Bearing Tidings in ‘A Christmas Carol’

As Richard Kelly notes in his introduction to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the novella is marked by its contrasts: it is “a paradoxical mixture of light and darkness, joy and despair, warmth and cold, life and death.”[i] One striking element that conveys this paradoxical mixture within Carol has to do with the way in which speech acts are offered and rejected, given and received, even asked for and withheld. This is most evident in the opening stave, before Ebenezer Scrooge receives his ghostly visitations; however, this element is developed throughout the novella and Scrooge’s conversion.

While in his counting-house near the beginning of Carol, Scrooge receives three visitors, foreshadowing the unearthly visitors soon to come. The first visitor is Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who offers him an invitation to Christmas dinner. Scrooge refuses this offer, but not only this offer, he also ignores and rejects Fred’s enthusiastic well-wishing for the Christmas and New Year. Soon after two gentlemen come in to speak with Scrooge, asking for donations in order to buy food for the poor. Scrooge, after what might be considered heartless remarks about the poor and their apparent suffering, refuses to give anything, remarking that it is none of his business, and ends the conversation with a sharp “Good afternoon, gentlemen!”[ii]

However, it’s the third visitor that is the briefest and perhaps the most revealing for Dickens purpose of these visits, and the novella itself. Scrooge’s third visitor is a poor, cold-bitten young man, whose nose is “gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs.”[iii] The visitor does not come inside, but rather stoops near the keyhole in order to offer a song—a Christmas carol. Dickens has this character sing only two verses of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” yet here Dickens changes the lyric to “God bless you merry gentleman!” This slight change from “rest” to “bless” seems significant and deliberate. Is Dickens here deliberately using “bless” to steer his readers from an understanding of rest that would dissuade from charitable action?[iv] Perhaps it simply signifies the changed meaning of “rest” from its more archaic “to keep;” nevertheless it does allow Dickens to begin the emphasis on blessing later to be echoed by Tiny Tim, the narrator, and Scrooge himself. Further, through this Christmas carol, the young man would have offered tidings of comfort and joy in the verses that follow, but he is silenced and scared off by Scrooge and his menacing ruler-grab. Each of these spoken (and sung) offers and invitations are rejected by Scrooge, and each of them seems to have comfort at the heart of them—be it the comfort of one’s family, the comfort of a meal and warmth, or merely the tidings of comfort offered goodheartedly in the season of joy.

As Scrooge’s evening continues, it is interesting that these speech acts seem to be reversed, yet the centrality of comfort remains. When Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge pleads: “Speak comfort to me, Jacob.”[v] Marley responds that he has no comfort to give, saying that such comfort “comes from other regions…and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”[vi] Additionally, the first ghost claims his business to be Scrooge’s “welfare,” and yet Scrooge, though thanking the ghost, says instead that that a night of “unbroken rest” would be “more conducive.”[vii] Although Scrooge attempts to refuse such charity,” the ghost silences him, naming Scrooge’s reclamation over his welfare to be his concern: “Take heed!”[viii] Later, faced with the reality of the present, Scrooge is silenced by second ghost, who uses Scrooge’s own words to silence him. And it is finally with the third ghost that Scrooge is met with one who is completely silent, who refuses Scrooge with any spoken answer, despite Scrooge’s sorrowful query: “Will you not speak to me?”[ix] It is not until Scrooge vocalizes the promise of his change—“Spirit…hear me!”[x]—which is interestingly followed by an unspoken prayer, that Scrooge awakes in his own bed. Having been converted and his heart now full of laughter, Scrooge becomes the bearer of good tidings, tidings of comfort and joy, tidings of blessing.

Through this work, Dickens himself seems to offer tidings, but contrastive tidings. He offers readers both a tale of hope and a tale of realistic anguish and destitution. Dickens mentions in his preface, he endeavored “to raise the Ghost of an Idea.”[xi] He tells of the worst of human nature, but bears the comforting news of possible change. Through this telling, he further offers an image of the reality of poverty, but in it he also finds joy. By raising such a ghost of an idea, in some sense he leaves the reception open-ended for the reader, offering tidings that can be refused or accepted, but will hopefully continue to pleasantly “haunt” readers with its message.

 

[i] Richard Kelly, “Introduction,” in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, ed. Richard Kelly (Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts, 2003), 10. Cf., 27.

[ii] Dickens, Carol, 45.

[iii] Dickens, Carol, 46.

[iv] I am thinking here of how the ghost of Jacob Marley tells Scrooge that he cannot rest (55), and later how Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Past how he could use a night of “unbroken rest” (63). Something more seems to be at issue with “rest” in this work, though it is not clear exactly what Dickens is trying to convey.

