Well, it’s time for me to pay up.
Last time I said I would talk about someone who wrote two books trying to influence people and one worked better than the other. Actually this author wrote more than just two books, but here I’m going to talk about two specific ones: The Christmas Carol and The Chimes by Charles Dickens.
Dickens was many things – a journalist, a novelist, a child forced to work in a shoe factory – but he was particularly a social critic. He knew he lived in a society with many problems, which saw poor people as “at best a superfluous nuisance and at worst ‘born bad, naturally vicious and depraved’” (Slater 138). And he refused to be satisfied with just talking about those issues.
The Christmas Carol is so well-known, I don’t think I have to repeat its plot. Instead, let’s concentrate on something you may not have noticed about the book.
Scrooge has lots of cash, but when two men come to his office asking for a charity donation he asks if the poorhouses, prisons and labor laws have been repealed. In other words, he doesn’t think the poor need extra help, the existing services are doing just fine.He adds, “I do not make myself merry at Christmas, and I cannot afford to make idle people merry” (Dickens 7). This is the basic attitude many rich people had towards the poor in Victorian England – they were lazy and just needed to work harder or go to a workhouse (which were, maybe, slightly nicer than POW camps).
So Scrooge is your typical upper-class Victorian, until he gets the visitation from Marley. When Scrooge protests that Marley was good man, Marley replies, “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” (Dickens 17).
This is the first of several times where the supernatural characters convict Scrooge for not caring for other people. The Ghost of Christmas Present throws his own words about surplus population back at him when he asks if Tiny Tim will live. And then adds, “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” (Dickens 49).
This is all social commentary. Dickens is challenging the way middle and upper-class Victorians saw poor people and suggesting maybe they weren’t as worthless as they thought. He was trying to influence them to help the unfortunate.
Let’s contrast that with Dickens’ next book, which came out after The Christmas Carol, in 1844. It’s full title is The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In and I’m guessing none of you have read it, so I’ll give a summary.
It’s New Year’s Eve in London and Toby Veck, a ticket porter (sort of a Victorian UPS man) is standing outside a church, waiting for anyone to hire him to carry a message. He thinks aloud about all the terrible stories about poor people committing crimes that he reads in the newspapers, and he wonders if maybe working class people are just naturally evil. “We seem to be dreadful things,” Toby says to himself, “we seem to give a deal of trouble, we are always being complained of and guarded against” (Dickens, Slater 8).
His daughter Meg and her fiancée Richard come by and surprise him with hot food and the news they plan to marry the next day. They’ve been waiting because they don’t have money, but they’re realized their situation’s not going to change so they might as will get married now.
But then three wealthy men – an Alderman, a financial expert and a young gentleman – pass by them and inform them that because they are poor they have no right to get married, and Toby has no right to eat the hot supper he is being given. In fact, they have no right to live in the first place.
This discourages Toby, but then the Alderman hires him to carry a message to a politician who decides to imprison a man named Will Fern who’s been accused of vagrancy. Toby bumps into Will Fern and his niece Lillian as he walks home, and invites them to stay with him. It turns out Will Fern hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s just trying to get by and no one will let him.
Toby goes to bed, but the church’s bells ring and seem to call him. He goes up to the church tower and is confronted by goblins who live in the bells, who rebuke him for losing faith in humanity.
They show Toby what would happen if he fell from the tower and died right now, and the future nine years afterward: his family is in ruins – Richard’s a drunk, Meg married him to try and save him but it isn’t working. Will Fern is in jail for petty reasons, and his niece Lillian takes up prostitution to support herself. Richard dies, Meg considers drowning herself and her young child, Toby reaches out to stop her just in time. He wakes up, discovers it was all a dream and is incredibly happy that there is still hope for poor people.
You’ve probably noticed that The Chimes is a lot more overt about its message than The Christmas Carol. Dickens was purposefully trying to throw everything he could at readers, “to strike the heaviest blow in his power on behalf of the poor and oppressed of early Victorian England” (Slater 138).
And it worked. Sort of.
When The Chimes came out in 1844 people either loved it or hated, there were 5 stage adaptations just in the first few weeks (Slater 139). Someone even wrote an anti-Chimes book titled Old Jolliffe: Not A Goblin Story (139).
But no one remembers it today. No movie adaptation, no contemporary stage version, you can only find it if you’re looking for public domain Charles Dickens books or you buy a “Charles Dickens Collected Christmas Classics” (I found it in Charles Dickens: The Christmas Books Vol. 1, also where I found all this information).
The Christmas Carol, on the other hand, went on to become a timeless classic. It still sells well, in various editions, and has been adapted into so many plays and movies we can’t count them all. Scrooge and his trademark lines “Bah! Humbug!” have become catchphrases in American culture.
The reason The Christmas Carol works so much better is because it isn’t just a social commentary. The Chimes was only a social commentary, highly relevant in 1844 but it doesn’t a particularly good story that keeps people coming back to it again and again (unless you’re a hardcore Dickens fan or a Victorian history nut). The Carol on the other hand, has a story of redemption as well as commentary. Scrooge has a back story, a sad tale about how he became who is and now he has one last chance to redeem himself. It’s a journey for one man to find his soul again.
Toby Veck, on the other hand, is just not complex and interesting enough to be a great character. Really his whole character arc – sad man who loses hope and then supernatural forces show him what life would be like if he was dead – was done later and better by other writers.
Take that one movie with Jimmie Stewart in it, for example…
Anyone can try to influence people with stories, but it the stories need to be good if people are going to re-read and remember them. The Christmas Carol works so well as an influential story because it has a good story to complement the message it’s trying to pass on to the audience. The Chimes was supposed to influence people and for a little blip of time it worked, but the story wasn’t good enough to make a lasting impact.
Dickens, Charles (editor Michael Slater). Charles Dickens: The Christmas Books, Vol. 1. 1985 by Penguin Books: New York, NY. Penguin Books USA, Inc.
Dickens, Charles. The Works of Charles Dickens, Vol. III. 1868 by Books, Inc.: NY, Boston.
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