The Charles Dickens Prize is a competition available to Victorian secondary school students aged 15-17 years, and is awarded annually by the Melbourne Dickens Fellowship. This year, Thrisha Srinivasan (Y10) was commended with second place in the essay category, for the following entry.
Topic: Despite the hardship and grim settings present in Dickens’s writing, hope is always to be found.
Set in London, England during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, A Christmas Carol is a didactic social commentary against the stratification of society in the Victorian era. Dickens transcends the exterior sentimental portraits of the lower-class members of the social hierarchy by exploring the foundations of the issue and presenting a critique on the Poor Laws and administration of workhouses. Despite the inclusion of the predicaments of England’s destitute who are governed by the Poor Laws, the presence of tragic figures suffering from chronic conditions and the inclusion of a mercenary protagonist who establishes the idea that parsimony in individuals leads to self-destruction, the novella emphasises the concept of redemption and hope in all individuals. This is portrayed through the cathartic self-redemption of characters, the metaphorical representation of Jesus who embodies the spirit of community and the Christmas spirit of love, generosity and forgiveness.
The cathartic redemption of Scrooge from an insensitive, embittered and egoistic miser to an enlightened and socially conscious human being evinces that despite the flawed social configuration of the 1840s society and the ignorant members of it, the individual redemption of all human beings can eliminate the injustice posed upon the lower social classes and evoke a spark of optimism in the lives of the destitute. The Ghost of the Christmas Yet to Come, the phantom that interjects a strict Christian perspective into the secularised novella, represents the apprehension of death and suggests the idea of Scrooge’s eternal damnation to Purgatory if he fails to redeem himself. While this phantom is a personification of “gloom and mystery” and shows Scrooge his neglected and derelict grave, it denotes the unremitting passage of time, thus manifesting that it is merely the individual redemption of human beings that can avert destiny. Scrooge “fear[s]” the spectre “more than any spectre [he] has seen”, however, it is the metaphorical allusion to death and represents the inevitable dispensation of humankind to punishment, thus ensuring his reversion into an enlightened and compassionate human being. Scrooge, a man “as solitary as an oyster” and devoid of benevolence and spirit, redeems himself to become “as good a friend, as good a master and as good a man as the good old City knew”, establishing the notion that however materialistic, shallow and grim society may be, it is the spiritual transformation and present actions of every individual that can change the future.
The highly-sentimentalised figure of Tiny Tim places an emphasis on the tribulations of the lower classes in the Victorian era and is an embodiment of the spirit of community that is devoid in Scrooge’s life. While this figure elicits a sense of sympathy as his life is contingent on Scrooge’s redemption and he is a representation of the poverty and destitution that plagued the lower classes, his optimism and vision for the future serves as a catalyst for Scrooge’s reformation. Dickens incorporates this figure to exemplify the explicit disparity between the classes in the Victorian Era and to propose the necessity for decreasing the distance between members of the English social strata. Being an allegorical representation of optimism, benevolence and the Christmas ideal of “men and women open[ing] up their shut-up hearts freely”, he serves as an incentive in Scrooge’s transformation which is displayed through his last words in the novella; “God bless us, everyone” and through his figurative adoption to become a “second father” to him.
While Tiny Tim is a representation of the financially-downtrodden in society, he signifies the value of interdependency amongst humans, the significance of family and community and the importance of “liv[ing] in the past, present and future”. Dickens’ criticism of the entrenched notion of class division and insensitive members of the upper-class is further extrapolated through the “wretched, abject and [frightful] children, Ignorance and Want, who are symbolic of the disorder, decay and human misery of an industrialist society. While the highly-sentimentalised portraits of the characters who represent the predicaments of the destitute places the novel on a grim setting, the valour and selflessness that Tiny Tim demonstrates in opposition to his illness surpasses this.
The Christmas ideals of benevolence, communal spirit, nostalgia, prosperous celebration and sharing of spiritual, emotional and monetary wealth are shown to have precedence over the cold and desolation in Scrooge’s household. Initially, Scrooge’s “melancholy” counting house with an empty hearth that merely emanates “the least sensation of warmth”, expresses his lack of connection and serves as an opposition to the benevolence, positive ambience and spirit of Christmas that is brought into the novella through his nephew, Fred. Being the representation of the potential in all individuals to spread emotional and spiritual riches, he states that Scrooge “loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts”, thus serving as a bridge between Scrooge’s counting-house and the rest of society. His mere presence in the counting-house and his Christmas spirit, “though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in [his] pocket”, is shown to counteract Scrooge’s state of seclusion. While the religious aspects of Christmas are conveyed through Jacob Marley as his damnation to Purgatory and him expiating his sins has a strong undertone of Christianity and the doctrine, The Ghost of the Christmas Present, the resemblance of Father Christmas and fundamental symbol of the Christmas ideals, provokes an ambience of merriment, sufficiency and prosperity, suggesting that Christmas, rather than a solemn religious day, is a joyous holiday that spreads a sense of hope amongst society. Further extrapolating this, Dickens’ use of five staves instead of chapters is a metaphorical allusion for the Christmas tradition of carols, thus expressing the Christmas spirit of love, generosity and universal hope.
Dickens’ social critique and Christmas parable presents that hope is always to be found in all individuals and in society. Despite the incorporation of the plights of England’s destitute and the presence of tragic and sentimentalised figures, Dickens accentuates and significantly emphasises the concept of hope through the self-redemption of characters, the embodiment of the spirit of community and the Christmas tradition.