[v] Dickens, Carol, 55.

[vi] Dickens, Carol, 55.

[vii] Dickens, Carol, 63.

[viii] Dickens, Carol, 63.

[ix] Dickens, Carol, 103

[x] Dickens, Carol, 115.

[xi] Dickens, Carol, 37.

‘Speak…can’t you?’: Unseen Faces and Unusual Speech in Mary Barton

“She wanted them to read something in her face—her face so full of woe, of horror. But they went on without taking any notice.”[i]

The servants of the Carson household are the first to discover the news of Harry Carson’s death. They bear the news on their very faces, and it falls to them to deliver the message of his death to his family, whom they serve. In the scene in which this telling occurs, chapter 28, wordless expressions are met with ignorance, with a failure to see, much less recognize, misery or despair.

The first account of this unseeing occurs when Sophy Carson fails to read Parker’s countenance when she “authoritatively” calls for tea. Having entered the room, Parker’s face was “blanched to a dead whiteness…It was a terror-stricken face.”[ii] Further, we read that his lips were pressed, silently containing within the news of Harry Carson, whose body had just been brought in ten minutes prior. Parker seems to leave without his wordless expression of terror being recognized, and without speaking news of death. Instead, it is the nurse, this “anomalous” person in the house, as Gaskell writes—neither family nor single-office servant—who acts as the harbinger of despair. Here again, it is her countenance that makes known something of her purpose in entering the room, yet, again, she goes unrecognized by the Carson sisters. Coming into the room, the nurse “wanted them to look up. She wanted them to read something in her face—her face so full of woe, of horror. But they went on without taking any notice.”[iii] Only with an “unnatural” cough do the women recognize her presence and strained countenance; however, she is still hesitant, and cannot seem find the words to express the horror her face exhibits.

Now seeing the nurse, her stricken countenance, the Carson sisters implore her to tell them what is wrong, especially Sophy:

“Speak, speak, nurse!

“…Anything is better than this. Speak!”

Finally, the nurse tells them of Harry’s death, yet she cannot bear to tell the whole truth of the matter. Instead she tells it to them in pieces, gradually leading to the worst of story, how Harry died. This she only seems to tell directly to Sophy. And with this, we see a reversal of affect between the servants, namely the nurse, and the Carsons. With the knowledge of her brother’s death, Sophy is speechless, struck dumb, only mouthing wordlessly. Her faced “worked involuntarily” as the nurse requested Sophy to speak, to tell Mr. Carson the news of his son’s death.[iv]

Interestingly, the following scene echoes much of what happened previously. While Sophy tries to wake her father, alluding to something sad happening, he doesn’t see her face. In fact, it is again the nurse who is the first to speak of the matter directly and, again, it is the nurse’s “unusual speech” that calls for his attention.[v] Now attentive, he can see from Sophy’s face that something is wrong: “What are you looking at me so strangely for, Sophy?”[vi] Startled by the nurse, Sophy’s countenance, and their contradicting statements of Harry’s whereabouts, Mr. Carson demands to know what has happened (directed primarily to Sophy): “Tell me at once what’s the matter…Speak, child, can’t you?”[vii]

This interesting interplay between the failing to recognize, unusual speech, and the direct request for speech seems to suggest something of the way in which knowledge is conveyed between classes. What is to be done when the terror-stricken faces go unseen? What type of unusual speech can best gain attention? As we’ve seen in the first half of the novel, there is a sense in which the classes—the servants and those served, the poor and the rich, etc.—do not really know how to speak to one another. Yet, importantly, in these scenes the knowledge conveyed is in regard to Harry Carson, one of the wealthy, and the sad circumstances of his death.

To this, it is interesting that Gaskell highlights the character of the nurse as a type of mediator. While the servants know of Harry Carson’s death before his family, it falls to the nurse to break the news. The nurse, unnamed save that title given for her first office, as Gaskell notes, holds a “rather an anomalous situation in the family.”[viii] She is not family nor is she friend, but, because of her length of service, she has some level of intimacy with the Carson family. She is a mother-like figure to the Carson sisters, a nurturer and caretaker of the family—even in death. Yet throughout the scene the nurse remains an anomaly, still to the end when she is called away: “It seemed strange to Sophy to hear nurse summoned from her mother’s side to supper, in the middle of the night, and still stranger that she could go.”[ix] The nurse is both present and absent; a person who knows the family, cares for them intimately, but yet is not part of the family. What, then, characterizes the fittingness of her role as mediator? What does it say about how knowledge shared or conveyed between classes?

