A Christmas Carol: A secular or religious text?

A Christmas Carol: A secular or religious text?

In this post, Mary Hind-Portley (@Lit_Liverbird) explains how she teaches Dickens’ Christmas Carol with a focus on its religious elements. The post is based on Mary’s remote CPD presentation and a previous blogpost for @LitdriveUK (https://litdrive.org.uk/). The full set of slides for her presentation is available here [PDF, 6.1MB]. You can follow Mary on her teaching blog, isthereanythinglefttosay.wordpress.com.

This post is the first teaching-focused contribution to our BMI Lockdown Life series, guest-edited by Viola Wiegand and Michaela Mahlberg of the University of Birmingham’s CLiC blog. Join the conversation with #BMILockDownLife on Twitter.

As teachers our subsequent encounters with a set text over time are a privilege; with each reading deepening our understanding, new ideas emerging and the text itself revealing greater complexity. Students meeting the text for the first time in print rather than film, cartoon or musical also provoke fresh questions. Paul Davis (1990) refers to A Christmas Carol (ACC) as a ‘culture-text’ and whilst these are part of our students’ cultural capital, it is important to ensure students understand the novella within the context of its genesis, and not just the awarding organisations specifications’ definitions of context.

Part of this context is Dickens’ own sense of religion and the influence of Christianity in 19th century England. Here I want to trace the presence of the Christian religion in the text and to explore if the text could be considered secular rather than religious.

My proposal is that ACC  is seen by some critics to be secular because religion is subtly embedded in the novel and whilst we can see Scrooge’s change in character and outlook over time, there is no dogmatic retelling of the Christian tradition. However, Dickens’ own version of Christianity and the prevalence of Victorian Christianity is present, but the reader needs to read closely and modern readers may not be reading from the same culture as a Victorian Christian – that is, a heavy presence of Christianity in day-to-day education and life.

Stave I

When we read Stave 1 we are told of Marley’s funeral which is a Christian one. Dickens has no need to state this because his contemporary readers would know this, from the reference to the “register of his burial” which is signed by the “the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner”. When Scrooge is described he is presented as cold, uncharitable and unfeeling in opposition to how we may perceive a Christian person to be. Then Dickens introduces the warm-hearted and generous Fred who reminds us that it is Christmas, the feast of the birth of Christ and who greets Scrooge with “God save you!”. As we move through Stave 1 we become aware of a number of embedded references to Christianity: greetings and exclamations, the story of Saint Dunstan and Marley’s regret at his own unchristian behaviour, “and never raise [his eyes] to that blessed Star”. Indeed, the narrator comments that, “Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels”, a reference to the bowels being the seat of compassion (in the Greek) which is referred to in the New Testament in the Gospel of Matthew. Marley tells us “That is no light part of my penance” – the Christian idea that sinners must show they have repented by carrying out a penance in order to be forgiven and redeemed.

Figure 1. Marley’s Ghost (John Leech – source: Wikimedia Commons)

We are not presented with angels, because Scrooge as a sceptical and practical man must be convinced by his own former partner coming back to visit him. Furthermore, the reader is tantalised by Marley’s ghost and the presence of other ghosts outside the window,  uttering “sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory”. We may then consider the concept of Purgatory, the Catholic belief that sinners need to be made clean (Latin “purgare”) so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (Hanna, 1911). However, Dickens is not referencing this Catholic belief, as Marley cannot become purified by persuading Scrooge to consider his ways and actions. He offers “chance and hope” to Scrooge, but he cannot change after death.

Stave II

In Stave II, we move from the darkness and fog of London outside Scrooge’s home to the light of the Ghost of Christmas Past (GoCP). Ackroyd (1994: 203-231) comments that Dickens is “exaggerating the darkness beyond the small circle of light”. We see that this figurative description becomes real in the circle of light brought into the novella by the GoCP. Whilst the GoCP may at first to be in some angelic form, it is ethereal and unfixed, with aspects of pagan traditions in Dickens’ descriptions. In relation to Stave V below, I discuss the idea of “Christ as the Light of World”. Scrooge wishes to hide the light. Is this because it will reveal his “dark” deeds and darkness of soul? Scrooge must look closely at his past. And it is only when Scrooge has been confronted with his past through the means of the GoCP, that he is able to extinguish the candle-like figure. The image of the candle as symbol of Christ’s light in the world is very common.

Stave III

Dickens moves the story on with the arrival of the third visitor the Ghost of Christmas Present (GoCPr). Dickens once again blends the pagan and the Christian in this character. The green colour and the holly, yet the holly wreath could echo the image of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. The Sabbath is emphasised with Scrooge introducing the class-based conflict of the observance of the Sabbath (Landow, 2013). Here, Scrooge sees the GoCPr as a representative of God: “It has been done in your name, or at least that of your family”. This is a subtle yet strong indication that the Spirits are sent by God and therefore that it is a religious story rather than a secular tale. What we can see is the Christianity in the novella is not one which is readily identifiable with any of the different Christian sects of the 19th century.

Tiny Tim also reminds the reader of Christ’s presence in the world of novella. He goes to church and shows his piety and also his piousness. The lame child who is brought back to life through the change wrought in Scrooge, has echoes of Christ healing the lame and the sick; although I am not proposing that Scrooge is a Christ-like figure!

Following the Cratchits’ Christmas Dinner, the jollity of this stave is challenged by the reflection on Tiny Tim through the GoCPr’s portentous speech to Scrooge. Once again we see a reference to Heaven (the CLiC web app shows 7 references in total), which places the text in the Christian tradition. The speech causes Scrooge to be “overcome with penitence and grief”. Scrooge is beginning to repent and understand the harm of his words and actions, as the Christian tradition would desire. Scrooge is again confronted with his unchristian words from Stave I “decrease the surplus population” and must learn the importance of beneficence and benevolence.

