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.

A Face to Love: The Problem of Female Relationships in Bleak House

Victorian woman sketch 3

“My God!”

Mr. Guppy stares. My Lady Dedlock sits before him, looking him through, with the same dark shade upon her face, in the same attitude even to the holding of the screen, with her lips a little apart, her brow a little contracted, but, for the moment dead. (430; ch. 29)

 

If readers had been bored to death with Lady Dedlock’s character before this scene, we are not yawning during our visits to Chesney Wold any longer! After over 400 pages of Lady Dedlock’s boredom, my lady’s uncharacteristically sudden exclamation jolts us out of the mental dead-lock we were trapped in whenever she deigned to make an appearance on the page. Readers knew several pages before this moment that Lady Dedlock is not as two-dimensional as she at first appears. But until this scene, my lady had not publicly broken rank and disturbed the perfect ladylike placidity befitting her aristocratic station:

 

He sees her consciousness return, sees a tremor pass across her frame like a ripped over water, sees her lips shake, sees her compose them by a great effort, sees her force herself back to the knowledge of his presence, and of what he has said. All this, so quickly, that her exclamation and her dead condition seem to have passed away like the features of those long-preserved dead bodies sometimes opened up in tombs, which struck by the air like lightning, vanish in a breath. (430; ch. 29)

 

Mr. Guppy’s speculations about a distant connection between Esther Summerson (actually Esther Hawdon) and the illustrious Dedlock family tree have exhumed my lady from her grave existence. Dickens illustrates the shock she feels primarily through the change in her typically expressionless face. She has lost her grip on the immovable, marbleized expression usually locked onto her face, the same face that first pricked Mr. Guppy’s suspicions. In fact, it is only by the resemblance between the face of Lady Dedlock and the face of Esther Summerson that Mr. Guppy suspects a connection. There seems little else to link the two of them – their social classes are far apart and Dickens does not merge their daily worlds – and we as readers are left to wonder if their connection is only skin-deep.

 

Are Lady Dedlock and Esther Summerson only linked by their similar physical features? Does their potential reconnection depend solely on the appearance of their face? Throughout Bleak House Lady Dedlock’s refined beauty recurs in the story as a representative of her fashionable life, while Esther Summerson is plain Dame Durden next to the golden Ada. Nevertheless, Mr. Guppy has recognized the similarity between the two, but their similarity cannot reunite them in a happy future. As the only link between this ill-fated mother and daughter pair, their faces become a danger to them and expose the deeper problem facing women in Bleak House who struggle to form more than surface-level relationships.

 

When Esther and Lady Dedlock encounter one another for the first time as mother and daughter, it is something in Lady Dedlock’s face that resonates with Esther: “I was rendered motionless. Not so much by her hurried gesture of entreaty . . . as by a something in her face that I had pined for and dreamed of when I was a little child” (536; ch. 36). In this moment as in so many others, it is Lady Dedlock’s face that speaks with a louder voice than any words she says. Esther is overcome with her emotions and the disconcerting display of turmoil from Lady Dedlock, but once Lady Dedlock falls to the ground, entreating Esther to forgive her, Esther’s thoughts turn from Lady Dedlock’s face to her own:

 

. . . when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness; as that nobody could ever now look at me, and look at her, and remotely think any near tie between us. (537; ch. 36)

 

Esther has already passed through her battle with smallpox, but has not emerged unscathed. Her face is drastically altered, so much so that when Mr. Guppy sees her after her illness, he hastily and insultingly insists that she recognize he cannot ever renew his proposal of marriage to her. Esther does not express any indignation or pain towards Mr. Guppy’s indecent behavior, and in this encounter with Lady Dedlock, she characteristically finds the silver lining, thanking God that her scars will prevent her mother from experiencing any future shame on her account. As Lady Dedlock tells Esther of her pain and despair, she covers her face with her hands and mourns the miserable bonds of her position that make any public reunion between them impossible. In this scene, Dickens’s narrative emphasizes the cruel reality that bonds between mothers and daughters are only as strong as the circumstances surrounding them.

 

Throughout her narrative, Dickens continually describes Lady Dedlock as a woman behind a veil; in this encounter with Esther, Lady Dedlock discards her veil of “proud indifference” for a brief moment but cannot linger in exposed freedom from her past sins. Even Esther must don a veil to hide her marked visage from the gaze of the world. Esther’s literal veil and Lady Dedlock’s figurative veil indicate a larger problem of establishing relationships and connections for women. In Dickens’s world, where propriety required the proper dress, the proper manners, and the proper expressions, communication for women becomes closely tied to the nonverbal, to the appearance of faces. If faces become obscured, then the means of connection are lost in the fogs of circumstance and secrecy. Through the women of Bleak House, Dickens asks us as readers to consider the inaudible power of faces and the grave injustices that arise when women are both voiceless and faceless.

“The Romantic Side of Familiar Things”

At the end of the Preface to Bleak House, Dickens writes a statement that I believe is the key to how we talk about representation and realism in his work: “In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things” (emphasis added). This statement becomes more interesting when taken in the entire context of the preface. For several paragraphs, Dickens has just vehemently defended his narrative choices, arguing that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce is an accurate representation of real cases that have embroiled the Court of Chancery, writing that “everything set forth in these pages concerning the Court of Chancery is substantially true, and within the truth.” The second detail that Dickens defends is the spontaneous combustion of Mr. Krook, which George Lewes had criticized as unrealistic. He writes, “I have no need to observe that I do not willfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject,” and then cites a handful of documented examples, including a woman who died in France and an alcoholic man who died in Columbus, Ohio.

