'A Christmas Carol' & its legacy
Lillian Nayder chairs the English department at Bates College in Lewistown, Maine, and is the outgoing president of The Dickens Society. The organization supports research and writing on Charles Dickens, the 19th-century English writer and social critic.
Nayder spoke to the Trib regarding the enduring nature of one of Dickens' classic works, “A Christmas Carol.”
Q: What was Dickens' inspiration for the book?
A: There was a kind of political origin to “A Christmas Carol.” In 1843, there had been a Parliamentary report on child labor involving the mining industry. Dickens thought he would write a political pamphlet in which he helped to expose the horrors of the situation with child labor, but then he changed his mind and decided he was going to write a story. I think he said he would be 20,000 times more effective if he were to try to convey this message by means of his own fiction rather than just another political document.
Q: Was the book initially very popular?
A: Dickens was always looking for money, because by 1843 he had four or five children, a staff of four or five servants and he had just taken in his 15-year-old sister-in-law. So money was an issue for him to maintain his standard of living. He had thought he would make a lot of money with “A Christmas Carol,” but ultimately he was disappointed by the sales figures. It was an expensive publication the way it was produced, and I think the first year he made something like 200-some pounds. He had been hoping that it would prove a lot more profitable, but it did help him to spread his fame and literary reputation.
Q: How does “A Christmas Carol” measure up to some of Dickens' more comprehensive works that touch on similar themes, such as “Oliver Twist” or “David Copperfield”?
A: It's a wonderful work and I wouldn't want to disparage it, (but) it's not something that I would pick as Dickens' greatest. It has a tremendous amount of appeal (but) his longer novels are such artistic triumphs with such a kind of rich complexity that it's kind of hard to compare them (to “A Christmas Carol”).
Q: What is the book's ultimate legacy?
A: I think the ultimate legacy has to do with the power of transformation and the power of individual charity. It's the story of Scrooge learning to become charitable. That's both the great thing about the story and the problematic thing about it, because Dickens originally was going to write a political pamphlet that presumably would have advocated political reform. Instead, he writes this story where he is advocating for individual charity, which is really quite different.
Q: While the story has a happy ending, it's not a cheerful holiday tale. To what do you attribute its enduring popularity?
A: I think for one thing, the idea of transformation is so appealing. I think it's really powerful for us because we love the thought that someone could be transformed like that overnight for the good. I also think some of the appeal has to do with the sentimentality of the story, the interesting interplay of the three ghosts and the way we think about our past and our future possibilities. That whole nexus of past, present and future is a really interesting and compelling one that has a tremendous amount of appeal.
Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or firstname.lastname@example.org).