Monday, December 02, 2013

'You Wish to Be Anonymous?' | Dickens

Illustration by Sol Eytinge.

Borrowing from Siskoid's format on his Hamlet blog, as we look at Dickens' text, I'm going to copy the entire text of the section in italics and insert commentary. That'll help identify elements that we want to pay attention to in the adaptations.

This lunatic, in letting Scrooge's nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge's office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.

The "lunatic" is Bob Cratchit, whom - as we learned last year - Scrooge thinks is crazy for celebrating Christmas on a clerical worker's salary.

"Scrooge and Marley's, I believe," said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. "Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?"

You gotta wonder how often Scrooge gets this since he hasn't changed his sign. He doesn't seem that impatient with it though.

"Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years," Scrooge replied. "He died seven years ago, this very night."

"We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner," said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word "liberality," Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

I imagine that Scrooge thought these were customers until they brought up that word.

"At his festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

According to the annotated text I'm using, the Poor Law of 1834 allowed church parishes to unite (unionize) in order to provide room and board for the poor in return for labor. Conditions in these "workhouses" were horrible, with as little as possible spent on food and shelter. Gender segregation meant that families were split up and there was no concept of privacy.

Those who couldn't pay debts were imprisoned and the Treadmill was a form of hard labor used as criminal punishment. Picture the wheel that Conan grows up on in Conan the Barbarian and you're not far off. These are the solutions that Scrooge advocates for solving the problem of poverty.

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

Scrooge is undoubtedly mean, but based on how this story ends, one gets the feeling that he's not intentionally evil so much as he is unkind and unthinking. He's never actually considered the poor. They're not people; they're a problem to be solved. The journey he goes on in A Christmas Carol is mostly about correcting that.

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?'

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

I never know what to feel about the solicitor's persistence. Is he stubbornly hoping to wear Scrooge down? Or is he just that clueless about what Scrooge is clearly telling him? Dickens doesn't clarify, so it'll be interesting to see what facial expressions and body language the actors and artists use when delivering these lines.

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

Scrooge not only doesn't want to support private charity, he also resents the government's doing it.

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides - excuse me - I don't know that."

There was apparently a serious fear of overpopulation in Victorian England. Scrooge and real-life people like him contemplated the issue dispassionately, like a math equation.

His "I don't know that" statement is awkward, but has to refer to the solicitor's claim that "many would rather die." Scrooge is disputing the claim, but dismissing it at the same time. Again, his entire attitude is that poverty is someone else's problem. It's profoundly sad how relevant this still is today.

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

If only you gave a damn.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Seeing that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labors with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

There's not a lot to look out for as we explore this section in the adaptations. We'll keep an eye on whether the solicitors are clueless about Scrooge's lack of interest in contributing, or if they realize it and are simply hoping to wear him down.

Other than that, the scene's function is to cement what we learned about Scrooge during his interaction with his nephew. Scrooge's hatred of Christmas isn't just about the holiday; it's part of his attitude about life and people in general. He only thinks of himself, so of course he sees no sense in a holiday like Christmas during which the rest of society is putting others first. It's a foreign concept to him.

With that in mind, another interesting thing is that some adaptations switch this scene with the one about Scrooge's nephew. Dickens leads with Scrooge's particular feelings about Christmas, his nephew, and perhaps the concept of love (seen especially when Fred offers love as the reason that he got married too early for Scrooge's liking). From there, Dickens expands on Scrooge's personal feelings to include his entire, miserable worldview. Scrooge's feelings about Christmas and family are tied to his feelings about love, which affects how he feels about people in general.

By putting the solicitors first, the adaptations work in the opposite direction. They establish that Scrooge doesn't care about people and then show how that affects his relationships to Christmas and Fred. I'm not sure one works better than the other; it might just be personal preference. I'll try to keep an eye out though to see if those adaptations are saying anything profound by flipping the order.

1 comment:

Wings1295 said...

I always took Scrooge as just basically not having a concept of just what it was like for the poor to be poor. He never really was poor, if I remember correctly. His father sent him off to school, so there was funds to do that. And he had a good first job and built on that. So, maybe his dispassionate feeling stems mainly from ignorance. Not excusing it, just saying. As for the solicitor, I truly think they hadn't ever dealt with Scrooge before and just had no concept of how he just didn't care. The man had trouble wrapping his brain around it, for sure!


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