Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is often regarded as just a children’s story or reduced to a lesson in seasonal greed versus generosity. But Dickens was writing for adults in 1843, and we moderns would be wrong to limit or flatten its various meanings.
The Carol has a lot to say, for example, about marriage, parenthood, and money. The way the story unfolds tells us more than just what early Victorian England might have thought about those things; it can speak a lot to us today.
People are more important than things. While that seems obvious as a principle, it isn’t – and not just because of our current Christmas riot of consumption.
Ours being a culture in love with the quantifiable, the Carol no doubt pricks some consciences. Barbara Fried, mother of Sam Bankman-Fried of cryptocurrency crash fame, is author of Facing Up to Scarcity. The book is a philosophical exercise in trying to justify a utilitarian calculus as the way to do ethics. It maintains the basic moral problem is “scarcity” and the way it arises in individualistic capitalist societies.
A Christmas Carol challenges such visions of morality-by-accounting by asserting the primacy of spiritual goods (which do not diminish when divided) over material goods. I can’t share a pizza with three people as opposed to two without reducing everybody’s cut, but I can share love with them without everyone getting less.
Scrooge does not get that at first: his main Christmas Eve concern seems to be the going price of corn. But as the old saying reminds us, some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, which usually leads to them to adopt moral lenses that turn ethics into accounting.
Scrooge crosses that moral line when he opines the poor should die as a way of decreasing “the surplus population.” How far is that from a 2022 political candidate who justified abortion as an inflation-fighting strategy for poor women?
Consider A Christmas Carol’s treatment of marriage. In Scrooge’s day, marriage was often entered into with no small attention being paid to its economic dimensions. If you doubt that, consider that some of the main tensions in Jane Austen’s novels are between marriage out of love and marriage out of social standing.
Ebenezer ridicules his nephew, Fred, for marrying “because you fell in love.” The contrast with Scrooge’s life, we later learn, is sharp: engaged to “a dowerless girl,” Belle finally ditches him because “a golden idol” – money – “has replaced me.”
Victorian England might have emphasized security over love, but what of our day? While we may pay lip service to “finding a soul mate,” marrying a jobless Prince Charming often betrays a different class function.
The poorer and working classes – where lifestyle libertinism is fast eroding a culture of marriage – may still think of “living on love,” but our upper classes (which might espouse but themselves only dabble in marital subversion) still recognize that love also finds expression in the labors of a “good provider.”
Indeed, with men are going less and less to college, deferring work while living in their parents’ basements, and starting further behind women on an already rickety economic ladder, the fact that women are putting off marriage should not be at all surprising.
If economics plays less of a role in marriage today than in Scrooge’s day, it certainly plays a role in the calculus of parenthood. Though Scrooge is offended by the abstract poor because they raise his taxes, he at least shows a modicum of human empathy when face to face (albeit invisibly) with the crippled Tiny Tim. Now, 179 years after Dickens wrote his Carol, British courts regularly rule that some disabled children are “better off dead,” ostensibly “for their own good,” and certainly with no thought as to NHS’ budget.
Even worse, while there has been no shortage of British parents wh0 fought for the lives of their Tiny Tims, Charlie Gards, or Alfie Evanses, our opinion-making journals also feature parents publishing apologia for “wrongful life” suits, while wondering how someday they’ll explain to their preferably dead child “I should have had an abortion.”
The semantic gymnastics required to protest “able-ism” while at the same time defending a mother’s right to abort her pre-birth Down’s Syndrome child demands a flexibility more like Simone Biles than Ebenezer Scrooge.
The problem is modernity seems to lack a Ghost of Christmas Present to remind such folks about the “wicked cant” that arrogantly claims “to decide what men shall live, what men shall die. Oh God! To hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
And, on the flip side, because we have decided that “justice” demands disconnecting sexual differentiation from marriage, but also that being able to “have” a child is proof of “equality,” how soon will it be before we put a price on human reproduction: male sperm, female eggs, wombs for rent (preferably offshore, to reduce overhead)?
We might not be able to price love (Scrooge’s generation had another term for that) but baby-making parts? The folks at Planned Parenthood will discuss fees over a glass of Cabernet.
And you thought A Christmas Carol was just a children’s ghost story.
*Image: The Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech, 1843 [from the first edition of A Christmas Carol published by Chapman & Hall, London]
You may also enjoy:
Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s A Christmas Carol
Brad Miner’s A ‘Carol’ for the Ages