A Christmas Carol (Dickens) | Fantasy Literature for Activists #3

By Shelley Harrison

Regarding This Series

[spoiler alert:  the following article reveals some plot details from A Christmas Carol]

The present article marks the third installment of the “Mythology and Fantasy Literature for Activists” series exploring the potential value of mythology and fantasy literature for activists.  Examining such literature may yield insights that reading history alone may not readily provide, particularly when one faces a challenge that, as far as the historical record goes, has never been overcome.  Since animal emancipationists face just such a challenge, this potential value is, in the present author’s view, worth exploring.

The first article provided an example of a possible gleaning from Tolkien’s mythology-rich universe in which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are set.  The second article considered a possible gleaning from Richard Adams’ Watership Down.  The present article continues to explore fantasy and mythology as a source of insights and inspiration for activists by means of another example.

A Cultural Landmark

800px-Marley's_Ghost-John_Leech_1843
Marley’s ghost, from Charles DickensA Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition (public domain).

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published on this day, December 17, in 1843.  This novella displays the faculties[1] that made Dickens the most popular English-language writer of his era and one of the most beloved writers of any era[2]—arguably the first modern pop star[3]:  genuine comedic genius,[4] sweeping feats of imagination,[5] heart-wrenching pathos,[6] technical dexterity,[7] audience awareness,[8] and social criticism,[9] mainly through vivid character portrayal and scene depiction rather than direct narrator commentary or proselytizing.  Dickens’ influence generally on the publishing industry, on other authors, and on the literary forms he employed was vast.  The specific impact of A Christmas Carol[10] on the holiday of Christmas itself as it is celebrated today, on creators working on Christmas-related themes, and on Christmas literature has been similarly vast.[11]

The story of A Christmas Carol has been presented, re-made, copied, and imitated in so many forms—text, cartoon, stage, film, television—that it and its progeny serve as perennial landmarks of the modern Christmas tradition.  The essential event and theme Dickens permanently installed into this tradition—personal transformation and redemption as a result of new insight—has many features to which vegans can relate, and revisiting this story can serve to prompt reflections on and new insights regarding one’s life choices for modern activists just as it has for several generations of other readers and viewers over the last 150 years.

Envisioning a Vegan Alternative

The first two installments of the present series—serial publication is itself one of the many writing and publishing forms on which Dickens had a lasting impact—approached their respective subject matter under the allegorical or analogical prong of vegan literary criticism.  In light of the enduring and broad tradition of presenting the plot, theme, and literary devices of A Christmas Carol in a new context or new light, the present subject matter begs to be treated under the alternate-version prong.  Per this approach, the story of A Christmas Carol readily lends itself to being “veganized” so as to read directly on the experience of a lifelong necrovore who—prompted by sudden insight—undergoes a fundamental, personal transformation and subsequent (at least partial) redemption.  Readers familiar with the original story will recognize a certain familiarity in the following events, A Cruelty-Free Christmas Carol:

Ebenezer Scrooge, hunched over his desk at the office of Scrooge & Marley on Christmas Eve, is visited by two activists raising money for an animal sanctuary.  Scrooge asks, “Are there no zoos?  Are there no dairy farms?”  The activists depart in dismay.

Scrooge’s nephew enters moments later to invite Scrooge to the nephew’s house to enjoy a fine cruelty-free Christmas day and meal with the nephew’s fun, happy friends the next day.  “Bah, humbug!” is Scrooge’s reply.

That night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley.  Marley’s miserable ghost drags very long chains behind him in despair.  Attached to the chains are hundreds of dead bodies:  corpses of cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and other victims of Marley’s egocentrism in life.  Marley conveys to Scrooge that Scrooge’s chain was as long as Marley’s when Marley died seven years prior, and Scrooge has been lengthening Scrooge’s own chain ever since through necrovory, wearing of dead body parts, paying people to rape and kill on his behalf, and otherwise turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. “But you were always a good man of business,” Scrooge attempts to protest.  “Business!  The world was my business!  The common welfare was my business!  Charity, mercy, and benevolence were my business!  Life—all living things—were my business!,” replies Marley.

Scrooge is then visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Heaped up on the floor to form a kind of throne for the ghost are apples, potatoes, melons, nuts, bananas, berries, beans, barrels of greens, plum-puddings, juicy oranges, immense loaves of bread, luscious pears, and seething bowls of punch, which made the chamber dim with delicious steam.  Scrooge and the ghost go, invisibly, to the places of Scrooge’s youth.  Scrooge is moved to tears by seeing long-forgotten parts of his past—and of his heart.  One such location is that of the magnanimous Fezziwig’s annual Christmas party, a bounteous, joyful event to which all are invited and for which no one had to die.  Filled with sadness, regret, and longing for lost opportunities, Scrooge must also witness the departure of his first love, an ethosexual[12] who knew that Scrooge’s loss of compassion and empathy—replaced by a new overarching value, profit—meant an end to their relationship.

