Thursday, April 14, 2016

Change Your Heart

Based solely on the world in his novels, on the characters - the human figures - he invented and the conflicts through which they moved, Charles Dickens has been affiliated to a wide range of political sympathies. George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton adopted him as a highly moral writer, while others insisted that he was a revolutionary. In his famous essay on Dickens, George Orwell showed how dangerous it is to attribute any specific or developed political stance whatever to his work:

"His whole 'message' is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent....It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong's school being as different from Creakle's 'as good is from evil'. Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a 'change of heart' - that, essentially, is what he is always saying....If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A 'change of heart' is in fact THE alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the STATUS QUO."(1)

The Dickens tale that presents a change of heart most directly is A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish and spiteful old miser, finds his comeuppance in the form of four ghosts who visit him on Christmas Eve: Jacob Marley, his longtime business partner, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The book has been adapted to film at least twenty times, from Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, made in 1901, to the Robert Zemeckis "action capture" 3-D version from 2009. The success of any adaptation of the book is, I think, based squarely on the performance of the actor playing Scrooge. This has something to do with the talent of the actor who can manage to pull off Scrooge's overnight transformation from the detestable miser into a loving and generous human being. But the actor's talent can't improve the failure of Dickens himself to pull off the transformation, since it represents such an enormous change of heart - a lightning-like spiritual awakening that both terrifies and delights everyone who knows him.

Frankly, as sweet and endearing as A Christmas Carol is (as a work of literature - the movie adaptations are almost invariably and unbearably sentimental), it is a bit hard to swallow outside of its holiday context, rather like stale fruitcake. It is, after all, a Christmas story: a genre that is subject to a specific - and narrow - set of rules. Scrooge's transformation requires an act of faith from the reader in order to work. It is an excellent illustration of the meaning of the word "melodrama" - a sudden, otherwise inexplicable change of a story's (or drama's) direction.

The reason why Scrooge's transformation is singularly unbelievable is that there simply isn't evidence for its existence in what we call real life. It fails to convince because it never happened. We all know the type of person that Dickens presents to us in A Christmas Carol - a person who devotes his life to acquisitiveness, to the accumulation of material value at the expense of everyone around him, including his own family. However much people may believe in justice, whether it is divine or earthly, in the great righting of great wrongs, or whether they believe in karma, the change of heart required to transform such a person as Scrooge into a loving and giving human being is the domain of fairy tales, of which A Christmas Carol is a brilliant example.

At about the same that Orwell was writing his essay, Edmund Wilson wrote "The Two Scrooges," in which he addressed the central problem of Dickens's novels - his inability to create rounded, three-dimensional characters. They are all either completely good people or completely bad. Only on a few occasions was Dickens able to show us a character who could be both. "The only complexity of which Dickens is capable," Wilson wrote, "is to make one of his noxious characters become wholesome. The reform of Scrooge in 'A Christmas Carol' shows the phenomenon in its purest form.

"Shall we ask what Scrooge would actually be like if we were to follow him beyond the frame of the story? Unquestionably he would relapse when the merriment was over - if not while it was still going on - into moroseness, vindictiveness, suspicion. He would, that is to say, reveal himself the victim of a manic-depressive cycle, and a very uncomfortable person."(2)
In latter-day psychobabble, Scrooge would turn out to be bi-polar. The holidays passed, he would show up for work on the first frozen Monday of the new year, in that terrible return to reality that we all endure after Christmas, believing, perhaps, that the visitation of the ghosts was what he first said it was, "a slight disorder of the stomach, an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato."

Dickens knew that trying to change society, consciously and deliberately trying to make it more just and fair, could lead to yet another tyranny, worse than the last. The only solution he could see was on a personal level, on an individual's realization that something is wrong with the world and that the reformation of his life could put it right. But his choice of metaphors - the Christmas spirit - couldn't have been more of a cliche. And wasn't Scrooge right about Christmas after all?

"A Merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice.

"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What's Christmas-time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books, and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?"

The forbidding chill of a January morning, with yet another long year ahead of us, is enough to wake us from the dream.

The true irony is that Orwell - who found Christmas to be a harmless break in people's daily routines, a sweet contrast that makes ordinary people aware of happiness, which they can only know in terms of contrast - advocated a society that would banish both extremes, the grasping, greedy Scrooges as well as the Tiny Tims with their turbercular legs. Evidently Dickens didn't know how to solve the world's biggest problem which, then as now, was the obscene gulf that separates the richest from the poorest. The only solution, he believed, was the change of heart illustrated by Scrooge, even if he didn't believe in it. The Scrooges, as Dickens knew well, never change their ways, and the Tiny Tims always die. It was the nightmare vision of Christmas yet to come that was, like the nightmare vision of Pottersville in that other Christmas favorite, It's a Wonderful Life, closer to the truth.

"Spirit," said Scrooge with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Tim will live."

"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die."

(1) "Charles Dickens," March 11, 1940.
(2) "The Two Scrooges," The New Republic, March 4, 1940.

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