“Bide the end!”
December 24, 2010
When I was in the sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Minor Merchant, assigned two other students and me to write a short play based on Charles Dickens’ novella, “A Christmas Carol.” I had never read the story before then, but I have read it every Christmas season since, as I am in the midst of reading it now. In the meantime, I became a fan of Dickens in general, and have read all of his novels and many of his other works — some of them over and over again. Of course, I have also watched adaptations of his work for the screen and the stage. Most of Dickens’ work is too expansive to be recreated in another medium except in sharply truncated form. That’s to be understood, but I have noticed that among the elements of his storytelling that usually fall by the wayside is the intensity of the anger with which he wrote — and that is in no case more than true than in the case of “A Christmas Carol.”
This tale, published in 1843, reputedly changed the way Christmas was observed in Great Britain and the United States. Apparently Christmas had become an impersonal, institutional event. Dickens believed it should be centered more on the family and the home and should inspire feelings of affection and generosity. The themes in “A Christmas Carol” touched folks in exactly that way and permanently altered the way they marked the day. Dickens was not religious in the conventional sense; in fact, he famously rejected organized religion in general and religious dogma in particular and repeatedly lampooned the clergy and their preaching. Still, he held Jesus in high regard and subscribed to what he construed to be Jesus’ central message: Love one another.
Dickens had experienced a powerful dose of inhumanity as he grew up in impoverished and humiliating circumstances, and he went out of his way as an adult to witness the suffering of those whom the industrial revolution had left without hope of a decent, dignified life. His reaction to what he saw is often obscured in the popular images of the characters Dickens created. When Dickens was 12, his father was sent to debtor’s prison — an event memorialized by the experience of Wilkins Macawber in “David Copperfield.” Dickens had to work 10-hour days under atrocious conditions pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking — and that was also recreated by the boy Copperfield in the novel. The fact that not only Dickens but many other children were treated so badly infuriated Dickens. He wrote about such abuse in “Oliver Twist,” but the anger with which he wrote is hardly evident in such echoes as the musical “Oliver!” And as charming as “A Christmas Carol” can be, it is darkened again and again by Dickens’ flaring temper. This indignation drives these stories, but it often gets left behind when the text is reinterpreted for the stage or the screen.
Dickens bristled, for example, over his perception that those who were well off were not only insensitive to the poor, but dismissive of them. He put the words in the mouth of Scrooge, and the adaptations generally preserve them: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” But less familiar is Dickens’ outburst through the Spirit of Christmas Present, who – as they discussed the crippled Tiny Tim –- the son of Scrooge’s impoverished and misused clerk — hurled Scrooge’s words back in his face but went on: “Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be , that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
There is another exchange between Scrooge and the same Spirit that was inspired by the views of a member of Parliament, Sir Andrew Agnew, who several times introduced measures that would have forbidden virtually all activity in London on Sundays. The restrictions were skewed in such a way that they would have heavily affected the poor but would have had little impact on the rich. Among the provisions would have been a ban on popular recreation and the closure of bakers’ shops. These enterprises were already prohibited from baking bread on Sundays and on Christmas Day, but many poor families, who had only meager facilities at home for heating food, took their victuals to a baker so as to enjoy a hot meal once a week and on the holiday. As Scrooge and the Spirit are watching simple citizens bustling around the city shops on Christmas day, Scrooge remarks, “I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds around us, should desire to cramp these people’s opportunities for innocent enjoyment.”
When the Spirit expresses surprise on being blamed, Scrooge presses on: “You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day they can be said to dine at all? Wouldn’t you?” The Spirit denies any part in such a thing, and Scrooge makes one retort too many: “Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family.” Here, again, the text provides a furious outburst on the subject of hypocrisy, as the Spirit speaks on Dickens’ behalf: “There are some upon this Earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not on us.”
Perhaps one of the best-known scenes in this Christmas story occurs when Scrooge notices something like a foot emerging from the same Spirit’s robe. When Scrooge asks about it, the Spirit opens the robe to reveal two “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish children.” “Are they yours?” Scrooge asks. The Spirit’s answer is always abbreviated in the retelling, but it is worth reading in full, especially considering how they might still apply: “They are Man’s. And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is 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, unless the writing be erased. Deny it! Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” Scrooge asks.
“Are there no prisons?” the Spirit replies. “Are there no workhouses?”