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21 December 2022

Why Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is still so relevant

Really, the only things separating Bob Cratchit from the average 2022 Londoner are electricity and the fact he could afford to live in Camden.

By Marc Burrows

Picture an admin assistant, working in the most basic and boxiest of office spaces. He is denied all but the most essential resources to do his job, for which he keeps strict hours and is paid the market rate and no more. After work, he heads back to a crowded home in an underdeveloped area of London and he’s expected to be grateful for the privilege. He gets some time off at Christmas but, honestly, not very much. His boss has his eye on the bottom line.

This is a scene from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, recounted, performed and remade countless times these last 179 years, depicting poor Bob Cratchit, the clerk in the tank. Really, the only things separating Bob from the average 2022 Londoner are electricity and the fact he could actually afford to live in Camden. And looking at the predictions about power cuts in the new year, only one of those differences is a certainty.

The recent cold snap has led more than one person to reach for the word “Dickensian”. A cost-of-living crisis, grinding poverty, an unfit welfare system, an increasingly radicalised population taking to the streets to demand workers’ rights, an unpopular Tory government staggering from crisis to crisis under the eye of a new monarch, concerns over Russian expansionism – oh, and it’s snowing. You can see what they’re getting at.

Santa Claus and Baby Jesus aside, Dickens’s 1843 novella is probably the most famous Christmas tale, and it underpins a good chunk of modern festive storytelling (though it may soon be replaced by films about a young city woman who goes back to her hometown to find love). Every Christmas it’s reinterpreted. This year Netflix has made a so-so animated musical based on the story (Christmas Carol nerds like me will notice it also borrows the songs and part of the script from the 1970 Albert Finney film), while Apple has produced a glossy and very funny meta update, also a musical – the Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds-starring Spirited. It’s very good. There are 11 theatre productions running in London, including one based around Dolly Parton songs. The story continues to be powerful and resonant.

On the one hand, that’s unsurprising: great literature has universal themes, and that’s true of A Christmas Carol with its message of compassion. What is perhaps more surprising is that the satirical elements of the story still work. Dickens’s exposure of the brutal unfairness of British society remains relevant nearly 200 years later, and that really shouldn’t be the case. Things are better, of course. We’ve done a lot of work in two centuries. Child labour still exists, but at least it’s illegal in the UK. People live longer. We have the minimum wage and universal healthcare. People on the bottom rung are doing better in general. What hasn’t changed is injustice; the gap between rich and poor is almost as obvious as it was when Victoria ascended the throne. “Are there no prisons?” Scrooge asks at one point, “and the Union workhouses, are they still in operation?” Well, one out of two isn’t bad. 

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The Trussell Trust estimates that food-bank use in the UK has increased 40 per cent in 2022, with demand outstripping donations for the first time. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation one in five people in the UK live in poverty and one in three children, which is the highest child poverty rate in 25 years. Per the Office for National Statistics, the bottom 50 per cent of households is in possession of just 9 per cent of the wealth. The top 10 per cent, meanwhile, holds 43 per cent of the wealth. Dickens, you’d imagine, would have hoped things would be a lot more balanced now.

Is it any wonder that the story refuses to fade? Dickens’s story of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge has laser-like precision and unstoppable momentum. Christmas, with its familial togetherness and gift-giving, will always highlight those who can’t afford gifts or have no one to exchange them with. As Dickens writes in the book, it is a time when “want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices”. As long as that remains true, Jacob Marley will still be appearing in door knockers, old Fezziwig will still be throwing his party and Bob Cratchit will still be shivering in his tank.

[See also: Dickens and his demons]

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