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Dickens and the Fading Spirit of Giving

Every year around Christmas, we are bombarded with the television networks’ entreaties to be sure and watch this or that movie or special that has become a part of the American Christmas tradition: It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Miracle on 34th Street, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, and, of course, A Christmas Carol in its many incarnations. As a matter of fact, it seems many of Charles Dickens’s stories have woven themselves into the fabric of our collective memories of Christmas. One of the towns in the area where I grew up turns their downtown into a Dickens village each December. The giftware company Dept. 56 has a Dickens Village line featuring many of the locations named in Dickens’s works. My alma mater includes an annual performance of A Christmas Carol during its fall theater season.

In the past, I have also seen television stations play movies based not only on A Christmas Carol, but on other Dickens works. One December, a station close to me broadcast BBC television productions of The Old Curiosity Shoppe, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield. I will admit that I adore them. I love the characters, the names, the period costume, and the twists and turns in each storyline. I want to see how each story ends. And I know that not everyone’s ending will be a happy ending.

What else is it about Dickens that speaks to so many people this time of year? Perhaps it’s one of the messages he tried to get across in A Christmas Carol. In one night, Ebenezer Scrooge transitioned from a miserly, cold-hearted old man into a charitable, giving, compassionate man. The three spirits enabled him to see how the things that had happened in his life had affected him, but how his own actions affected others in turn. He was forced to see how other people lived, mainly other people who had no money, no home, no food, nothing. Once his eyes were opened, he realized how cruel and greedy he had been, and he immediately began to try and make up for it. Accumulating more and more wealth at the expense of others did not make him a good or a happy person, and at the end of the novel, once changed, we see a much happier Ebenezer Scrooge.

In the United States, we are reminded of those who are not as fortunate as we are this time of year in particular as well. We are urged to give to food banks, to donate to organizations like the Salvation Army and Goodfellas, and many of us do, even if we are struggling ourselves. We want people to be taken care of at that time of year and to not go without the things that they need. But this doesn’t mean that this need goes away for the rest of the year, and many of us understand that and try to do what we can to help out. This past year, though, some were not as willing to give or help out as they ought to be.

But getting back to Dickens. Charles Dickens knew both plenty and poverty. His father fell into financial difficulties and could not pay his creditors, and so he was held in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Twelve-year-old Charles himself was forced to leave school and to work in a boot-blacking factory so he could pay rent and help support the rest of his family.. He worked ten-hour days in deplorable conditions, pasting labels onto containers of bootblack. He earned six shillings a week. He later used this experience to write about the title character’s experience in a factory, such as in David Copperfield. David was boarding with the Micawbers, who were themselves in dire straits financially, but who were always kind to David.

Dickens’s novels brought the reality of poverty to the public’s attention, and they sparked reforms to improve conditions. It is amazing how one man’s books can inspire so much compassion and so much action on behalf of those whom some in society may not deem to be worthy of such things.

This past Christmas, though, I found that there are many who are not so compassionate. We are just coming out of one of the worst financial catastrophes we have ever seen, and as an economy, we remain in a very fragile state. There are many people who cannot find gainful employment and who must rely upon government assistance to survive. The number of children living in poverty is up. C.E.O. salaries have increased, while the salaries of the average worker have not. Prices have gone up for necessities such as food and clothing, so this means that many people are using more of their incomes simply to provide themselves with the things they need just so they can keep their heads above water.

President Obama and Democrats had long been calling for a tax increase on millionaires to help reduce the deficit while still being able to provide assistance to those who need it. They also called for a payroll tax cut so that working families are better able to provide for themselves.

However, Republicans refused to even consider a tax hike on those who are clearly not struggling financially. Instead, they called for drastic cuts to be made to federal spending, particularly on entitlements, which many people are relying on right now for assistance. They were even willing to let the payroll tax cut expire so that millionaires do not have to pay higher taxes. They would rather let the struggling middle and working classes shoulder most of the tax burden, making it even more difficult for them to survive. And in their eyes, those who are poor are worth nothing, so they should really get nothing, but giving them hardly anything will suffice just as well.

These Republicans are the same people who claim to be good, devout Christians who follow the Bible to the letter. That also means that they should show compassion for the poor. Instead, like Ebenezer Scrooge, they show none. They wish to hoard all of the wealth and let everyone else starve. Clearly if someone is poor, they aren’t doing something correctly, or they are simply too lazy, or their poverty is a direct consequence of the poor choices they made. They should simply live with the consequences of these decisions and find some way to pull themselves out of the rut they are in by their boot straps.

But what if someone is simply unlucky?

Just because someone falls into poverty, it does not make him or her a bad person. Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield showed a willingness to work, but an inability to manage his money effectively, and as a result, he and his family fell into destitution. Really, all he needed was a chance. But he and his family were still relatively good people. He was kind to young David Copperfield when he needed it most. And Micawber was a good and honest man who refused to assist the greedy, dishonest Uriah Heep in fully taking over the Wickfield business through blackmail. Instead, Micawber exposes Heep for the covetous, amoral man that he was. Though he had been unlucky in life, he remained true to his principles. He was given a chance to aid Heep, but instead he did what he knew was right. And this was when his luck began to change. He eventually moved to Australia and became manager of a port and a government magistrate. He was given an opportunity, and that was all he needed to turn his life around.

So what does Dickens have to do with the spirit of giving at Christmas? Dickens urges his readers to have not disdain, but compassion for the poor, not only at Christmas, but each and every day. Wealth doesn’t determine who is and who isn’t a good person, and sometimes, bad things happen to good people. And those who are good people do the best they can to help out those who are less fortunate than they are.

7 replies on “Dickens and the Fading Spirit of Giving”

I can’t remember whether this appears in the original novel (and I don’t have it handy), but I remember this phrase from the 1951 Alistair Sim version of a Christmas Carol:

[The Spirit of Christmas Present addresses Scrooge] Mortal! We Spirits of Christmas do not live only one day of our year. We live the whole three-hundred and sixty-five. So is it true of the Child born in Bethlehem. He does not live in men’s hearts one day of the year, but in all days of the year. You have chosen not to seek Him in your heart. Therefore, you will come with me and seek Him in the hearts of men of good will.

Also (and this is certainly from the book):

“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.” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

Aspects of Christianity, aside, I agree, that Dickens was urging his readers to make compassion and  charity a key tenent of their lives.

I think as individuals, people are very charitable.  We see wonderful examples of it not only on Christmas, but year round.

 

My point was that in a time when there are still so many people in need, and when there are so few who could spare some of the copious amounts of money they earn but who don’t want to, that is a problem.  My point was that there is nothing wrong with being well off and successful and enjoying the labors of hard work.  However, there is a big difference between that and simply being greedy, which I saw much of during those debates at that time.  When you have people like Warren Buffett who have done quite well for themselves but who understand the difference between enjoying those rewards and being greedy, and lawmakers are representing the greedy people at a time when you’re not supposed to be greedy, then that is a huge problem.  And that was why I wrote this piece.

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