 

[i] Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Mary Barton, Kindle edition, 262.

[ii] Ibid., 251.

[iii] Ibid., 252.

[iv] Ibid., 253.

[v] Ibid., 254.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., 252.

[ix] Ibid., 262.

Creatures Forgotten & Remembered: Animal Hospitality in The Last Man

Yes, this was the earth; there is no change—no ruin—no rent made in her verdurous expanse; she continues to wheel round and round, with alternate night and day, through the sky, though man is not her adorner or inhabitant. Why could I not forget myself like one of those animals, and no longer suffer the wild tumult of misery that I endure? Yet, ah! what a deadly breach yawns between their state and mine![i]

As the existence of humanity dwindles under the effects of the plague in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, nature—and more specifically, animals—reflects the gradual forgetting of humanity and humans’ place in the world. Nature is indifferent to the extinction of humankind, as Verney implies in the epigraph, and there is no refuge from the plague nor from death, no prospect of hospitality left in the world for the last man.

Yet, in the final volume of The Last Man, there are acts of hospitality between Verney and the animals he encounters. Interestingly, these moments are framed by forgottenness and remembrance. Three encounters within the text exemplify this: the first two encounters involve hospitality and forgottenness, in which the subject (animal or human) bestowing hospitality is met with the forgetfulness of the other and is forgotten; while, in the third and final encounter, hospitality is marked by unforgottenness, or remembrance, on the part of the animal subject toward the human other.

The first encounter takes place during the remnants’ migration to Switzerland. Verney having reached Villeneuve-la-Guiard and hearing of Adrian’s delay in Versailles, decides to return to Versailles out of concern for his friend. He chooses his favorite horse for the journey; however, ignorant of his horse’s fatigue and thirst during the return, Verney rides the horse to death upon reaching Versailles: “I saw him expire with an anguish, unaccountable even to myself, the spasm was as the wrenching of some limb in agonizing torture, but it was brief as it was intolerable.”[ii] In his haste to meet Adrian, Verney even admits that he immediately “forgot” this proud and noble creature, this “poor fellow.”[iii] The horse had given his life to carry Verney to his friend, only to be forgotten the very moment after his death.

The indifference with which Verney regards the life of his horse seems to be reflected in the indifference animals show toward those aspects of humanity left behind after the plague. Animals, in short, had forgotten humankind:

In the towns, the voiceless towns, we visited the churches, adorned by pictures, master-pieces of art, or galleries of statues—while in this genial clime the animals, in new found liberty, rambled through the gorgeous palaces, and hardly feared our forgotten aspect.[iv]

However, nature’s indifference is never felt more strongly by Verney than after the deaths of Adrian and Clara. Not quite a month after their deaths, in the second encounter covered here, Verney comes upon a “family” of goats. Verney, perhaps feeling a hope for such innocent life, offers the goats a handful of grass; however, the goats reject him—furthermore the ram attempts to attack him. Peter Melville rightly acknowledges this as “a most heartbreaking hospitable encounter” that “powerfully captures the anguish of his newfound situation of isolation and non-relatedness.”[v] According to Melville, Verney’s encounter with the goats tests the human-animal relational ideal, that of creaturely kinship: “Interpolating these creatures as human-like, Lionel posits a hospitable relation that enables him to interact with the goats. He compensates for a lack of other subjects by subjecting a group of non-subjects whose very otherness resides partly in their impossibility as subjects.”[vi] Nevertheless, in Verney’s desperate search for other relational subjects, he ultimately finds himself alone and facing that “deadly breach” between humans and animals, that “great vastness of absolute otherness.”[vii]

At this point in the narrative, Verney resolves to seek out towns with their “stupendous remains of human exertion,” and where he will not “find every thing forgetful of man.”[viii] And it is after this decision that we come to our third and final scene in his wandering of Campagna near the end of the book. Here Verney finds his final companion, his last friend: a dog whom he found herding sheep. Though the dog’s master was dead, still he continued to fulfill his shepherding duties, those “lessons learned from man, now useless, though unforgotten.”[ix] It is in the dog’s remembrance of humankind, his greeting of Verney, that we see what could be said as the final act of hospitality in the book:

His delight was excessive when he saw me. He sprung up to my knees; he capered round and round, wagging his tail, with the short, quick bark of pleasure: he left his fold to follow me, and from that day has never neglected to watch by and attend on me, shewing boisterous gratitude whenever I caressed or talked to him.[x]

This final scene seems to complicate Melville’s notion of animals as “non-subjects”—can we identify animals as subjects capable of providing and accepting hospitality? Moreover, what do these encounters, taken together, suggest about the role of animals in The Last Man? Also, framed by forgottenness and remembrance, these encounters speak to questions about the relationality of hospitality: must their be some commonality, something shared or remembered, for hospitality to occur? 