Scrooge is then visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Through this ghost, Scrooge sees the loving environment in which families—even poor ones, such as that of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchitt—enjoy fun, memorable, meaningful, exploitation-free Christmas activities.  (That joy doesn’t stop Bob’s wife from bitterly denouncing Scrooge and his miserliness, however.)  Scrooge falls in love upon seeing Bob’s beautiful, gentle cat, Tiny Tim, who needs veterinary care that Bob can’t afford.  Meanwhile, at Scrooge’s nephew’s event, the party-goers make fun of Scrooge’s mindless consumerism and exploitative habits as well as the resulting emotional poverty in which Scrooge lives his life.  Before the ghost departs, two cruel, violent children crawl out from under the host’s robe:  Ignorance and Apathy.[13]  The ghost asks Scrooge, “Are there no zoos?  Are there no dairy farms?”

Finally, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future.  This unspeaking ghost shows scenes of Scrooge’s friendless death; no one cares that this oppressive, soul-withered miser is gone—except to the degree that they can get some payback out of his estate.  Scrooge also must bear the sight of some of the results of his heartless treatment of others, including the torture, mutilation, and slaughter of those animals who were unable to be rehomed in an animal sanctuary and the death of Tiny Tim, before the ghost departs.

Broken by these visions, Scrooge opens the window to look out upon a glorious Christmas morning.  Amazed to discover that the spirits have done all their work in a single night, he is giddy with glee at the chance to begin a new life.  Scrooge exuberantly vows to keep Christmas in his heart all year long, for all who live, for all the days of his life.  He hails a boy to buy the family-sized Christmas meal package from a local vegan grocery store, which Scrooge sends to Bob Cratchitt.  Scrooge then joins his nephew and friends for a fine, fully vegan Christmas meal.  Scrooge goes on to be true to his word, becoming like a third parent to Tiny Tim and funding animal rights organizations around London and around the world to his very last penny and his very last day.  He becomes as good a friend and as good a man as the good old city or any other city in the good old world knew.  Some people laugh at the alteration in his personality, but he lets them laugh, for he knows that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset.

Redemption:  It’s Our Story, Too

Stories of redemption and personal transformation are powerful, indeed.  They move us because we all know the need to be redeemed for our own prior acts of selfishness, ignorance, and apathy.  Many vegans in particular, once the lights have come on, are grief-stricken upon recognizing the hundreds or thousands of lives that they destroyed prior to going vegan.  Even after one has made the switch, those Marley-esque chains can haunt a person every day, as the present author knows first-hand.

Yet the joy of embracing a profoundly transformed and elevated relationship to one’s fellow creatures—or re-connecting with the innate empathy with all living creatures we once felt but lost, somehow, along the way—is quite palpably similar to the joy of Scrooge at his own change of heart.  Like the ever-relevant, ever-contemporary protagonist of Dickens’ perennial tale, the transformed individual cannot wait to move forward with the new and cannot fathom turning back toward the old.

Meanwhile, for non-vegans, Scrooge offers a glimpse into the ultimate opportunity:  as long as we live, it’s never too late to make a different choice.  To re-connect to a long-lost part of ourselves.  To know—with our minds and with our hearts—the suffering of others and to stand with them in the face of such suffering.   To acknowledge the sameness of our fate.  To greet a new and brighter day with unbounded gratitude, appreciation, hope, and perhaps a bit of joy.  To change.

This third installment of the present series has attempted to provide another example of the potential value of fantasy, mythology, and imaginative literature for activists and to begin establishing a body of vegan literary theory and criticism.  Other examples will be explored in future articles.

Notes

[1]    “No nineteenth-century novelist, not even Tolstoy, was stronger than Dickens, whose wealth of invention almost rivals Chaucer and Shakespeare.”  Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (Harcourt Brace, 1994).

[2]    “[T]here was not an English-speaking household in the world… where his name was not as familiar as that of any personal acquaintance.”  Claire Tomalin, quoting George Gissing, Charles Dickens (Penguin, 2011).

