The poor will always be with us, but it is not easy being poor. It is less easy still when you have no means—legal, educational or material—to escape poverty, which is the condition of so many children who live in poverty around the world, untold millions of them. Charles Dickens knew this well, writing with thoroughly developed sympathies for the belittled poor in Oliver Twist (1838), the book that established his renown at the age of 25.
Dickens expanded on his vision when he read a parliamentary report on child labor in British factories—a subject he knew something about; he was made to labor in a factory when he was just 12, his father having been sent to debtors’ prison. Appalled, Dickens wrote to a member of the commission that had issued the report and announced his plan to write a factual study on the subject. The book that resulted, after a six-week burst of writing, was not his planned study but the novella A Christmas Carol, published in December 1843. Its view of the lives of the urban poor is horrifying, its politics an anticipation of Karl Marx, Jacob Riis and other reformers, its tone one of seething indignation—and Dickens makes no secret of where his sympathies lie.
Consider the moment when the Ghost of Christmas Present throws back into Ebenezer Scrooge’s face his mean-spirited declaration that the poor ought to take themselves off to die in order to decrease the surplus population of crowded London. The Ghost responds bitterly, pointing to the disabled Tiny Tim Cratchit: “Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? 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. Oh God! to hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
It takes time and haunting, but Scrooge—“a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner”—is eventually turned to the good and begins to share his wealth. It is not an easy turn: Scrooge has to be shocked into doing the right thing, for, as recent studies tell us, the rich are well-supplied with things but, as a class, are notably deficient in matters of the soul.
A Christmas Carol remains a standard of the season but usually now in the form of film. The movies that have been made of it have denatured Dickens’ book, in which Scrooge becomes a mere curmudgeon easily transformed. Even one of its best adaptations, Brian Desmond Hurst’s Scrooge (1951), gives its hardhearted namesake a flicker of humanity that Dickens’ text does not really support.
A faithful film version would be a welcome, and surely interesting, project. It would necessarily be rated as too scary for children—and for most adults, too. Give Dickens’ little book a read, or a reread, this season, and you may find that a holiday staple takes on new shades of meaning.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.