Just in time for the holidays, Walt Disney has released what looks to be another memorable adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The cold and harsh, penny-pinching Ebenezer Scrooge returns to the big screen, this time in animated form, to have his conscience reawakened by the apparition of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future.
It's a much-loved holiday story. Part of its charm is that it immerses us in a Victorian-era Christmas, replete with frosted windows, mistletoe, plum pudding, and jolly good cheer. But Dickens's classic also continues to capture our imagination because of its portrayal of a social and economic world of great inequity and deep suffering. It's a world more brutal than we sometimes imagine, and one that in many ways is not too different from our own.
The Hungry Forties
Published in 1843 as a statement against harsh child labor practices, A Christmas Carol carried poignancy in its original context that is difficult to fully grasp today. The severity of living conditions in 19th-century London, combined with the ambivalence of its "paternalistic" legal courts—illustrated so well in Dickens's Bleak House (1853)—is hard to exaggerate. The disparity in standard of living between the top quarter of London's population and the bulk of its citizens was stark. Few members of the aristocracy resided permanently in the capital, but came to London when the stench and heat of the city had subsided in the autumn, and when the courts and Parliament held their sessions. However, the merchants whose wealth rivaled that of the aristocrats were permanent fixtures on the metropolitan landscape.
London also hosted a growing middle or "professional class," comprising court officials and lawyers; Ebenezer Scrooge would be placed in this class as a usurer, banker, or property owner. Finally, the working classes composed about three-quarters of the population. These included shopkeepers, prostitutes, and children who labored in factories; a financial contribution from each family member was necessary for survival. Dickens learned this firsthand as a young boy who worked to support his family while his parents languished in debtors' prison.
Children growing up in London during the Hungry Forties—a depression coupled with poor harvests—were steeped in these disparities. The skyline was a sea of profitable smokestacks puffing clouds of sooty grit that covered rooftops and the cheeks of young chimney sweeps. Coal was the energy source du jour, and the resulting London fog often hid the real picture. The streets were covered in rainwater, the contents of chamber pots, and animal waste. Rats abounded. Small, often emaciated children sold flowers and matches, while the wealthy class's horse-drawn carriages swept past, throwing grime and muck on those too poor to afford transportation. Despite the horrid conditions, the birth rate rose as mortality rates fell: more children now lived than died. And as the population grew, so did the price of food.
The inhabitants of William Wordsworth's idyllic countryside were forced into the cities as the Industrial Revolution's machinery replaced their agrarian livelihood, and small farms were swallowed up by wealthy landowners. London's poor were crammed into shrinking housing districts, and they began to encroach upon the living areas of bankers and merchants, especially the West End and the financial district. The poor had no privacy or domestic bliss. Multiple families lived in single rooms in rundown buildings for exorbitant rent. These rookeries filled London with bodies: poor bodies, working bodies, and begging bodies, many of them children's. The shallow, snaking River Thames cut through this mass of people, horses, stench, and noise and carried the city's sewage and waste into the Channel.
The Treadmill And The Poor Law
This was Dickens's London—a place where need was perpetually apparent, where the government had seemingly provided for the destitute. When two men visit Scrooge asking for money near the beginning of the story, their good humor is met with interrogation: "Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still open? … The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?" Only nine years before the book's release, Parliament had passed the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which sought to adjust existing care for the poor in light of growing populations and urban migration.
What makes Scrooge's comments so biting is that the Poor Law, with its accompanying workhouses, was despised by the poor. The legislation's driving principle was that inmates were to reside and work in conditions deliberately sparser than those in which they would have lived and worked had they had steady subsistence-level work. The difficulty with a system that tried to separate the "deserving" from the "undeserving" poor was that many, most notably children, fell through the cracks.
As it turned out, the poor avoided the workhouses because of the shame attached to them. The Anatomy Act, passed the year prior to A Christmas Carol's release, allowed the corpses of paupers who died in workhouses to be used for dissection. The unemployed poor lacked even the common decency of burial. So many of London's poor, without work, chose the streets to beg and prostitute instead of the government's supposed discerning benevolence.