[3]    At that time, the mass media and mechanical means of mass reproduction of works of authorship that we take for granted today had not yet come into existence.  No sound recordings, no photography, no film or television, no websites, no computer-generated animations, and so on.  Print was just about the only mass medium available.  Serial publication—a written story that appeared, in print, one chapter at a time in successive issues of a weekly or monthly issue of a journal—was the “television” of this era, with each installment being essentially an “episode” of that “TV” series.  Similarly, novels were the “movies” or “feature films” of that era.  Poetry—in print—and sheet music were the closest analog to the pop songs we hear on the radio or purchase in CD or downloadable form today.  Against such a backdrop, writers enjoyed a level of preeminence, celebrity, and centrality unique to that era.  And Dickens—whose popular success in serial publication and novels made him the equivalent of both a television giant and a film giant—became an international celebrity who, in the words of modern writers, was “like a modern rock star….  the most famous writer in the world.”  Simon Watts, “When Charles Dickens fell out with America,” BBC Magazine (2012).

[4]    Even en route to a negative conclusion about Dickens, Henry James concedes that “humor… exhaled from every line” of the early work of this “great humorist.”  Henry James, Nation (1865).

[5]    “[H]is imagination [was] the winged horse Pegasus.”  Robert Garnett, Charles Dickens in Love (Pegasus, 2012).  Henry James considers “the fantastic [to have] been [Dickens’] great resource… [which] accomplished great things….  [F]igures or creatures of pure fancy… [were Dickens’] poetry…. [which held] a peculiar beauty or power.” James, Nation.  Dickens had a “remarkable ability to render realistically what many adults condescendingly call ‘fantasy.’”  Charles Dickens, “Introduction,” John Irving (Random House 1995) (emphasis in original).

[6]    Dickens is routinely censured for being excessively sentimental, melodramatic, sappy, overdone in his use of pathos and for creating larger-than-life characters, which border on archetypes.  The present author strenuously disagrees.  Such criticsism does not properly account for Dickens’ brilliant awareness of and sensitivity to his intended audience (see note below); his full-knowing intent to write for a particular effect; and other aspects of his genius for which his approach was a finely crafted vehicle.  See following note.

[7]    Technical mastery and fluid, puppeteer-like command of literary devices tend to get overshadowed by the other features of Dickens’ work.  Indeed, a hallmark of such mastery is that it doesn’t call attention to itself; the words on the page appear to have been inevitable, accidental, timeless, not the product of a particular mind at a particular moment in time; the work appears to be but a spontaneous, immediate conversation-in-progress with a great story-teller recounting great events, not a deliberate act of labor.  A Christmas Carol, upon inspection, moves seamlessly through devices that serve to paint a scene—the present author finds the image of a house that ran away “when it was a young house, playing hide-and-seek with other houses,” and got lost to be delightful; to reveal something about the characters (e.g., Scrooge never painted out Marley’s name); or merely to set a tone that connects with the audience, such as the comically over-pursued “dead as a doornail” digression that begins almost immediately after the story itself begins.  The present author agrees that A Christmas Carol has been “elevat[ed] to cultural fable… [because of its] perfect blending of well-wrought theme with well-wrought form….  [It is a] virtuoso blending.”  Harry Stone, Dickens and the Invisible World (Indiana U. Press, 1979).

[8]    Dickens’ popularity rests in great measure on his knowledge of and preference for his working-class audience, rather than the academic or cultural snobs whose jealousy-tinged criticism often misses the point.  He wrote—and read—his works for working people.  He considered them his best audience, saying, “[T]hey lost nothing, misinterpreted nothing, followed everything closely, laughed and cried.”  Irving, quoting Dickens.

[9]    Having experienced severe poverty and the brutal impact of an uncaring society in his youth, Dickens used the power of his pen and fame to mount a sustained criticism of 19th century industrial England throughout most of his career.  His approach of championing the oppressed’s cause through biting portrayals of characters and events had far-reaching influence both on readers and other writers.  Other writers from that era whose work contains a strong dose of social criticism through portrayal include Harriet Beecher Stowe in the U.S. and  Victor Hugo in France.  An emphasis on portrayal of “common” subjects—as opposed to, e.g., aristocrats or religious material—also grew in the visual arts during that time through the work of painters such as Jean-François Millet and Honoré Daumier.

[10]  William Makepeace Thackeray said of A Christmas Carol, “Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this?…. It seems to be a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.”  Thackery, quoted in Irving.  Thomas Carlyle is also quoted by Irving as saying Carlyle was “seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality” upon reading A Christmas Carol.

[11]  See generally, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Les Standford (Crown, 2008).  “[It] would be hard to name any other work of fiction that has [through adaptation] become so ubiquitous a part of Western popular culture….  Celebrating Christmas without some reference to A Christmas Carol seems impossible.”  Id.

[12]  An “ethosexual” is someone for whom ethical matters are supreme in a relationship.  Vegans who cannot imagine dating or marrying someone who is not vegan, for instance, are ethosexuals.

[13]  With Ignorance and Want, Dickens switches to straight allegory in the tradition of, say, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).  But Dickens has done such a masterful job of setting up the context and the timing, the switch is essentially imperceptible to a reader or viewer.