Dickens’s Carol Philosophy
When Dickens gave his first public reading on 27 December 1853 at Birmingham Town Hall, he chose ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843). No doubt the timing had something to do with his choice of story, but what his selection also suggests is that he felt it a tale important to share.
And shared it has been. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is one of the most adapted stories in history, serving as the basis for numerous television specials, films, books, podcasts, even video games. Wikipedia alone lists almost 400 adaptations.
As a result, Dickens’s tale has entered the popular imagination and cultural landscape, even being credited with popularising the “Merry Christmas” greeting. Being an overtly moral tale, its endurance perhaps suggests our appetite for morally educative stories. Indeed, narrative is an important way in which moral codes are transmitted and by which readers can imaginatively encounter moral situations beyond those experienced in their everyday lives.
So, what are those virtues that ‘A Christmas Carol’ espouses and explores? Amongst the virtues explicitly mentioned are charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, common welfare, reason, care, courage, service, and humility.
Yet rather than specify one virtue on which to deliberate, Dickens instead offers us a tale that more holistically looks at their absence in a particular character, Ebenezer Scrooge. He also examines their practice at a particular time, Christmas, through a tale of atonement, redemption, and, ultimately, character transformation.
When Scrooge’s nephew Fred visits his uncle’s counting-house, he articulates what Dickens calls his ‘Carol Philosophy’:
“the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
For Dickens, the particular attributes of Christmas as a time of generosity and community act as the perfect virtue-rich backdrop against which human character can be scrutinised.
‘A Christmas Carol’ in the Classroom
Whilst a staple of Christmas tv listings, the text has, until relatively recently, been curiously absent from classroom syllabi. Its recent addition to one GCSE curriculum warranted its inclusion by stating that the text “offers choice to meet a diverse range of learners’ needs and interests” (OCR, GCSE, 2020). Particularly inviting to character educators is the syllabus’s references to exploring the notions of goodness, unity, collaboration, and common humanity.
As the associated resources demonstrate, discussion of the text in an English Literature classroom can lucratively incorporate literary analysis and character education approaches in several ways.
Dickens is, to a certain extent, putting his stylistic tricks in the service of morality. The text feels particularly philosophical in its form and content, that is, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is not simply philosophical in subject matter but also in its treatment. Virtues are both embodied in its characters and the matter on which characters debate issues like morality, immortality, and the good.
At its heart, Dickens’s text is populated with memorable characters that to some extent exemplify this Carol Philosophy. E.M. Forster’s description of ‘flat characters’ is often applied to Dickens, in the accusations of his preference for caricature over character that are levelled at him. But in a tale like this one, caricature is a particularly effective conceit. Caricatures allow for a particular characteristic to take focus and make comparison with other characters more direct. Juxtaposed characters are particularly useful in moral discourse, establishing as they do dilemmas, debates, and contrastive role models; something Dickens inherits from the literature of the Everyman medieval morality play.
In this vein, many critics find his characterisation of Tiny Tim as being too morally good, too sentimental, and ultimately unbelievable. What such stark characterisation and juxtaposition does however is position the text as an explicitly moral text. Dickens, often attacked for caricature, here at least endows such caricature with the moral import of exemplars. This ‘moral style’ extends through characterisation, as the text exploits the essential narrative ingredient of character development to explore the capacity in all of us to change.
Even Dickens’s narratorial voice underpins this moral trajectory. A curious feature of the text is its use of a first-person narrator. Dickens’s own editorial correspondence suggests his preference that narrators not intrude on the narrative, and this might indicate the reason the narrator disappears and reappears infrequently throughout the text. Unlike the first-person narrator who similarly goes missing in action in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), here reappearances are suggestive of the personal and immediate (even moral) compact that Dickens seeks to establish with his readers – most evident in his numerous public readings of the tale. He does, after all, begin the tale by positioning himself as friend and servant.
It is also worth remembering that Dickens frames ‘A Christmas Carol’ as a ghost story: from the off, Dickens is warning us that things are not as they seem. We are in the territory of shapeshifting and the spiritual. As that ground shifts, the effect is partly disconcerting, partly exciting. But this is not simply stylistic flourish or indulgence, but core to the educative purpose of the story. Aristotle claims fear as a literary conceit in his Poetics, instrumental in the positive social role that literature can have. The text demonstrates the power of fear in that it induces in Scrooge the virtue of humility and, falling to his knees, his plea for mercy. It is ultimately Scrooge’s fear of the consequences of his actions that induce his reformation of character.
Furthermore, the text is rich with imagery that uses symbols drawn from moral discourse, such as light and dark, warmth and coldness, that exemplify how Dickens masterfully turns his Christmas setting to its moral ends. Even the extended metaphors relating to transactions and derivatives, firstly referring to the earthly, secondly the spiritual, establish a schema of balancing and debt that ultimately underpin the narrative development of a text in which our protagonist is to be held to account.
Owing to the GCSE focus on presentational style, consideration of these stylistic elements is critical to the text’s exploration in the classroom. However, because ‘A Christmas Carol’ has an overtly moral message, its use in the classroom to explore virtue is not merely a matter of efficient melding of character and literature education. Rather, its treatment of these central facets of humanity renders the consideration of character and morality essential.