Within this atmosphere of governmental impotence, Dickens's writing raised awareness. Despite its haunting images, A Christmas Carol is one of his tamer social tirades. And he was not alone in his campaign. Other writers like dramatist and journalist Douglas Jerrold continuously pressed for action, and Christmastime was often the key season for them to issue calls for justice. In fact, the first Christmas card, designed in 1843, called for those materially blessed to involve themselves in "clothing the naked" and "feeding the hungry."
Dickens not only wrote but also acted as a reformer to awaken Britain's collective conscience. In 1845 he set up a house for rescuing, reforming, and educating prostitutes, who could then begin new lives in Canada, South Africa, or Australia, away from the ingrown social stigma they would face in Britain. By the 1860s, enough charitable institutions and governmental reforms had started that child literacy rates and the poor's working conditions had tangibly improved. But the battle was uphill, as some saw poverty as inevitable, unchangeable, and even God-ordained. The social classes, each level with its own purpose, were necessary to maintain a revolution-free, efficient society.
Where was the church in all of this? England's urbanization and demographic re-arranging in the 1700s and 1800s made existing systems of charity within single parishes impractical and ineffective. The old model of the village church caring for the poor in its parish failed with an increasingly mobile population, and urban parishes faced more demands than they could meet. (The Poor Laws were partially an attempt to fix this broken system.)
There is also the accusation—though it must be leveled with caution—that the established church of the 18th and 19th centuries was a bastion of elite, intellectualized men unconcerned with the plight of those over whom they ruled. It was this realm of need that many sectarian religious groups—including the Methodists, the Congregationalists, and in the 1860s, the Salvation Army—stepped into, with varying degrees of success. While Christian evangelist George Müller established orphanages for thousands of children in Bristol, 105 miles west of London, starting in the 1830s, London's orphans had few such places to turn to until later in the century, when reformers and the church really began implementing proactive measures.
Today's Tiny Tims
At first glance, today's world seems far away from the fog and muck of Dickens's London. Even in a recession, the West looks relatively prosperous—or at least free from torturous workhouses. On the face of it, our society does not see such polarization between the classes, nor is the poverty that characterized Victorian London so rampant.
But, as Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you" (Matt. 26:11a). And that includes children. While poor children in developed nations are mostly those living in former industrial centers, worldwide poverty and exploitation have even more faces. These are the modern-day Tiny Tims. Our London is any metropolitan area in the world. Our Bob Cratchits are in the United States and Europe, but also in Nigeria, Thailand, and North Korea. For a great percentage of the world—and especially for children—the current recession is not a new experience of real need; many have lived in poverty for generations, even centuries. Theirs is an unending recession.
The culture of workhouses still exists, though under a different guise. Exploitive child labor and abuse are alive and well. And human trafficking, which preys especially on children, is a reality. For these children, the workhouse may be a house of prostitution. All of these things make our society look much like Victorian London. Fortunately, many governments, relief organizations, and the church—through various ministries and local congregations—are actively combating these hidden injustices.
Between the horror of reality and the fanciful coloring of his characterization, Dickens's classic maintains the power to awaken our social conscience. Yes, we are drawn to the romance of the Victorian Christmas, but we are also gripped and moved by A Christmas Carol's dark portrayals of real life, then and now.
For Scrooge, the ultimate moment of self-examination comes on the third night of his haunting, when he is visited by a silent, grim spirit. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leads him to a forgotten graveyard and points to a plain slab of stone engraved with Ebenezer Scrooge. At that moment, sinking in his own grave, Scrooge experiences the desolation of death without the promise of redemption.
Then, having glimpsed the ultimate terror, the spirit returns Scrooge safely to his bedroom, where he bursts with joy, immediately calling out his window to arrange the delivery of an enormous turkey to Bob Cratchit's home—one tangible fruit of Scrooge's regeneration.
It's an ending filled with hope and implicit moral exhortation. Scrooge's newfound compassion pushes Dickens's readers of every age and culture to pursue their own courses of charity. For there will always be faces pressed against our windows.
Lisa Toland is a post-doctoral fellow who teaches history at the John Wesley Honors College of Indiana Wesleyan University.
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Previous CT articles on the Christmas classic include:
Christian History Corner: No Humbug | A Christmas Carol remains the quintessential holiday story, but why? (December 1, 2002)
Christian History Corner: I'm Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas | An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us (December 1, 2002)
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