 

[i] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, ed. Morton D. Paley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 459.

[ii] Ibid., 404.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 430.

[v] Peter Melville, “Hospitality without End: ‘Visitation’ and Obligation in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” in Romantic Hospitality and the Resistance to Accommodation (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007), 148.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Shelley, 460.

[ix] Ibid., 468.

[x] Ibid.

To Cross a Threshold: The Relationship between Hospitality and Place

Upon the arrival of their divine visitors, Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, and Lot at the gateway of Sodom.[i] Both were ready, and, it seems, waiting, to welcome those “others” at the threshold of their dwelling places. It is there, at the threshold, the boundary of their home or residence, where hospitality appears to become possible. Only from that place can Abraham and Lot get up as hosts and greet the others as guests face-to-face.

There is an emphasis on thresholds and boundaries in the introduction of Judith Still’s work Derrida and Hospitality, itself a kind of welcome and opening up to the topic of hospitality, which synthesizes the thought of Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and others. In the introduction, Still writes that hospitality in “theory and practice relates to crossing boundaries or thresholds” of a multitude of “overlapping territories.”[ii] These territories, she writes, range from the self and the other, the private and the public, the inside and the outside; territories that intersect but cannot be overlaid upon one another.[iii] It is because hospitality relates to crossing boundaries and thresholds that Derrida notes that hospitality is ethics “insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there.”[iv] While hospitality as ethics becomes complicated in relation to a politics of hospitality, a relationship of which Still and Derrida are mindful, less clear to me here is the relationship between hospitality and place, and the place of the threshold in particular.

As in Genesis 18 and 19, the threshold acts as the physical place wherein hospitality occurs or becomes feasible; conversely, it is also the threshold that can mark inhospitality—not all doors are open. Further, the threshold acts as a marker for the identities of the relations on either side of it: the host and the guest, the native and the foreigner, and, again, the self and the other. Still writes that hospitality, now as ethics, “regulates the relations” between the boundaries of those territories named above.[v] Hospitality may regulate the relations between those boundaries, but it also, according to Derrida, blurs those boundaries—blurs the boundaries of the spaces themselves, of the identities of those within them (e.g., l’hôtes), and of power and vulnerability.[vi] The threshold, then, becomes a place of transition and movement, an in-between, a crossing.

More than a few questions arise here. First, if the threshold is this place of transition, does it mark the beginning of hospitality? In other words, does hospitality begin at the threshold of the host? Is a delimited place, like a home, necessary for hospitality? Or, in contrast, does hospitality begin with the need of the other? Does it begin with exile? To offer an example of the thought behind this set of questions, in Luke 10, Jesus sends seventy disciples to proclaim the coming of kingdom of God. With nothing, they are to be the vulnerable others in need of hospitality; indeed, Jesus says they are to be sent “like lambs into the midst of wolves.”[vii] And yet, the disciples are also to be hosts of a kind, offering healing and the good news to those who welcome them. With this, does hospitality begin with the disciples’ commission, or does begin upon their entering a town or in the welcome of another’s home? Overall, where and how does hospitality take place and can hospitality be delimited?

Secondly, if a threshold does delimit hospitality, what is it that lies beyond the threshold and beyond the structure of hospitality? If hospitality blurs borders, as Derrida writes, what remains of the liminal spaces, of the identities and relationships in the wake of hospitality and the crossing of the threshold? Perhaps Derrida’s or Still’s answer to this would be that something like friendship would remain. If so, what would such friendship look like? How do we treat the difference that remains in the relationship? But, if not friends, what then?

Finally, to set this topic in a broader context, how might we consider the relationship between hospitality and place theologically? In her second chapter, Still quotes Louis Massignon, who writes that it is by hospitality, “and by this alone…that we cross the threshold of the Sacred.”[viii] For Massignon, Abraham, the Friend of God, modeled such hospitality. Yet, where else could we begin: Creation, Incarnation, Passion, Pentecost? What can we look to as thresholds of hospitality in the story of the relationship between God and God’s creation?  

[i] Genesis 18:1; 19:1 (NRSV).

[ii] Judith Still, Derrida and Hospitality: Theory and Practice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 4.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Still, 7. Quoting Jacques Derrida, “On Cosmopolitanism,” in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York and London: Routledge, 2001), 16-17.

[v] Still, 11.

[vi] Still, 27. Quoting Derrida, HJR, 73.

[vii] Luke 10:3.

[viii] Still, 71.