I am curious about why Dickens decided to defend these two elements of his narrative above all else. Was it simply because others criticized these parts of his story as unrealistic? Why not defend other, more fantastic parts of the narrative, like the character of Miss Flite and her garret of caged birds? And why, indeed, worry about “truth” in a work of fiction at all?

But, judging by the way he defends his story, Dickens is indeed concerned that his story be “substantially true, and within the truth”– or, at least, that readers perceive it that way. He writes that he doesn’t willfully mislead us, the readers, while at the same time writing over 800 pages of events that didn’t really happen. We know they didn’t happen, Dickens knows they didn’t really happen, but for those 800 pages, we like to play along in our imaginations and pretend they did. In the end, however, the novel form itself is one big deception. So what kind of representational truth is Dickens hoping to achieve?

One obvious answer, judging by Dickens’ research of deaths similar to Krook’s, is that he wanted to limit his story to the realm of things that possibly could happen, or things that are like events that really did happen. Of course, we will never meet Esther Summerson walking down the street (even if time travel to Victorian England were possible), but as we read her narrative, we buy into the fiction and believe that she really could exist, and that we could meet her, if only we could step through the looking-glass. This is the beauty and magic of fiction, that for a moment allows us to buy into Esther’s character, to believe what she tells us, and to gain a new way of looking at the world.

This brings us back to Dickens’ closing statement: “the romantic side of familiar things.” One of the tactics that his fiction employs is defamiliarization: the act of presenting situations like our own in a completely different context, to break down our pre-formed conclusions and encourage us to rethink our established ideas. In the pages of Bleak House, we may laugh at Harold Skimpole or the ridiculous Mr. Guppy, but then we return to our world to find people who, in certain moments, remind us of Harold Skimpole or Mr. Guppy (or, worse yet, discover that we ourselves share some of their unfortunate characteristics!). Dickens’ reader may come away with a critical suspicion of the real Court of Chancery, or a wariness of the overwhelming allure of an uncertain fortune. Though the novel events are romantic– exaggerated, even– the events in our world are not, which (perhaps) prevents us from seeing them as clearly as Dickens would like us to. Thus, while the truth Dickens tries to present is not exactly representational, it allows us to better interpret and represent our own world within the space of our minds.

Judging For Ourselves

How truly delightful Dickens’ American Notes for General Circulation is after Martineau’s Society in America. He seems at first to be pursuing an entirely opposite end from Martineau’s – that of entertainment rather than education.  Certainly, Martineau is not extremely interested in entertainment in that particular work, but I think Dickens is not uninterested in education either.  He simply educates his reader through narrative rather than argument. Even his journalism is more narrative and sometimes even fictional. This observation inspires many questions – whether Dickens did this on purpose, or whether he simply couldn’t help himself (or both), whether his first goal was entertainment, good sales, or social justice, whether the effect is more or less powerful than with Martineau’s style, whether Dickens’ appreciated Martineau’s more philosophical style… But here I am mainly concerned with some of effects of a narrative style as opposed to a more philosophical style like Martineau’s.

Dickens’ American Notes is certainly more anecdotal and specific than Martineau’s.  In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau encourages travelers to look for the general truths, and not to assume that one instance of, say, a river crossing, is representative of all instances of that event.  Dickens is more willing to describe one American mill town, and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.  In the introduction, Dickens trusts that “my readers have opportunities of judging for themselves…” (59) And indeed, he does seem to allow a space for our own observation and interpretation while Martineau encourages writers to do much of that work for their readers. Though this quote is technically encourages readers to compare his observations to the actual “public career of that country since,” his open, amiable narrative, also provides an opportunity to make those observations within the narrative itself.  He does not blatantly tell us what to think about the mill town (as Martineau would). Rather, he gives us a less digested observation, allowing us to “judge for ourselves” as a fellow-traveler.

Dickens also delights in not observing certain things very accurately. The first chapter is a comedy of his disappointment with the size of the steamer’s accommodations, coming at last to the “unanimous conclusion that it was rather spacious than otherwise…” (115), though all the company actually believes it to be a poky hole of a berth.  Dickens is not interested in the facts of the berth, but in viewing it in the most optimistic manner, since nothing could be done about it.  He is more interested in how he and his companions felt about it, but he does not fail to describe the actual state either.  Quite clever.  A trick possible only in narrative.  It is a subtle interpretation of a fact which tells us more about the author and the fact than any straight-up interpreted observation could provide. It places the reader in a different relationship to the author – of companion, rather than pupil, again, encouraging our judgment.

Even the articles written for Household Words employ more narrative than Martineau and Eliot. This is perhaps not too surprising, since it is entirely possible to tell facts in the structure of a plot.  Many of his articles begin with variations of “On a certain Sunday…” (5183) and then proceeds to tell us the story of his “Walk in a Workhouse.” But more surprising than this is the way in which he uses hypothetical claims to tell us what might have been which has the effect of a fictional narrative within the non-fiction. This can have many effects.  In “A Walk in a Workhouse” it has the effect of increasing sympathy, of suggesting a solution, of illustrating that greediness has always been around.  It tells that story can be a place to explore plots that have not yet happened, but which may happen if we make different choices.  It allows us to see the future and the possible effects of other choices.

Of course, there are a great many more differences and effects of receiving our instruction in a narrative form, not the least of which is its increased readability and the pleasure of a narrator who seems to value our own independent interpretation.  Yet narrative is also more powerfully persuasive.  We have discussed its ability to create sympathy, but it also seems able to sneak in an interpretation where we think we are observing for ourselves.  And this is especially the power of comedic narrations like Dickens’