“They Are Man’s” – Reflections on “A Christmas Carol”

mhagandefaultMichael Hagan ’15

Over the last several years, I have made it a point to annually reread Charles Dickens’ iconic novella, A Christmas Carol. Dickens tells his profound story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion of heart through deliberately light and fast-paced prose, which makes A Christmas Carol digestible, relatable, and applicable for readers of every age.

A rereading of A Christmas Carol always offers a new insight, realization, or lesson (which is a large part of why this has become an annual practice for me). In my latest reread, a particular line stuck out to me. It shook my perception of the Cratchit family that I admire so much. During Scrooge’s secret visit to the Cratchit home accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Present and in the midst of the family’s wholesome and joyful celebrations (despite its modesty), Dickens makes it a point to acknowledge that Bob’s son, young Peter Cratchit, “might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s.” Now, it was not uncommon for families in Victorian England to pawn their heirlooms and other possessions in order to put bread on the table and make ends meet. But if this is the kind of pawning Dickens means, why would Bob Cratchit’s adolescent son be the pawner? This easily overlooked line seems to imply that Peter Cratchit dabbles in the kind of trade described in Scrooge’s visit to Old Joe’s Beedling Shop with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. A young male thief certainly has a place in the Dickensian canon, but does he have a place under Bob Cratchit’s roof? Is his presence a stain on this virtuous, impoverished family?

Pondering the role of Peter has led me to view the Cratchits in far more realistic terms than I ever had. While Bob Cratchit is certainly a moral standard bearer in the story, conditions could still compel he and his family to resort to desperate measures. Indeed, for Peter, they may already have. After they visit the Cratchits’ and Scrooge’s nephew’s Christmas gatherings, the Spirit reveals to Scrooge two “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” children. They are ignorance and want, and “they are man’s.” Scrooge is warned to fear these two scourges that he is in part father too. Ignorance and want are menacing yet pitiful. When Peter Cratchit transgresses the law, to what extent is Scrooge responsible for the conditions that compel him to do so? Might the boy be a thief and thus something of a threat? Perhaps. Should we pity him? Undoubtedly. Everyone needs mercy. We get to know and understand Peter and his family through our reading, and as a result are less inclined to judge him. Do we look with this same compassionate understanding on the many Peter Cratchits in the world today?

Dickens challenges us with the character of Peter Cratchit to apply the same renewed charity of the reborn Ebenezer Scrooge in two important ways. He challenges us to see the poor (children especially) with compassion and mercy rather than judgment and fear, and he challenges us as individuals and as a society to assess the ways in which we intensify ignorance and want. What “frightful, hideous, miserable” monsters do we stir within others and ourselves? To what extent do ignorance and want consume us? Christmas, in this context, is a celebration of shedding chains, turning away from our golden idols, and standing arm in arm with fellow man. It is worth singing about and raising a glass or two for. The happiness it brings is “quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

I always say that A Christmas Carol is the second greatest among Christmas stories. Despite Dickens’ likely secular worldview, A Christmas Carol wonderfully reflects the Christmas story. Both are stories of deliverance, renewal, solidarity, and reconciliation. There are times when we are all like Ebenezer Scrooge at closing time on Christmas Eve. But at Christmastime and all year round, we ought to aspire to be more like Bob Cratchit at his humble Christmas dinner and the renewed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning.

I wish you all a very merry Christmas. “God bless us, every one!”

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