To What Extent does Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ fit into the Genre of the Supernatural Story, and how does Dickens use it as a vehicle for his social views? The supernatural story has a long history as a popular literary work. Many people enjoy them even today. The original supernatural stories would have been told by a storyteller in villages when many people had little or no understanding of the ways of the world. Many people would have been illiterate so the stories would be passed down through the generations.
When Shakespeare was writing in the 16th and 17th century people believed that the witches in Macbeth were real so people feared them. By the time Dickens was writing in the 19th century people didn’t believe that witches and other beings created to explain the unexplainable existed. The supernatural story had changed a lot by Victorian times to be more psychological than literally and tended to play on the fears of the reader.
This was because science had explained many phenomenans but, even today; debates still take place over the existence of spirits and other supernatural beings, even today science cannot fully explain the truth about ghosts. P. J. Stead wrote in his book ‘Supernatural’: “The oldest and best supernatural stories are to be found in the great mirrors of popular imagination – in the Arabian Nights, in the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and in the old ballads.
” That quote can also be found in Cassell’s Encyclopaedia of Literature edited by S. H. Steinberg. It links with ‘A Christmas Carol’ because when the spirit of the past takes Scrooge to his school days he is reading the Arabian Nights. The same man, P. J. Stead, also wrote of supernatural stories that they include: “The return of the dead to intervene in mortal affairs, the presence of spirits of the earth and air. The casting and raising of spells. ”
The first part of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is about Jacob Marley who is raised from the dead to help Scrooge, the second part is about the three spirits who can all walk the Earth and one can fly, and the third part is about the spirit of the present who can use his torch to take away the bad and instills a spirit of happiness and good will on Christmas day. All supernatural stories from the beginning of storytelling until the early to mid 20th century were didactic, designed to teach the reader something, but many very modern supernatural tales don’t.
‘A Christmas Carol’ is very different to other supernatural stories of the 19th century because as well as teaching the reader something, the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, also learns something from the events in the novel. Not only does Scrooge learn something but he is also given the chance to change. Supernatural stories, like many other genres, have ingredients to get them perfect. Supernatural tales need a setting, usually a darkish creepy setting that helps with the second ingredient, atmosphere.
The atmosphere is a very important part of a supernatural story as this can either make the story scary or not. The plot is always important to any story but to a supernatural story it is usually simple with a battle between benevolent and malevolent forces. ‘A Christmas Carol’ has the good, the Cratchitts, Fred and to a certain extent the spirits, and the bad, Ebenezer Scrooge. The only difference is that traditional supernatural stories have a triumphant battle that good vanquishes evil.
In ‘A Christmas Carol,’ rather than kill Scrooge physically they kill the Scrooge we meet at the beginning mentally. The thoughts of Scrooge are changed, which is different to the norm. Characters typical of supernatural stories obviously have to have some sort of irregularity and are unnatural. Normally it is ghosts that have paranormal powers, walking through walls and flying which is as true to ‘A Christmas Carol’ as any other supernatural story. The ghost of Christmas present can fly and walk through walls as can the ghost of Christmas yet to come.
‘A Christmas Carol is a contempary novel set in the Victorian Period. During that time there were many distinct social classes and many different social views. Many people were only just surviving on what little food that could be provided for their family from their small wages. For many families it was not enough and the children would have to give up an education to work. This would mean that the family would then get two or more sets of wages and could then afford a little bit more food. It was not a perfect solution though because the children would not earn as much as the parents.
If the child did not get a job and live at home they would be sold as apprentices. This would mean that the parents didn’t have to feed them anymore and they would also get a small sum of money for the child. The child would be allowed to visit home at Christmas. Dickens, born in 1812, was unfortunate to be a member of a poor family. Not as poor as some, but still poor. Dickens’ father was very bad at handling money and because of this he got into debt. When the family moved to London from Portsmouth most of the family’s furniture had to be sold to pay off their debts.
In 1834 a Poor Law was passed which stated that all poor people had to either go into a workhouse, pay off their debt or get another job. The Victorians believed that poverty was brought on by your own actions and that if you couldn’t afford to feed your family sufficiently then you should get no help from the government. To deter people from being poor there were various punishments, these included workhouses and debtor’s prison. As with the Cratchitts in ‘A Christmas Carol’, the Dickens children had to work as well as soon as they were deemed old enough.
Charles Dickens’s life was quite a hard one and can almost be seen when reading ‘Oliver Twist’ published in 1837-1839 as serialization, and ‘Hard Times’ published between 1849 and 1870, the year he died. The descriptions of poor life are so detailed in these that they could only be from close hand experience. During the Victorian times the ‘Social Problem’ novel was very popular amongst novelists like Dickens. Mrs. Gaskell, also a Victorian novelist, wrote many social problem novels and once said of novelists and writers that: “It was a duty to give a voice to dumb suffering. ”
This basically means that if you have as much power, as writers do, to influence people then you should. Thomas Carlyle was a famous historian and philosopher at the time influenced writers of social problem novels, such as Mrs. Gaskell and Charles Dickens, to write them. “I imagine that a few of the gentlefolks of Cranford were poor, and had some difficulty in making both ends meet; but they were like the Spartans, and concealed their smart under a smiling face. We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic. ”
This is an extract from the book Cranford written by Mrs. Gaskell in 1853. In this quote you can see that is was as clear as daylight she was talking about the problems with Victorian views of the poor but manages to write about it so naturally that it is as if she was not writing a ‘Social Problem’ novel. Thomas Carlyle, a famous historian and philosopher of Victorian times, also said: ‘Popular opinion is the greatest lie in the world. ‘ This means that people who go along with the belief that poverty is your own fault are lying to themselves for the sake of fitting in with the crowd. As well as saying that Thomas Carlyle also said:
‘The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none. ‘ In that Thomas Carlyle is saying that it is more of a problem not to be aware of the problem with poverty than the problem of poverty itself. This is similar to the way that Dickens has used the two children ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ because if they are ignored, like the problems of Victorian society, there is a danger that is pointed out to Scrooge by the spirit of Christmas present, as the child ‘ignorance’ has doom written on his forehead, so being ignorant of the poor would spell out certain doom for the Victorian people.