an early incident in the first stave. When Scrooge has uttered his notoriously Malthusian recommendation that the death of the destitute might decrease the surplus population, he then remarks, “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that” (45). It might at first seem as if Scrooge is denying his pseudo-eugenicist remark, but the gentleman collecting charity retorts: “But you might know it” (45). It seems that Scrooge is denying knowledge of the kinds of suffering and ways of thinking about suffering his interlocutor had described. In response, Scrooge insists that such efforts of knowing are not his concern. His business is with himself and himself alone. This is what Scrooge must grow past. Before he can overcome his selfishness and his greed, he must learn to see others as others and accept that his knowledge of himself and his own experience cannot explain them.

Indeed, we might even read Scrooge’s education in Christmas love as a partial repudiation of the doctrine of sympathy. Scrooge at first tries to reduce the ghostly other to a projection of his own digestion-muddled mind, and similarly he refuses to extend charity because his own self-knowledge does not enable him to know the reality of the sufferings the charitable gentleman describes. Scrooge grows in the tale not so much by recognizing the sameness of himself and others as by embracing others in their otherness. He could hardly have come to accept the Ghosts of Christmas by virtue of the humanity he shares with them, since they are not, in fact, human. Rather, they are just about as strange as a stranger can come and it is in learning to see and seek them as such that Scrooge becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” (123).

 

Is “The Wisest Thing” a Moral Responsibility? Martineau and Benefit Clubs

In Cousin Marshall, Martineau refers to Benefit Clubs as a viable alternative to reliance upon parish relief several times, especially because of John Marshall’s use of this financial option. When the widowed Mrs. Marshall writes to Ned about his money, she says, “I quite approve your wish about the Friendly Society, knowing how my husband did the wisest thing in belonging to one, and at times could have got through in no other way” (123). Earlier, the narrator characterizes John as “a slow and dull, though steady workman” of whom his friends say “that his club served him instead of a set of wits” (73-74). Furthermore, the narrator indicates Mrs. Marshall does not fully recognize that he is not particularly bright because of this one wise choice that enabled them to be self-sufficient when his hard work was not enough to keep them financially afloat: “His wife, who never seemed to have found out how much cleverer she was than her husband, put the matter in a somewhat different light. She attributed to her husband all the respectability they were enabled to maintain…She gave him the credit, not only of the regularity of their little household…but of the many kindnesses which they rendered to their neighbors” (74). Mr. Marshall’s responsible character and Mrs. Marshall’s careful stewardship of their resources also receive attention in these passages, but Martineau stresses how the Benefit Club played a major role in their abilities to be financially responsible and stable. Additionally, Martineau makes a point of clarifying that John is not actually a smart or talented man but rather a good but average man who just had the good sense to listen to the advice of his father and invest in this safety net (73). Martineau considers wise financial decisions as being within the grasp of all the working class that are not severely disadvantaged through disability, as even an allegedly dim-witted fellow like Mr. Marshall could make that choice.

Despite the support the Benefit Club provides the Marshall family in their times of need, Burke, the doctor who presents explanations and solutions for England’s political economy, does not think that Benefit Clubs are inherently the solution and therefore should not be made compulsory. When Effingham asks him what he thinks of the idea of requiring people to join Benefit Clubs, Burke responds,

No man approves such societies more than I, as long as they are voluntary; but fellowship of this kind would lose its virtue, I doubt, by being made compulsory. There are no means that I know of, of compelling a man who will not earn to store his earnings; and the frugal and industrious will do it without compulsion, as soon as they understand the matter: so that in fact the worst classes of society would be left as free to roam, and beg, and steal, as if the institution did not exist. (115-116)

For Burke, and seemingly for Martineau, as her concluding summary echoes much of Burke’s other ideas presented in the narrative, the good, hard-working people will do the common-sense thing once they know its benefits, and the people associated with the term “undeserving poor” would not act sensibly even if they could afford to do so.

Martineau’s characterization of the Marshall family and the contrasting Bell relatives, as well as several other conversations and characters, reveal her strong belief in the difference between deserving and undeserving poor. This is best represented by Louisa Burke’s conversation with Mr. Nugent, in which she expresses her concern for the lack of separation between “blameless and culpable indigence” (29). Of course, Mr. Nugent considers her categories “somewhat too nice,” for Martineau acknowledges that this is indeed an oversimplification. However, though her views are likely more nuanced than her characters’ explanations, she considers a major difference between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor to be the willingness and wisdom to save up resources through these Benefit Clubs. By associating John Marshall, a man who is not especially educated or even smart, with the wisdom of benefit clubs, which then in turn allows him to benefit other people and his relatives, the Bells, whose financial decisions are clever but unwise and often even unethical, with those who would not have the foresight to save through Benefit Clubs, is Martineau suggesting that though Benefit Clubs ought not to be legally required, that there is a sort of moral imperative to make such wise decisions?

While financial responsibility and frugality are certainly admirable qualities that allow for greater participation in the moral responsibility of charity toward neighbors, it seems that Martineau’s fairly clear distinctions between the deserving poor and undeserving poor move financial wisdom from an admirable quality to a characteristic that helps separate the virtuous from the unvirtuous and the deserving from the undeserving in troubling ways. What about those who would have joined the Benefit Clubs had they not already been receiving relief as children or who were trying to be self-sufficient in caring for their aging parents and therefore could not set aside the necessary earnings? Ned is an extreme example of the hard-working poor, but would Martineau find those in similar situations who did not break the cycle of poverty as he did to be undeserving? While she does not explicitly portray failure to plan ahead financially as a moral failing, her characters present limited examples of virtuous people who are not able be fairly self-sufficient through wise financial decisions, and thus, she seems to ignore the possibility of those who do not clearly fit in one category or the other.