The Continuing Popularity of A Christmas Carol

December 3rd, 2013

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The holiday season is now upon us which means people will be reading and watching A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens novella written in 1843. An immediate commercial and critical success, it remains immensely popular to this day.

Natalie McKnight, Interim Dean of the College of General Studies, is a scholar of Victorian culture and an expert on Dickens. She serves as the Co-Editor of the Dickens Studies Annual.

Dean McKnight recently shared her views on A Christmas Carol with Professor Voices.

Professor Voices: Why is A Christmas Carol still so popular 170 years after it was published?
Natalie McKnightA Christmas Carol is perennially appealing because it involves elements of myths, epics, fairy tales and ghosts stories—all enormously popular forms. We love ghost stories because they give us the chance to be scared in a controlled setting, and ghosts suggest that there’s life after death, something that has longstanding appeal. And this ghost story incorporates elements of epic literature, such as the 3-part structure, redemption plot, supernatural guide, and trip to the underworld. Plus it has fantastic sensory appeal (e.g. rich descriptions of Christmas dinner, tantalizing descriptions of pyramids of fruits and nuts in shop windows during the holidays, etc.).

And, perhaps most importantly, the story is popular because many of us NEED A Christmas Carol, not just at Christmas, but all the year round, because, like Scrooge, we have a tendency to become disconnected from our own pasts as we get older and immersed in our work and family lives. We forget the people and things that were most important to us when we were younger. We shield ourselves from the needs of others because those needs can be so overwhelming. We get compassion-fatigue from all the requests for charitable donations we’re subjected to, particularly at this time of year.

Scrooge isn’t just a caricature of a curmudgeonly old miser—some “other” we can comfortably feel superior to.  Scrooge is all of us, at least at times, looking the other way as we pass pan-handlers in the street, changing the channel when requests for donations to the Philippines or some other disaster area appear on screen, not answering our phones when we see it’s the Salvation Army calling.  Dickens saw himself becoming Scrooge-like even early on in his career because his family was constantly hitting him up for money, and his fame led to requests from friends and strangers as well.  He may have felt like joining Scrooge in saying Bah! Humbug! to some of these requests.

One of the ironies of A Christmas Carol, with its compelling promotion of generosity and kindness, is that Dickens wrote it in part because he needed to make some fast money because he had so many financial demands and the novel he was writing at the time (Martin Chuzzlewit) was not selling well.

PV: Did Dickens have a particular audience in mind when he wrote the novella?
NM: Dickens was trying to appeal to a broad, general audience—and it worked.  His wealthy friends loved it, but it also appealed greatly to middle class and working class readers because they saw their own lives in Dickens’s words. His efforts to appeal to a wide and general audience help to explain his continuing popularity. There’s nothing elitist about him.

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PV: Symbolism plays an important role in the novella. Marley’s chains are just one of the symbols. His ghost says, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?” What does he mean by this?
NM
: Dickens does not often get lauded for his psychological insights, which I think is a real oversight. He tends to convey psychology through symbolism in gestures, clothing, actions and environment, as he does in this scene.  Dickens suggests here that our bad deeds—our sins, if you will, and our omissions, our failures to do the right thing—these things weigh us down, they depress us, they make us heavy-hearted and dispirited, and they make us want to close ourselves off from others. When we act cruelly or dismissively toward others, we come to think less of humans in general, judging them by our own bad actions, and so we become increasingly isolated and alienated, as Scrooge is at the beginning of the novella. A Christmas Carol, in many ways, is the story of a man who learns this about himself in time to break the chain he has forged by choosing to reconnect with his “fellow passengers to the grave,” contribute to their well-being, and experience the freedom and lightness of simply doing the right thing.

PV: What is the most memorable or significant part of the story?
NM: Where do I start??!!  Two leap to mind:  when Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Past and sees himself as a young boy left alone at school for the holiday. He feels sorry for his young self and at that moment, he instantly wishes he’d been kinder to a young boy caroling at his door that evening. So in awakening his memories and his ability to feel compassion, even if it’s just for himself, he is suddenly able to feel for others, too. That’s the beginning of his redemption.  The second is when he begins to feel for the Cratchit family when he watches them in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  He shows real concern for Tiny Tim—in fact he seems to panic at the thought that Tim might not live.  This is where his compassion begins to move in the direction of action, or at least wanting to act.

PV: What was your first introduction to the movie adaptation? Do you have a favorite movie version of A Christmas Carol? Which version do you think Dickens would have liked best?
NM: Mr. Magoo’s version of A Christmas Carol was my first—I think I was 4 when I first saw it, and I’m still very fond of it (I just ordered it from Amazon!—can’t wait to see it again!).  But my favorite is the 1970 musical version Scrooge. Albert Finney is heartbreaking as Scrooge, and the music underscores the emotions of the tale beautifully. Dickens was a real fan of musical theater, and I think he would have appreciated the effectiveness of this version of his story.

Contact McKnight at 617-358-0180 or njmck@bu.edu.

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3 Comments on The Continuing Popularity of A Christmas Carol

  • Thank you for this wonderfully illuminating Q&A. Professor McKnight’s insights are great. I had no idea Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in part, because he needed money. Sara

  • The sentiments expressed in this interview are mine, precisely. I just watched Mr. Magoo’s version with my six year old grand-daughter, singing quietly along to the beautiful songs in that beloved production. (I was as excited to see it again as Prof McKnight says she is.) and because of her comment about the Albert Finney version I have just ordered that one. As a native New Yorker whose parents loved musical theatre I grew up with the sound track to famous Broadway shows as bedtime music for all my young years. I was lucky enough to be brought to Broadway shows often. Both the Magoo and Finney musicals left lasting musical memories and from time to time I find myself humming songs from both of them as if they were as dear and renowned to all the world as ‘My Fair Lady’ as they do come from that same tradition. Thank you to Prof McKnight for reminding me of Albert Finney and for providing a fine night of entrainment for me sometime in the coming two weeks.

  • The astonishing thing though in my opinion is not that Dickens is a master of using symbolism to evoke the inner pictures and feelings of the reader, the to me most astonishing thing is that this still works after almost two centuries, in the times of the Internet, World of Warcraft, atheistic tendencies, drugs and all the like. I am similarly awed by Poe’s “Quoth the Raven”.

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