Stave VI

This Stave shows us a world which is empty and soulless for Scrooge; his lack of benevolence and beneficence has ensured he is still “solitary as an oyster”. He has to accept Christ into his world and atone for his sins otherwise he will not defeat the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, presented as the Grim Reaper. Dickens deliberately presents a secular world of business and transactions with no regard for human feeling. His worldly possessions and wealth have no worth for him in death. Without redemption and salvation, he too will be weighed down by chains and cash box, excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven. He must accept and “honour Christmas in [his] heart”.

Stave V

We now see a reversal, Scrooge has accepted how he must change and his world is filled with light. Whilst we do not see an overt conversion to Christianity, we are shown Scrooge behaving in a Christian way: he shows benevolence and is welcomed into both families and he becomes beneficent and gives generously and secretly to charity and to the Cratchits, “he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge”.

Dickens presents us with a character who has accepted his misdeeds and is not the “sinner” of Stave I.

Teaching ACC with a focus on the theme of religion

Why focus on religion? This came from considering Scrooge’s change of heart over the course of the novella and considering how I would teach this. The AQA specification is centred on developing “a critical understanding of the ways in which literary texts are a reflection of, and exploration of, the human condition” (AQA, 2018). The mark scheme for GCSE Literature Paper 1 states that when discussing context: “Acknowledgement of the universality of a literary text is an integral part of relating to it contextually”. Dickens shows us the human condition through the different characters in ACC, their beliefs and their actions. After first teaching this text, I realised that exploring the concepts of redemption and salvation in Christianity is a key aspect of context, but that it must be firmly rooted in the text, as part of tracing Scrooge from “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” in Stave I to a person of charitable actions in Stave V. The analysis of religion in the novel is contextual analysis; it is part of the 19th century moral and social outlook, and is part of the subtext of the novella. Also, the exploration of religion is firmly bound to the novella’s ‘language, form and structure’ (Assessment Objective 2) through analysis of word and image and the use of the Spirits as narrative devices.

The words redemption and salvation are not used in the novella, as I found using CLiC, but students benefit from relating these concepts to the narrative purpose of Marley’s ghost and the three Spirits. They need to understand that they are embedded deeply in the subtext and therefore need to understand their meaning. I also include benevolence and beneficence in my vocabulary list. It is useful to connect with RE colleagues, too, in order to see how they teach these concepts and what prior knowledge the students may bring. For students from other religious backgrounds, it would be important to compare with concepts in their own religion.

Redemption: the undoing of the effects of sin for all mankind; performing an act to get something in return, that is if one commits a sin, one does something to buy back sinlessness (paying a forfeit). This internal change is then affirmed by external by actions. Scrooge must do penance for his sins. The word penance appears once only in the text in Stave I:

 “That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you …”

Figure 2. The Light of the World (William Holman Hunt, 1851-1853 – source: Wikimedia Commons)

Salvation: being saved from the consequences of sin, brought about by faith in Christ. Christ saves us by becoming the mechanism for our redemption. This is external. Salvation is the second part of the redemption story. Dickens does not discuss this explicitly, it is left to reader to consider these concepts. I would use Holman Hunt’s painting the The Light of the World (1851-1853) to assist the student with this understanding: the door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside, representing “the obstinately shut mind”  (Hunt, 1905). Scrooge must open his oyster-like mind, redeem himself through atoning for his sins: “Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone”. He has to purchase the turkey for the Cratchits, donate to charity, visit Fred and raise Bob’s salary to be absolved of his sins. Tracking the impact of the Spirits’ visitations and the visions they present to Scrooge is an important activity to carry out with students. Using CLiC to search for words such as dark, darkness, fog and light reveals their frequency and placing in the novella and how these relate to Scrooge’s redemption salvation (see also Mahlberg & Wiegand, 2019 for a CLiC activity on tracing fog in ACC). Stave V reveals:

“No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”

Scrooge’s redemption is emphasised by the heavenly sky and the sense of glory. It may remind Christian readers of the phrase “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Luke 2:14) sung by the angels at Christ’s birth. In Stave V, we see Scrooge reborn “as happy as an angel”, as the churches ring their bells for Christmas Day.

For students to understand this, it is helpful for them to compare Stave I and Stave V, looking for opposites and contrasts. They could text mark or collate phrases in a table. How then do students link this to the social context of the novella? How then do they use this to respond to examination questions? Using secondary sources such as critical articles assists us in this process. For example,  Timko (2013: online) discusses Dickens’ Christianity and the centrality of his faith to his writing: “He wanted his novels to be ‘parables,’ stories that would emphasize the teachings of Christ”. In ACC, we see Dickens’ faith through Scrooge’s journey from miser to benefactor, to redemption and then to salvation:

“His chief aim […] was to promote individual ‘salvation’ and bring about social reform. His ‘religious’ views, while perhaps not strictly sectarian, were meant not so much to undermine orthodox belief as to demonstrate that a ‘practical’ and humanitarian Christianity that reflected the life of Christ could solve personal and social problems.” (Timko, 2013: online)

This statement could be presented to students to discuss and to help them see  the two concepts of redemption and salvation are not exclusive in the novella. Scrooge must undergo the hard experience of re-visiting his past and present actions, as well as being forewarned about the consequences of his future actions. He must be held to account for his avarice and miserly selfishness, as symbolised by Marley’s ghostly chains and cashboxes. Scrooge, in his counting-house, must “settle his account”.

Thank you for reading.

Mary Hind-Portley

References

Further reading

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