Starting with this extract, explore how Dickens presents children and childhood in A Christmas Carol (30 marks)
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. "Spirit, are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.
"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end." "Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge. "Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens continually returns the readers’ focus on the children in Victorian society. The recurring character and the famous child in the novella is “Tiny” Tim Cratchit who becomes a metonym for thousands of faceless proletariat children neglected by a ruthless self-serving capitalist society. However, the shocking introduction of the minor characters of Ignorance and Want allows Dickens to create a political diatribe against the greed, selfishness and neglect of working-class children. These children contrasted against the earlier childhood version of Scrooge, serve to expose the dichotomy between the poor and rich in a deeply unequal and uneven society.
In this passage, Ignorance and Want become a metaphorical paradigm of society’s abandonment of the poor and the consequence of their inability to take social responsibility for poverty. The children have a primarily allegorical purpose evidenced in the focus of their physical features. The boy and girl are old before their time as Dickens says their faces are absent of “graceful youth” and the neglect of their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing is emphasised in the image of their “pinched” and “twisted” features. These adjectives heighten the idea of their youth being robbed and their childhood destroyed by physical hardships particularly given “twisted” is synonymous with something that is misshapen and grotesque. Their faces are described as being the antithesis of childhood innocence as Dickens uses hyperbolic language and describes how “devils lurked” in their faces and “glared out menacingly”. The use of hell imagery accentuates the impression that their existence has been made unbearable by poverty and in turn has tainted and corrupted their view of the world as well as wrecked their own goodness and innocence. The children’s hostility, distrust and hatred of the Christian society meant to protect them is manifested in the verb “glared”, which is emblematic of their disillusionment and discontent. Dickens uses animal imagery to describe the children as “wolfish” which bolsters the impression of working-class children’s metamorphosis from innocent creatures to starving and exploited children hardened by their suffering. The colour “yellow” is symptomatic of sickness and ill health and furthers the idea of their physical and mental decay within a laissez faire society (where no welfare state or support to lift working class children out of absolute poverty exists). The philosopher John Locke theorised man is born a blank slate and our nature is changed by nurture; this idea is evidenced in the way in which societal neglect changes the nature of the children. It is clear that Dickens subverts the image of childhood innocence and sharply juxtaposes Ignorance and Want’s damaged childhood to the wealthy Scrooge’s happier memories of his powerful education (in which his imagination came alive by his schooling), in order to create pathos for working class children and force his contemporary Victorian readers to examine their conscience, particularly their lack of support for the “ragged” poor and homeless children in society.
Dickens believed how a society treated its children, revealed their social mores. He makes it evident that society is to blame for the suffering and dehumanisation of working-class children especially as the spirits uses the short declarative “They are man’s” to indicate societal responsibility and its moral failing. The hypocrisy of a Christian society is exemplified in the way in which the ghost mocks Scrooge and repeats his infamous questions back to him: “Are there no prisons?” and “Are there no workhouses?” The callousness of society and its evasion of social responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable is emphasised in the repetition of the nouns “prison” and “workhouses” which reminds contemporary readers that they marginalised and disenfranchisedinnocent working-class children by socially excluding them and denying them a good quality of life.
Dickens more importantly uses the recurring character construct of Tiny Tim to dispel the damaging societal stereotype that the working class are deserving of their poverty. In Stave 3, Tiny Tim is romanticised by Dickens to symbolise the beauty and goodness of working-class children who deserve society’s love and charity. He is poor but shows immense courage and huge generosity of spirit. When Tiny Tim uses the biblical story of how Jesus helped the blind and poor, and hopes the bourgeoise remember the poor during Christmas, he becomes a symbol of Jesus and once again exposes the hypocrisy of a Christian society that claims to help the poor but instead neglects them. Though Tiny Tim is dying, he shows courage and endless love and devotion to his family, best demonstrated when he says “God bless us everyone” as he sits next to his dad. Tiny Tim does not ask for anything for himself, but he is the antithesis to Scrooge because he is altruistic and puts others before him. In an increasingly amoral Victorian society, Tiny Tim provides comforting moral guidance on how to live a good life. However, Tiny Tim becomes a symbol of the abandonment of working-class children as he is powerless to improve his situation and is shown to die, leaving his family “still” and destroyed by their grief. His death symbolises how the bourgeoise have the power to change his fate and that of thousands of other vulnerable children but fail to do so, leaving innocent families broken by the death of their babies. The focus on the grief of the family after Tiny Tim dies creates intense pathos and is deliberate as Dickens reminds his readers of their shocking contextual reality - that one in five children in Victorian society did not live to see their fifth birthday.
The fairy-tale reversal in Tiny Tim’s death in Stave 5 is a piercing reminder that a progressive and utopic society is possible, but only if the bourgeoisie (represented by Scrooge) learn to love its children and take social responsibility by improving their poverty-stricken situations and therefore preventing their needless deaths. In this stave, Scrooge becomes a “second father” to Tiny Tim. This lexical phrase is highly symbolic because while it literally shows Scrooge has become more responsible and compassionate, it is an important metaphorical reminder that working-class parents desperately need the support of society to help raise their children and provide a good quality of life for them. The lexical choice “Second” is synonymous here with something that is additional and surplus and so consequently is a strong reminder of the importance of a more responsible and engaged society that is not ignorant or myopic of working-class suffering and exploitation. To reinforce this idea, In Stave 3, Dickens briefly uses the childhood character of Martha Cratchit to remind his readers of the exploitation and premature growing up of Victorian children. In this stave the children are working in the kitchen and Martha arrives home late as she has been working. She is responsible for bringing the goose. She is embraced by her mother. The image of Mrs Cratchit embracing her working child reminds readers how adult breadwinners simply could not support their family and relied upon them sacrificing their childhood. There is no doubt that these moments have great verisimilitude for modern readers, particularly given how two thirds of children living in poverty in the UK have working parents, painfully reminding new readers how the exploitation of the poor is as real as ever.
Finally, the gaiety of Fred's family dinner, contrasted against the hardship of the merry but compromised Cratchit family, is a strong reminder of the terrible and tragic disparity between the lives of the working class and wealthy in society, a context greatly affecting the Cratchit children. To conclude Dickens uses the recurring characters of children to explore society’s lack of responsibility towards its children but also its power to change the fate of these children simply by showing greater compassion and ensuring social justice happens.